Monday, December 25, 2006

A Very Plate Lunch Christmas

This isn't about my actual Christmas in Shanghai, but about a small but important subset of my Christmas experience: the popular reaction to the food I prepared for a party.

A little background information: I invited about 10 friends, all Chinese, to come over on Christmas Eve. These are people whom I've gone out for food with plenty times, and about half of them I've been to their place for food. None of these people particularly cares for Western foods, and although I haven't really talked about it with them, I have the impression they think it is all very simple and bland and involves eating a lot of bread.

Deciding what to cook was a challenge. I hadn't cooked a single proper meal since I arrived in Shanghai a year and a half ago, and had forgotten such simple things as what I liked to cook. My apartment lacks an oven or microwave, I only have two stove tops and a rice cooker. I didn't want to attempt anything Chinese, I knew I would be out-classed at it. Finally, a lot of the ingredients I'd like are impossible to find, or perhaps only to be found at a ridiculous price. I ended up with a kind of weird list of foods that would read like a Hawaiian plate lunch menu. That's not as bad as it sounds; one of my more absurd dreams is opening a Hawaiian plate lunch stand.

Corn Chips and Salsa

If potato chips are to be found on every city block of Shanghai, corn chips are a weird foreigner-only thing that you pay the exorbitant foreigner-only price for. $6 or so for this bag, although I also saw cheaper ones. I was strangely excited about this, considering I've never made salsa before - chopping up the tomatoes, onions, and so forth. I ended up thinking it was very delicious but it didn't go over well at all - people had one bite, and pronounced it weird. Raw vegetables are kind of a pariah, maybe having to do with a suspicion of the hygenic standards of Chinese produce. One person liked it, the two of us scarfed most of it down.

The pseudo-guacamole was canned, a sweet green paste manufactured in Scotland. Really disgusting, I don't know why I didn't toss it. I wanted to make real guacamole, but even the ugly looking avacados at Carrefour were selling for $3 apiece!

Pickled Onions with Chinese Vinegar

Pickled Onions are kind of a local specialty, although they're very bland to my tastes. I bought a jar and added some Chinese style vinegar - it's brown and flavorful, not having been distilled like American white vinegar. The results are seriously delicious, and even if pickled onions are kind of an odd snack, I'd recommend anyone to try this. I thought this would go over well, being kind of local and all, but nobody even touched it!

Brie Cheese

I have fond memories of a Japanese friend who would go crazy with disgust at just the sight of cheese. I don't like cheese so much, but I went to a French-branded grocery store and saw some cheap French-branded cheese for $2, and took the plunge - mostly just curious if it would inspire the same reaction. A few people tried it, just once. They didn't care for it, but in all honesty it wasn't all that great. I'll have to re-attempt this experiment in the future, with a higher grade of cheese.


A lot of people brought over chocolate, this is just part of the take. We didn't even open most of it, and I ended up with enough Dove bars to make up for spending Halloween on a plane to Bombay.

Fruit and Kettle Corn

If you've been paying attention, you see my snacks didn't go over so well, people tried a little bit and then gorged in on fruit and popcorn. A friend bought the popcorn off the street, I had never had it before, although I see people making it all the time. It's higher cooked and heavily sweeted, like the kettle-corn Hawaiian style popcorn. Anyway that's all well and good, but at $6 for a bag of tortilla chips, I was a little nonplussed that people were hovering around sweetened popcorn, I can't deny. Oh, and the citrus fruit shown is one of the examples of the dozens of variations on citrus fruits that I had never even seen in the US, but are commonly available all around Shanghai.

Anyway, on to the main meal:

Kalua Pig

Kalua Pig is a tender pork flavored with salt, shoyu, and copious amounts of liquid smoke. It's supposed to be made in an oven or even an underground pit, but I don't have either in my apartment. Actually I was pretty impressed with the results from stovetop cooking. It's undeniably simple, but the flavors are strong, the extremely soft and juicy texture is unique, the liquid smoke flavoring was something new to all the guests, and in general this recieved very favorable comments. And no that isn't my picture above, I didn't make one-tenth that much!

Chili on Rice

The central meal has no place at Christmas: Chili on Rice. For me it's an everyday food and not so special. Still, I had a lot of fun preparing the dish, randomly adding things that were lying around my kitchen until I was happy with the taste, including lime and tequila, lots of garlic, and every hot sauce I ran across - I like things on the spicy side, and most of my guests were born in the Szechuan area, so no problem there! Nobody else there had had it before, or anything like it, and everybody really dug the strong flavors and the complexity of the final taste. I definitely made some converts to the cause - unfortunately the only restaurant chili I've tried in Shanghai has been seriously boring and over-priced, which is about standard for Shanghai's expat-oriented restaurants.

Hawaiian Style Macaroni Salad

Actually I toned down on the mayonnaise and added some self-imported Huy Fong Sriracha Sauce to this one, I knew the genuine style wouldn't go over that well and maybe I pushed the boundaries of authenticity. Still this wasn't very popular, even if people ate it. "Too bland" was the universal comment. In a formal plate lunch the blandness of the macaroni salad acts as a counterpoint to the central dish, but here I admit it was kind of an odd duck. I also had some vegetables. Not having enough stovetops or time to do anything interesting, they were just there out of a general belief that one should eat vegetables.


As a crazy cocktail enthusiast who doesn't know anybody here who likes to drink cocktails, I was kind've trying to push these on people, also making the sweeter drinks that the amateurs go for. Results were poor. Drinking anything other than a beer or two at a casual social dinner is out-of-the-place for the crowd. Some cocktails were had, but people found them too strong, and watered them down to the point of oblivion. One person got pretty into a Rum drink (Cuban Rum, the same brand as the weird picture above! But that's a topic for later), well anyway that's something. A Sloe Gin Fizz, a Whiskey Sour, and a Margarita, each made with fresh juice and top-shelf ingredients, all recieved low marks.

Anyway if the summary lists more negatives than positives, it was a fun night with a cool group of friends, and the central food was extremely popular, keeping my strange dream of opening a Shanghai Plate Lunch Stand alive! All in all it was a great Christmas Eve, even if I didn't spend it con mi familia. Christmas was just another day at work, and studying Chinese...anyway Merry XMas to all friends and family who are reading this!

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