清补凉 – Clearing Tonic

I loathe this dampness in the air, it’s literally sinking into my bones and makes me want to crawl into bed and hibernate until spring. It’s times like these where soup is my choice of meals.

This year, I’ve ventured into the world of Chinese soups. I’ve been drinking some at the restaurant I frequent, and have poured supermarket aisles to recreate some of them, with success so far. There’s a wonderful blog called The Chinese Soup Lady if any of you are interested (there are vegetarian versions available which I might try).

I’ve been pestering one of my coworkers for other ingredients which I quickly forgot. Luckily, I happened to pick up this ‘soup packet’ at the supermarket last week which was pretty much all the items she mentioned.

sarah li cain-mumbled jumbles-clearing tonic01

If you literally translate this soup means ‘Clearing Tonic’. It is said to aid in digestion and improve health.

Here’s an image of all the ingredients out of the pack (excuse the dirty dishes!):

sarah li cain-mumbled jumbles-clearing tonic02My coworker also recommended snow fungus, which I also bought happily (so glad these ingredients are cheap here!)

sarah li cain-mumbled jumbles-clearing tonic03

I grabbed my half chicken, some leftover chicken bones (always have some in the freezer just in case I decide to whip up broth/soup) and away I went!

I literally rinsed the herbs, and peeled the longan (the brown round thing) and set a pot of water to boil.  Put all the ingredients and cook/low boil for two hours.

The soup came up sweet and thicker than I thought. I’m thinking it was the gelatin from the chicken bones and joints.

Trust me, it is delicious! My only complaint is that I wish I had a bigger pot.  Still, it is enough for 3 small bowls of soup for me to bring to work and savour during break/prep times.

yum yum.

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Baked tamales

As a random goal of mine  (and probably to see how cheap/frugal I can be just for fun), I’ve been trying to prepare different “Western” dishes using solely ingredients that you can find at the local supermarket. Of course, I’m not counting any kind of fat/oil, simply because I’m sort of paranoid about the quality of oil (blended oil, though cheap, has made me sick in the past here, and I rather pay more for good quality stuff).  I attempted yesterday to make baked tamales with some good success here. Recipe below and some modifications I had to make:


Meat Mixture:

-1 pound  ground beef  (you can’t really do proper ground beef at your local grocery store, so go to a “foreign” one or just cut up some flank steak because the bigger establishments usually carry this)

-1/2 to 1 14oz can tomatoes (you should be able to find it at a Chinese Wal-Mart, but it can be difficult. I had one in my pantry, so I kind of cheated on this one)

-1 tablespoon chili powder

-1 teaspoon cumin (you can get seeds or ground cumin, I opted for ground cumin, but I think either is fine)

-1/8 teaspoon cinnamon (it’s easier to get a stick at the local market and just grind it in a blender or grater)

-1/2 teaspoon salt

-1/2 to 1 cup onions (as a optional you can add jalapeno peppers or other veggies, for the sake of this experiment I left the jalapenos out)

Corn Meal dough:

-2 cup corn meal/ corn flour (I used corn flour, or there is medium grind cornmeal which in English translates to “grind corn” or the equivalent to that)

-1 teaspoon salt

-4 cup water

-1 egg, well beaten

-2 tablespoon butter (bought this at a foreign market because I like it unsalted, but you can totally buy this at a Chinese market near the bakery section)


-Saute beef until brown.  Add tomatoes, onions and spices and cook for another 15 min.

-Make corn meal dough.  Bring water to boil and add corn meal/ corn flour over medium heat and cook until thick, about 5-10 minutes.  Add eggs and butter. Stir well.

-Grease a baking dish and line bottom with half the corn meal dough.  Add meat mixture and cover with remaining corn meal dough.  Bake 20 minutes at 325F, or until browned.

The issue I had was with the toaster oven I used.  I was a bit paranoid about the corn flour mixture, but the only difference I will say is that the texture is different.  So it really depends on that what you want to use (next time I’m going to use the corn meal I saw, and see what happens).  Secondly, unless you have a proper confection oven, you can’t follow the directions to bake it exactly.  We end up waiting about 40 minutes for this thing because I forgot about this.  I ended up cranking up the toaster oven halfway through and checked it every 5 minutes to see if it was ready or not.  We made a pumpkin pie last year and had to do the same thing.  It does taste wonderful, but unless you’re cooking plain meat/veggies, it’s best to watch your dishes like a hawk and experiment with temperatures/times until you get it right.  The corn dough was a bit undercooked, but I know next time to adjust the temperature.  It tasted pretty good nonetheless and I’d probably attempt to make it again.

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I’ll admit, I’ve been horribly lazy with my camera and I haven’t done much wandering around with it as I would like. I went to the OCT last weekend with a friend and I forgot my camera! It must be a sign that I’m too busy/tired? Not much going on at the moment or any funny observations (other than the awesome outfits, which I should do a post on someday).

Random crap in my life now if you care:

-Started Chinese lessons again with our awesome tutor. I will say that I remember a lot more than I give myself credit for, even though I didn’t study much in the summer. I will have to schedule time where I’m studying, and not always just catching 5 minutes here and there to refresh my memory.

-Work is busy as usual. I’m tired!

-Playing around with my workout routine. Joined gym with hubby cause there is a pool there, and maybe some weightlifting will help me get stronger for Ashtanga as well (it’s probably more physchological, I know I gain a lot of muscle from the practice, but maybe this is a confidence boost?). Maybe gym on weekdays, yoga on weekends. I’m also debating whether or not to wake up at 5 am do to yoga so there’s no excuse about lack of time after work.

-food food food! Currently trying to make western dishes using only ingredients found in Chinese restaurants.  It isn’t as hard as one thinks. I wonder if I can try this though.

-planning on cities I want to visit before I leave China for good. Toured the major ones, now what?

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Farming in China

I’ve often been curious about the food quality here and the amount of “organic” produce you can find in China (well, ok, Shenzhen, where I live). I’ve been a little hesitant to look up any information until recently.

One of the scary things is not only about the quality of the food produced or how the food is produced, but more about how farmers are put under a lot of pressure to produce in China.  Because the government is quite localized here, it’s hard to standardize practices and ensure safety on smaller farms. Furthermore, bigger companies are able to procure more land (by negotiating with the government), probably ensuring that the smaller independent farmers can’t expand. This is because the government owns the land, so citizens don’t have land rights to rent or buy more land.  Furthermore, the lure of better jobs in the cities means that more farmers migrate into cities like Shenzhen, Beijing and China, meaning less and less people working on farms, which puts a strain on the system.  A sign of how smaller farms/ independent farmers suffer is some of the local markets here.  Many of the sellers aren’t necessarily selling their own homegrown foods anymore.  Many of them head to wholesale markets to purchase their produce. Instead of buying directly from the source, they are essentially middlemen.

Some interesting facts quoted from this site:

  • China feeds 22 percent of the world population with only 10 percent of the planet’s arable land. Land is heavily utilized for agriculture. Vegetables are planted on road embankments, in traffic triangles and right up the walls of many buildings. Even so since 1949 China has lost one fifth of its arable land.
  • Farm land is still owned and controlled by the state and leased to farmers. It can not be bought or sold only leased. Land essentially belongs to local governments, a holdover from the commune era. Reforms passed in the Deng era allowed individuals to contract land from villages. To be converted into non-agricultural land it has to be reclaimed by the government and rezoned.
  • These days farmers sign 30-year leases for the right to work a plot and but they no longer are required to pay harvest quotas or most agricultural taxes. They don’t own the land, they can’t sell it and they can’t use it for collateral on a loan.
  • Farmers typically live is a small brick house with electricity and a televison. They have no pension and want their kids to go to university but don’t know how they will pay for it. Young people don’t want to be farmers. One 21-year-old woman who left her village for a factory job told Reuters, “Nobody our age farms anymore. Nobody my age can plant a stalk. You need to leave to make real money.”
  • China has very advanced agricultural research centers and laboratories that do research and churn out reams of data on the latest fertilizers, pollution risks and genetically-engineered crops The problem is that the data and insights these researchers come up with rarely finds its way to farmers, who mostly rely on the pesticide and fertilizer salesmen to keep them informed. Even then necessity often keeps them from following directions. Villagers given instructions to use the pesticides only once every 15 days are likely to use pesticides more frequently than that if their crops are being swarmed by insects.

Farming trends here also reminds me of factory farms in the USA/Canada (though I hope not as bad) and if this trend continues in China (I’m pretty sure it is more prevalent that they admit) the people here will be worse off than some of the food scares already happening.  People outside China should be worried about food quality, because the foods you least expect actually come from here.  A lot of organic produce people buy are from China.  Whether or not this applies to export quality foods, I’ve read and heard from sources that people label products ‘organic’ because they see it as a trend and it’ll help them sell their stuff.

I would like to be more hopeful about the situation these farmers face, and that they are able to make a better living, instead of trying to do whatever they can to make a profit (which is quite small, I’ve heard from a source that what you basically pay at the supermarkets is the transportation cost of sending food to different cities).  I also wish that someday that China will be more aware of their food safety practices, though I think that will be a long way away, unless foreign purchasers put pressure (and stick to it) on them now.

Here are some good sources to read if you are interested in this issue:

Agriculture in China – has some interesting points about how farmers farm and the environmental effects of it, as well as how the government plays a role in potential food shortage

Innovations that can Ensure Food Security – interesting article about what farmers/China can do.

Exploding Watermelons Put Spotlight on Chinese Farming Practices –  one of the recent food scares highlights some of the environmental impacts farming has on the land

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What I eat

I went into a fairly lengthy discussion with a friend the other day about food scares and such in China these days. It’s nothing new that every month (or less than that!) something is wrong with a certain food grown here. I’m fairly concerned about this, and try to avoid these if I can.  That said, it is hard to tell food quality regardless of the news that circulates.  So what to do? How do people maintain a high quality diet here?  I’ve worked and tweaked my food shopping habits over the years I’ve been here, and it’s worked fairly well for me. So I’m sharing my list here in case anyone is interested, or is trying to eat local foods without totally relying on imports.

What I avoid eating here:

-local milk (too many news articles about the melamine tainted milk scandal out there, go have a look! Plus any milk here is of the powdered variety, even if you buy it in cartons) and any food with milk ingredients, such as chocolate, yoghurt, cakes, ice cream locally produced butter,etc.

-eggs : I was allergic to them once, so I avoided that for obvious reasons. Now, its’ mostly because of the quality I’ve found: many eggs you find in local markets are fertilized. My husband and I bought many eggs so our students can dye them for Easter, but threw 2/3 away because of this issue. And this happened more than once!

-generic oil: it used to make me sooooo sick

-juice produced here: they put more sugar in it than a can of cola!

-stock: they make it out of chicken bullion and fat, and the veggie one is NOT veggie. It’s also full of other crap that you just don’t want in your body

-locally packed salted nuts: they’ve also got more sugar than salt. crazy.

-seafood: a lot of the ‘fresh’ fish you see at wet markets are defrosted fish (unless you literally see them swimming in tanks, of course!). I suspect sometimes they refreeze and re-thaw their products if they don’t sell it that day.  Shellfish here has gotten my husband and I very sick, especially oysters.

-“organic” veggies/meat: labeling in China is never reliable, plus they jack up their prices and I can’t justify paying it.

Things I buy in Chinese supermarkets/local wet markets:

-veggies and fruit (I tend to avoid the melons unless husband shares with me, but we’ve stopped buying watermelons because of the scandal recently) –>better to buy in morning if you can, and buy the day you need to use them, unless your fridge is big enough. On busy days I make sure to have my veggies three days in advance of me needing to use them. When the weather is hotter, I have to be very picky about the quality, if I’m not liking what I see, I go to a large chain supermarket because I know they at least air condition the place, and the veggies are at least not subjected to the humidity/heat that much.

-tofu: I try to avoid soy as much as I can (I’m fearful they’re GMO, and I’m not too comfortable about that), but they’ve got a variety here, my personal preference is fresh tofu skins and the firm kinds.

-ground pork (ONLY if it is winter time here AND it is very early in the morning, even then I take a lot of precautions)

-I would like to try buying a whole fresh chicken here, but not sure hubby will go for it

-chilli oil (only well known brands, and after thoroughly checking the labels to make sure there aren’t any preservatives)

-brown rice

-dried beans (though I have to watch out, once I had ones that were really old and starting to sprout)

-cumin seeds and ground cumin (though gotta watch packaging to make sure there aren’t any ‘fillers’)

-dried chilli flakes

-raw sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds

-rice noodles

-green tea bags

-soy sauce (stick to sell known brands)

-local honey/bee pollen

Things I buy from imported shops:

-chicken breasts (hard to find in Chinese stores)  and thighs

-ground beef/pork (safer)

-pickled veggies (we are quite partial to pickles and jalapenos when we get a bit homesick)

-canned tuna

-dried beans (like chickpeas and lentils)

-spices, dried and fresh (oregano, dill, basil, rosemary, cumin, coriander, paprika)

-cereal (hubby loves for breakfast)

-rice/soy milk (still trying avoid dairy as much as I can, and it’s a decent alternative)

-unsalted pistachios

-some veggies (red and yellow bell peppers are a favourite)

-whole wheat pasta

-salsa (‘Wild Harvest Organics’ makes a great one with no preservatives, yum!)

-unflavoured popcorn (a good snack when I crave potato chips)

-Korean pepper paste, ok well any other Korean products, like miso and kimchi

-olive oil (would love to cook with coconut oil but it’s so damn expensive!)

-balsamic vinegar

-fish sauce

-coconut milk (have yet to look around bigger local supermarkets to see if I can find it)

-green chilli paste (only the brand that doesn’t have preservatives, forgot the brand on the top of my head)

– peppermint, early grey and english breakfast tea


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Thoughts on Food

Through my food allergies (I got over most of them through a much better diet!), I’ve really changed my views on food and I what I can do to help myself and loved ones go onto a path to better health.

Nothing said in this video is entirely original, but it really sums up a lot of what other foodies have to say, plus I will admit Jamie Oliver is quite a charismatic speaker. Go check it out:


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