Where did the time go? I swam upstream the typical Beijing traffic and got back to Chozie's place at 7pm, very grateful to for the home cooking his ayi (housekeeper) made. Always lovely to be greeted by a kitchen counter heaving with at least three covered plates. Look at her clever little system! She props a plate on top of the food with chopsticks in between, I think to get some vent action going, or for easy lift. It's kind of like that plate-spinning acrobatic performance, except not as dramatic, just more gymnastic than most home-cooked meals get. Today it was stewed pork belly, super fatty and no I'm not ashamed to gnaw through the geological layers of jelly skin, fatty fat and meaty meat. It was cooked with my newfound ingredient from the local veg market: young rice stems. It's weirdly the texture of bamboo and mushroom, fibrous but yielding, uniformly dense but soft; and it tastes mildly of corn. Nothing to love but nothing to hate about it either. There was also an edamame bean + turnip + carrot + chili stir fry, which I also love for its simplicity, and a side of pak choy.
But now it's 1:30 AM and, as much as I want to put off a blog post for the n'th time, I have the will to go on because I am really not going to procrastinate again, and I think the day-old refrigerated coffee and a zing of frustration has given me a good buzz.
I've just completed a dinky PowerPoint presentation on Pret a Manger -- that amazing British sandwich chain I so adore, yet so often thought "oh man, but it's kinda pricey," and which in retrospect I should have munched through a sandwich a day while I had the chance back in London because I STILL have not tried the Chicken Avocado... that one. Because I need my CEO and investors to see how effective "simple, fresh, all-natural and convenient" is.
But the topic keeps washing ashore then dragging back to the great wide open sea, because there are some things about Chinese Consumers that, I am told, I must understand. It's frustrating and intriguing, a weird emotional combination which I'm determined to coin a expression for. But in the mean time, I thought I might share the 5 Things You (Probably) Did Not Know About Modern-Day Chinese Consumers (in first-tier cities):
1. Food containers: Paper is sketchy. Plastic is good! Paper is probably not hygenic. Plastic solves it all (even the ones that snap krackle and pop upon prying the lid off)!
2. Bread: must be soft. No mouth-shredding French baguettes or rustic German seed breads. Even muffin tops shouldn't be crisp, because, "soft".
3. This one lady customer today thought that the mini mozzarella ball, which was skewered with a cherry tomato, was a fish meatball. Those were expensive! And no...
4. They want high quality and freshness. But most don't want to pay for it. Currently we're offering a set bento-style breakfast box for ¥28 (£3) with a drink, but it's kinda ehhh, too expensive. Whereas a sandwich and a coffee at Starbucks will set you back ¥45.
5. As frustrated and and demeaning as I sound now, you gotta hand it to today's Chinese people -- while the world thinks it's all careless and blasé attitudes, especially towards food safety and dinky electronics of yore, today's consumers have high standards which far surpass those of their Western peers. Every flavour will be picked apart, every food item that cannot be conveniently handled will be critiqued (oh yeah, no hands allowed!), and the temperature -- oh heavens, the temperature -- will be sensed with reptilian sensitivity ("warm" is not hot enough).
I've got lots to learn about the culture, of course. I may be frustrated because, hey, maybe I'm the one not up to standards. Equally theirs may be ridiculously high. And the mozzarella incident... well, I am serving up Western ingredients in a patently non-Western, totally Chinese country where this stuff doesn't make frequent, casual appearances.
I'm always feeling like the snob who scoffs at many Chinese people who have little knowledge of Western ingredients which seem common to me. But just thinking back to the dinner ayi whipped together for us, I can at least concede that she's got a thing or ten to teach me about wholesome, simple food made with ingredients I am only just beginning to discover. When I can, I'll consult with her and post a recipe here.