I love to cook. I was trying to recall exactly when this happened—if there was some moment, or dish that pushed me over the edge. I’ve never disliked cooking, and I do remember experiencing slight devastation when my mom decided we should get rid of my play kitchen as a child (which in actuality rarely played with, but I didn’t do change well) and my mom encouraging me with the assurance that I could play with her Tupperware. I also remember being the most knowledgeable cook of my college roommates…but perhaps that wasn’t an incredible feat (yes, yes, if you’re reading this you know I love you—and that we’ve all come a long way since).
But I feel like it’s in these past two years of living in China that my “like” and even “enjoyment” of cooking has become more of a deep abiding love. There is something about food in a foreign land that evokes a sense of home, a sense of belonging—and for me a sense of accomplishment even in the midst of chaos. Even when little else around me makes sense, I can go to the kitchen and I can create something new.
About two years ago, when I was newly arrived in China, I found a “quick and easy” recipe for some sort of broccoli chicken cheese bake. It had a banner advertising “30 minutes or less.” Now, even in the best of circumstances, I often find suggested cook times given on recipes can be a bit on the not-so-generous side. Insert: China. First off, for those of you who don’t know what we’re dealing with—my kitchen consists of one gas burner and an approximately US-sized toaster oven (it tightly fits a 9 X 13 pan and was one of my earliest big purchases!). As I began to go through the recipe I realized some problems—ingredient one: can of cream of chicken soup. I didn’t have one of those. I then Googled—“homemade cream of chicken soup” (And found this great recipe…which I managed to ruin the first time and had to make a second time). This process of Googling substitutions or improvising happened at least 2 more times.
And voila, more than 2 hours later, the quick and easy broccoli chicken bake emerged. And I took a bite…and I thought, “This might be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.” Now, it’s entirely possible at this point, I may have been so hungry the little crushed piece of broccoli residing amidst the muck on the floor may have also been tasty, but there was also a sense of having overcome many obstacles—to ultimately prevail. Maybe for some it’s not so appealing, but I love the adventure of not being quite sure what the final product will be.
When I first arrived in China (and let’s be honest I didn’t really fully know what I was talking about yet), I wrote about the goodness of the daily struggle. What’s the English saying? (Yeah, I tend to forget those). Something like “the harder the battle, the sweeter the victory.” That’s what I’ve learned in the kitchen. The continual challenges brought to me by cooking and baking are always bringing opportunities for new victories (and sometimes opportunities to crash, and quite literally burn—like the time I managed to unsuccessfully make 2 rounds of strawberry cupcakes—which were quite valuable in expensive imported ingredients…and I probably can’t count the number of times a large cloud of smoke was billowing out of the kitchen).
But the success goes beyond personal sense of accomplishment. It’s also here in China, I’ve learned about the real power of food. If I were to think back on my life before now, I would note that many of my good friendships emerged over sharing meals together. My college roommate Stephanie and I moved from roommates to dear friends as we bonded over eating Mexican food whenever we could. Another friend and I bonded over visiting new ethnic food restaurants. But even more so now, I realize the degree to which food brings people together. It’s true in Chinese culture—but it can be true in any culture if we have the time and space. There is something about sitting down together at a table with friends and trying new (and sometimes weird) dishes, eating food that’s so spicy we’re all near tears, or eating your favorite holiday dishes from America that brings you together. There’s something about my students exclaiming excitedly to each other when I have baked them cookies (and trying to discourage them from eating so many they’ll feel sick) that brings such joy to my heart. Cooking not only brings me on adventures, but it also gives me an opportunity to go on shared adventures.
I always say I’m going to start a food blog, so we’ll see if we can start here. So here’s a recipe for lentil soup I recently made (with notes for those of you cooking overseas). If you’re in America, there may be some adaptations to make this easier for you.
Lentil Soup (adapted from The Best Lentil Soup–some modifications are for cooking in China and some are just because I never follow a recipe)
The original recipe said it served 4, but I easily got at least 6 and possibly 8 servings
First, those bins full of dry goods in China can be your best friend–check them out. You will find all sorts of great things–grains, beans, brown rice–and at least at my supermarket 1-2 kinds of lentils. (Be aware: I realized red beans and peanuts can look pretty similar.)
Here’s the ingredients minus the tomatoes which were soaking in hot water to remove their skins. I used curry powder, black pepper, some Italian seasoning blend I have, some Cajun seasoning and some taco seasoning (because I was out of cumin and it’s mainly chili powder, cumin and onion). You can use what’s available to you or check out the original recipe for what she did. Most of these ingredients can be pretty easily bought in China. I used one of the spicier red peppers and spicier green peppers–maybe a bit overdoing it. If you don’t like spicy you might go with a traditional bell pepper of each color or one of the spicier green with a traditional red bell pepper.
I do bring organic Better than Bullion Chicken stock back from America and buy vegetable stock powder at Metro (a large import store), but if you don’t have access to stock for some reason (other than the MSG/sodium combo they sell at the supermarket) you can make it yourself fairly easily. If you want this recipe to vegetarian you can just use vegetable stock but I like the flavor the chicken stock gives.
The vegetables cooking in olive oil. Somehow I managed to burn myself when dumping in the vegetables and the olive oil splashed in my face. Food safety, everyone. Don’t stick your head right over the hot oil when pouring.
My new favorite thing is to add a whole pumpkin to things. After cutting the small pumpkin into about fourths, you can steam it (I use my rice cooker) or roast it in the oven (face down on a cookie sheet with foil and a little oil spread on the surface). I then blend it right up in my blender with chicken stock. You really can’t tell it’s there, but it’s a great healthy addition!
All of the stock (chicken/pumpkin) and vegetable are added to the vegetables along with the lentils…and let it cook! I missed some pictures along the way, but after the lentil are soft you can blend part of the soup then add it back in for thickness. Then add greens, parsley and lime/lemon juice.
I decided to sprinkle a little fresh parmesan on top. Kind of odd perhaps, but tasty. A delicious, thick hearty soup chocked full of vegetables and nutrients. It was a bit spicy so I served it to my Chinese friends with a little whole grain rice.
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium yellow or white onion, chopped
- 2 carrots, peeled and chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
- 1 red pepper
- 1 Anaheim green pepper
- You can be a little creative on the seasoning mix based on what you have available and the kind of flavors you like. Here’s what I used
- 2 teaspoons taco seasoning/chili powder and cumin (you can just use cumin if you’d like, I like the flavor chili powder adds as well)
- 1 teaspoon curry powder (I actually might omit this ingredient in the future)
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend (if you have thyme and would like to use it exclusively you can, but the blend adds nice flavor)
- 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning (spice and herbs)
- Ground black pepper
- About 2 lbs./2 jin/1 kg tomatoes, peeled and diced (I only used 4 or 5 but they were very big– if you want the easier option you could get a 28 oz. can if it’s available to ou)
- 1 cup brown or green lentils, picked over and rinsed
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 small pumpkin, steamed and peeled
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup chopped spinach or bok choi
- 1/4-1/2 cup chopped parsley
- Lime juice (I used this because I didn’t have lemon juice–either lemon or lime would work I think)
- Warm the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. As the recipe said 1/4 cup olive oil may seem like a lot, but it really helps to bring out the flavor in the soup.
- Add the chopped onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, for about 2-3 minutes. Then add the red and green pepper and cook for 2-3 minutes more. Add the garlic and other dry seasonings you chose (taco seasoning, cajun seasoning, curry, Italian, etc.). Pour in the peeled/diced tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes, stirring often.
- Meanwhile, blend the pumpkin with about 2 cups of chicken broth. The pumpkin should blend completely in resulting in a slightly thicker broth.
- Pour in the lentils, broth, broth/pumpkin mixture and the water. (If you are not using Cajun seasoning you may want to add salt, but I didn’t because the stocks and seasoning have quite a bit of salt.) Add black pepper. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and partially cover. Cook for 30-40 minutes, or until the lentils are tender but still hold their shape.
- Transfer about 3 cups to the blender (maybe more). Be careful to make sure you don’t splash yourself with the hot soup. Pour the puréed soup back into the pot and add the chopped greens. Cook for 5 more minutes, or until the greens have softened to your liking. Also add chopped parsley.
- Remove the pot from heat and a couple dashes of lime juice. Taste and see if you need more seasoning!