Chinese food is divided into “dishes” and “main food” or “staple food.” For the main food, depending on the region, you can choose from rice, noodles, steamed bread, dumplings, and maybe a few other regional specialties. Even though all of the variety in Chinese food is in the dishes, which feature an incredible range of ingredients and flavors, a meal isn’t a meal without the main food.
The difference between Chinese and western “main foods” came up in an example sentence in a grammar exercise in a Chinese textbook this week. My classmate finished the sentence with potatoes, which worked well for the exercise, although I don’t think that American food has a “main food” in the same way that Chinese food does. There is nothing that everyone has to eat for it to feel like a meal.
Even though nothing in the U.S. has rice’s status in China, I’ve started baking bread regularly in the last few months, and there is something so comforting about the smell of baking bread wafting through my apartment and biting into a slightly chewy, slightly bitter slice of pumpernickel rye. Morning toast is more satisfying when I eat a thick slice of cinnamon raisin toast, slightly sweet and full of cinnamon, with plenty of soft raisins.
It isn’t that you can’t buy bread in China. The supermarket shelves are full of a variety of sliced breads, although they are usually small loaves, in contrast to the 10 pound bags in the rice aisle. The bread is usually sweet, so I do have a favorite brand that through trial and error (and some ingredient label reading) I’ve discovered is not particularly sweet. It also comes in a “whole wheat” version, although it is a very light wheat, not a true whole wheat. With the possible exception of some fancy and expensive bakeries on the other side of the city, there is no bakery style or artisan style bread to be found.
A few years ago I found this recipe and made it successfully, and to much praise, a few times. I liked it so much I also bought the cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. This recipe calls for mixing a batch of dough (no kneading necessary), keeping it in the refrigerator, and baking it as you need it over a week or two. I never got myself organized enough to try it. But this winter, I decided to finally try it. And although I think it takes more than the five minutes a day of active time they claim, it is pretty easy. And even better, it allows me to make types of bread that are not easy to find in Beijing, like cinnamon raisin and pumpernickel rye.
I can live without cinnamon raisin and pumpernickel rye bread, and in fact consider them special treats even in the U.S., but it is also amazing to be able to enjoy them. It is a tiny sign to myself that I live here. I’m not just passing through. When I studied in Beijing for a semester back in college, we had a bit of a challenge to ourselves to see how long we could go without eating any Western food. And most of us went for several months. I think it was easier in many ways because we had come to Beijing on round trip tickets. We knew we would be back in the U.S. before Christmas, settling in to eat whatever good things our mothers, aunts, and grandmothers were cooking up. I have a different mindset now. Besides Western food being considerably more common and available and me having more budget to enjoy Western food than I did when I was in college, I live here. This isn’t a short term trip with the end in sight. My lifestyle reflects that. My home reflects that. My relationships reflect that. And my diet reflects that.
Velvet Ashes is concluding an annual three week series on the themes of “change,” “return,” and “remain.” This is the time of year when many expats are in transition–preparing to move overseas, preparing to move back to their passport country, and doing the hard work of remaining. I’m in the remaining phase.
Remaining is the least glamorous phase. The newness of a place wears off. Instead of all the differences being interesting, they become either commonplace or exasperating. People come and people go, and you are staying and making a home. Investing into relationships. Going deeper into the culture. Knowing how to get around. Learning to bake bread.
These days, I’m settled enough to bake my own bread for fun and for joy. I’m both settled enough and internet shopping savy enough to find the “caramel powder” needed to make pumpernickel rye. There weren’t a lot of options, so I had to buy a 1 kilogram (approx. 2 pounds) bag, and I only need 2 tablespoons per batch, which means I can make pumpernickel rye bread for years and years to come.
Linking up to “The Grove” at Velvet Ashes.