grew up in a house where both my mom and dad were excellent cooks, so naturally, I always loved food and cooking. What made it even better is my mom is from the US and my dad is from Iran, so we ate a range of foods made with a variety of spices and ingredients. I believe growing up eating diverse foods gave me a more open mind and helped me be more willing to try new things.
When I moved to China, I had no plans to stop cooking and imagined what it would be like to cook here. I saw myself walking through outdoor markets, burlap bag in hand, picking out fresh ingredients and cooking fresh, homemade meals every day. Well, the reality wasn’t much like my visions. I soon got caught up in the ease of online ordering. But after a year of take-out, I decided it was time to load up my kitchen and get back to it. However, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I couldn’t find a lot of the ingredients I was familiar with and a lot of the pre-prepared sauces and mixes I used didn’t exist here – I had to learn to make things from scratch.
I was going to make enchiladas when I came to this realization for the first time. I would go to the supermarket and get a jar of red or green enchilada sauce, a packet of taco seasoning for the meat, and I was set. But when I even searched the foreign shops here, there was no premade enchilada sauce and I had to buy the seasonings for the tacos and do it myself.
At first, I was frustrated because I felt like it was going to be too much work, but after I made my own enchilada sauce for the first time, I realized it tasted much better than any of the sauces I used to buy. At that point, I got a little gusto from my success and decided I would try to up my game.
Once I got in the groove, I was on my way. I found out pretty quickly how cheap produce and most ingredients are in China. I started going to some of the vegetable shops in the hutongs by my house instead of ordering from foreign groceries on my apps. Soon that vision of me walking along the streets with my burlap bag was coming into focus.
One day, I decided I wanted to try to recreate a complicated Persian stew my dad would make. I was skeptical that I could find all the ingredients, but I was wrong. I asked in some groups and someone told me about a wet market called Sanyuanli. When I walked in, I felt like I reached the pinnacle of what I had been looking for. Vendor after vendor with spices, vegetables, meat, fresh seafood – I saw a crab there bigger than my head with legs as long as my forearm. I was able to find everything for my stew including dried limes I couldn't find anywhere else. The stew came out perfect.
Once I refined my cooking skills, I decided to share my new talents with friends. I love hosting dinner parties, and as far as they say, my friends love my cooking. When talking in my neighborhood WeChat group, one of the members made a food share group. Not only is the group great for asking where to get hard-to-find spices and other ingredients, but when someone has made too much food or over ordered veggies, they post it in the group. When I first taught myself to make lentil soup, I accidentally made enough to feed 10 people. I put it in the group and someone immediately said they wanted to come for some. I didn’t ask for anything in return, but they showed up with some homemade cookies in hand. A great trade, if I do say so myself.
Unfortunately, in my pursuit of cooking greatness, I have realized that a lot of my friends have almost no cooking experience. During some of my dinner parties, especially for big ones during Thanksgiving and Christmas, my friends would come over to “help,” but explaining how to cut an onion would take longer than me just doing it myself. However, a few of my friends became really interested in cooking once they came over and tried, and I have taught a few of them to make some of my favorite easy recipes. Now that I have mastered some of my favorite dishes from back home, my next venture is to learn a few of my top Chinese dishes. I hope one day I can make one amazing dish from every region, and I have China to thank for opening up my mind and palate to becoming a better cook! Bon Appétit!