Charlotte Hopkinson: 吃活 (chīhuò) Chinese foodie
Charlotte Hopkinson was one of the 2013-2015 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her first year narrative.
Every so often, China has a popular word that pops up on its social media platforms. I know that if I learn to use and properly spell that word, my students will think I’m a cool teacher. So one of the first “popular” words that I learned in China was 吃活 (chīhuò), which means foodie. When my students or strangers ask me if I’m used to eating or like to eat Chinese food, I use this popular word to tell them that I love to eat everything.
Loving to eat is practically a genetic trait that has been passed down from family member to family member. My brother just graduated from the Culinary Institute of America; my mother makes meals we will never have again, just because those were the ingredients left in the fridge; my great-uncle will spend 18 hours making a single sauces; we diet just to go to see our relatives in France; and my family eats from 1pm to 2am on Christmas Day. We don’t eat to live; we live to eat.
Naturally, when I came to China, food was just as important (to me and the inquisitive Chinese people around me). There was a vast array of new flavors, including the prickly ash, where I almost popped a Benadryl because my tongue was swelling and tingling (turns out that is what is supposed to happen), many new ways to cook, and a rich collections of stories that I was able to learn by cooking with people.
Now, out of all the cooking genes in my family, I have probably the weakest one (good news, my dish-washing skills are in tip-top shape). I’m the girl who put powdered sugar instead of flour into the cookies, olive oil instead of canola oil into brownies, and vanilla-flavored cream into my grandmother’s gratin a pommes de terre. So, I figured, it was better if people taught me how to cook food, rather than trying by myself. The scientific trial-and-error method had failed me one too many times, and I really didn’t want to be responsible for burning down the 100-year-old, national-status, historical heritage site that I live in on campus.
My first cooking lesson was in Kunming where I asked the 小笼包 (xiǎolóngbāo - a type of bready dumpling) vendor on the bottom floor of our dormitories to teach me to make小笼包 and 饺子 (jiǎozi - dumplings). He told me to come back Sunday morning at 9. Sunday morning came, and I spent 3 hours with them making小笼包 and 饺子. My first attempts at the小笼包 were pretty pathetic, but they got better and better. While making hundreds of these with the husband and wife, we got to talking. His wife had a really strong accent, but we were still able to understand each other. They told me about their son, how they work from 5am to 11pm every day, how they moved to Kunming in search of a better job, and how the husband learned to make the小笼包 and 饺子 in the North of China, because Southerners eat rice rather than flour-based food. Around lunchtime, I was dismissed and allowed to eat some of my own小笼包 and 饺子. The crowning moment, however, was when they even sold some of my baskets of小笼包 and 饺子 to some customers.
Left: The owners and me; Right: 小笼包 and 饺子
My next “cooking class” occurred in Taigu, my home for the past year. There is a place that serves 刀削面 (dāoxiāomiàn – a type of hand-cut noodles famous in Datong) that we go to very often. We go so often that they know our order the second we walk through the door. One day, I got up the courage to ask them to teach me how to make刀削面. I came back with my little notebook, and they told me all the ingredients to make the broth. The hard part is not the broth however, it is the actually noodles. They are cut with a special knife and flung into the boiling water. So, the wife took me to the back of the restaurant, which was no bigger than a broom closet, placed some dough on the wooden plank, and stole the special刀削面 knife from her husband. She positioned each item in my hands and then gave me a big hug, so as to guide me through the process of cutting the noodles. At first, my noodles looked like fat little worms, but with practice, I was able to get the hang of it. She laughed at my noodles that I had cut, then clumped them in a ball, and made me cut the dough again. She realized that if I never had seen or made刀削面 before, I probably never had a special刀削面 knife. So, a week later when I went back to eat, she had a special刀削面 knife in her hand just for me that she gave me as a gift. Now, I have a open invitation to go back to the kitchen any time and practice my noodle-cutting skills.
Left: The husband preparing the broth; Right: 刀削面 (Knife-cut noodles)
Every weekday, we can get lunch from瑞萍 (RuìPíng), who works for Foreign Affairs Office. She officially has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen, and she makes food super quickly. About once a week, on Tuesdays, I would stop by, sit on my little stool in the kitchen, and write in my notebook the ingredients to the food was making. She tries really hard to give us a lot of vegetables, use less oil, and give us overall healthier food than we might eat in the restaurant. This past semester, there have been times where I am the only person who has signed up for lunch. The first time this happened, I realized that 瑞萍 was in the other room waiting for me to finish eating rather than leaving like she normally does when we all eat. Although we had cooked together (well, I observed and she chopped vegetables at an impressive rate), she just sat in the other room playing on her phone while I ate. Naturally, like all good Chinese mothers, she had made a little too much food for me, so I couldn’t finish it all. The next time that I went over to watch her cook, I invited her to eat with me, and it was a blast. Not only did we talk a lot while cooking, we were now talking while eating. We’ve talked about many topics together: the surrounding areas of Taigu, our families, our childhood, sports, and education.
Left: 瑞萍 making noodles; Right: Some delicious food from瑞萍
We had developed a little schedule on Tuesdays. I would show up at 11:30, 瑞萍 (RuìPíng), would show me what she was cooking, and then we would eat together. Every Tuesday, she would ask me what I wanted to eat, and I’d say, “Everything that you make is good! Make me whatever you want.” One week however, I mentioned how everyone loves her dumplings. Dumpling day is always Thursday. Never have I eaten瑞萍dumplings on any other day of the week. Well, on Monday evening, I get a phone call from瑞萍who tells me, “Can you come at 11:00am tomorrow to cook?” So, at 11:00am I go on over, and she is preparing the filling for the dumplings. That’s right, dumpling day that week had been moved to Tuesday, because I had briefly mentioned in passing to her the previous week that her dumplings were really good. I was really touched by how thoughtful this was. Together we made a ton of dumplings and then made a valiant effort to finish them all. To the disappointment of the other fellows, that Thursday was not dumpling day. Oops!
Then there are the multiple groups of students that always invite me to make dumplings. For every important Chinese holiday, with the exclusion of the Dragon Boat Festival, dumplings MUST be made! So I’ve had many students invite me over to make dumplings for “lunch”, which involve being there at 8:00am to start the process. It has been really nice to feel included in their cooking endeavors.
Left: Students making the filling
Right: Only about ¼ of the dumplings we made.
Not all my attempts to learn to cook are successful. One of my favorite places to eat is 口福鱼 (which roughly translates to “Happy Mouth Fish”). One day, I mustered up the courage to ask them to teach me how to cook. I talked to the wife, but couldn’t understand a word she was saying to in the Taigu dialect. She grabbed a young server, who spoke a more standard Chinese, who then translated me that it was inconvenient to teach me when there were people eating, because they were busy, and it was inconvenient for them to teach me when there was nobody, because they would have to open the kitchen. Feeling a little blue from this answer, because I go to this place really frequently (this particular day, I had gone for lunch AND dinner), I felt like I had failed at building up a good enough relationship. One day, we all went back to eat there, when the husband stuck his head in our little private room. He said, “Which one of you wanted to learn how to cook?” I said that it was me, and he responded, “You can come learn how to cook during the weekdays. We will teach you if you tell us what you want to learn”. I don’t know what happened in the two weeks that I hadn’t gone to the restaurant, but I think the message got around to the servers and up to the husband. I haven’t gone for lessons yet, but I think they will be a lot of fun. The servers are always more friendly to us than the wife, so maybe they were the one that encouraged her to teach me how to cook.
Although my cooking skills weren’t great to begin with, they have definitely improved in China. Granted, there are some things you just can’t make here (mostly things that involve a lot of cream). In times of crisis, I get some butter and chocolate rations (as a French person, a shortage of these too goods can provoke some pretty intense withdrawal symptoms) in Beijing or the city of Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province. The foreign grocery stores there Jenny Lou/Wang and Carrefour, respectively, all have a selection that allows me to cook some special dishes every once in a while.
One of the best, food-related decisions, I’ve made besides building up the courage to ask everyone to teach me how to make food, was buying an oven with my co-fellow Xenna. We went out to the local supermarket and found one oven left, which was cheaper than microwaves. Since then, we’ve had loads of fresh bread, cookies, muffins, birthday cakes, grilled vegetables, pizza, and grilled lamb come out of that oven. It has truly been a lifesaver here, because even though Taigu has some of the greatest food I’ve ever tasted, some days you just want to eat something that tastes like home. The kind of food that reminds me of my crazy family who is always talking during dinner about what we are going to eat tomorrow.
All thanks to the oven!