I decided to share one of my most recent foibles. It’s not all about China. Challenges to daily navigation abound whenever one is living outside one’s home culture, period. When you can’t take things for granted, you just can’t take them for granted! Which sounds stupid, but every decision is a decision, every day brings lots of confusing choices and lots of decisions, sometimes made without adequate information. You roll with the punches and do your best, live with the consequences large or small. Here’s my most recent example:
Our family decided we would create our own, new, tradition for New Year’s Dinner: Sesame Seared Tuna. Sesame Seared Tuna is actually a recipe I copied from Ocean Avenue, a restaurant in Santa Monica, California, where D and I once had a memorable dinner. It has become not only a family favorite, but also THE traditional birthday dinner for one of our children who happens now not only to be vegan, but who also now lives about 12,000 miles away from us, but whose birthday is in January!
And so, we have to create a new excuse to serve Sesame Seared Tuna, in January. What better exuse than for New Year’s Day? So Dad braved the crowds on New Year’s Day to go to Jusco at Tee Mall and get tuna steaks.
Jusco is a Japanese chain and has really good quality, fresh fish. This is where I got the tuna for last year’s birthday celebration. This week, they had fantastic sashimi grade salmon, but no tuna steaks. Strike one. On New Year’s Day, we celebrated with salmon sashimi. (As an aside, Dad reported that there were easily 100,000 people at Tee Mall. There’s a three day holiday for the calendar New Year, and everyone was out in the beautiful weather.)
Plan B:the store Metro has a huge meat selection, including flash frozen meat and seafood. They’ll have it, and I’ll go buy it. The family consensus was that January 2 would be the new target date for our New Year’s Dinner of Sesame Seared Tuna.
On January 2nd, I arrive at Metro, but the tuna has not. They, too, have great looking sashimi grade salmon steaks. When I ask if they have any frozen tuna steaks, they take me and show me some small, frozen fish that are whole and each about 12 inches long. Thanks, but no thanks. My mind flashes through the Chinese words I used, searching for a communication error: ""tuna, fish, steak," I know I clearly said, "steak." It’s not a communication issue: the clerk was trying to be helpful, but that’s all she had to show me.
Plan C? The family has been hungering for ham, as well. Pork is abundant where we live, but not a ham cured to western tastes. I can count fewer times than the fingers on one hand the times we’ve had ham in the almost-three years we’ve lived in China. And I can find ham at Metro. I know, because I’ve seen other westerners buying them. I use my cell phone to take a quick poll. The answer? "You choose." So, I do: baked salmon tonight, ham tomorrow night. I pick up the salmon and go to pick out the ham.
The hams, it turns out, are incredibly expensive. Over 100 RMB per kilo, and the smallest one is about 3 kilos. The math is roughly 300 RMB, divided by 7.5 exchange rate, divided by close to 2 pounds per kilo. About $35 U.S. for a six pound ham. And it’s a bit confusing. The labels are all in Italian for the various kinds of hams, because they’re all Italian hams. It’s "Greek" to me. I pick one ham that’s only 95 RMB per kilo and is smaller than the rest, just 1.6 kilos. It looks like a small, rolled ham. The name didn’t ring a bell. Although, if I had been thinking in terms of a menu in an Italian restaurant I might have recalled it and know what it was, or if I had seen it sliced . . . . because I’ve had it before, served in a restaurant the way it normally is served: raw and cold as an antipasto.
I learn all this in hindsight. Last night we had the salmon, which was great, and I soaked some black beans to cook all day today to go with the ham. I’m getting ready to start cooking the ham this afternoon, so I look up on the internet "how to cook" this ham. When I see the picture, I immediately recognize what I have purchased: pancetta arrotolata. It’s right there on the label, dummy! You don’t cook it at all! Some knowlege of Italian (and Italian food) might come in handy before one attempts to purchase Italian hams! (So, just where ARE my Italian friends when I need them to give me advice about these things, and you know who you are!) The following web site describing pancetta arrotolata says, "If well cured it’s quite delicate, with the fattier areas resembling cured lard in flavor and texture."
So, it looks like we have a LOT of a really great (rich) appetizer for supper tonight. Good thing that it will still go great with our broccoli with mock hollandaise, black beans over rice, sweet potato casserole, and whole wheat rolls. As Beth says, my troubles truly are nothing. As my American doctor said the other day, each trouble is small like an ant bite, it only bothers us more here because there are so many ant bites every day! I can relate. Sometimes I feel like a need a whole bottle of benadryl!
Oh, want a picture? Here is a web link to how this "ham" is served: http://italianfood.about.com/od/antipasti/ss/aa092906_4.htm
As I write this and think about supper, it’s really beginning to sound (and look) quite delicious! And, why not? Why would I, after all, assume that other westerners (Italians for example?) cook their meat the same way I do? I can be open minded. It doesn’t make them sick, so it shouldn’t make me sick, either. CJ just came downstairs, I told her about it, and she is ready to "go for it!" Know thyself: Before thinking about an expat lifestyle, ask yourself, could you enjoy raw pork fat for your New Year’s dinner?