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Appetite for Adventure

How two years in China changed my tastebuds and outlook on my hometown

Story & photos by Kirsten Harrington

From crunchy fried frog and lip-tingling mapo tofu to flakey donkey meat sandwiches and durian ice cream, living in China was a non-stop culinary adventure. For two years I challenged my stomach with spicy lamb skewers, roiling hot pot, and other dishes that remained a mystery.

All because my husband was part of a team that built Universal Studios Beijing. Which is how my family and I found ourselves moving to China in June 2019.

Food Adventures in China

As a food writer and adventure seeker, I knew I had arrived in country that held unlimited potential. Every meal was either a challenge, a discovery, a disappointment or nirvana. Meals cooked at home often required extensive sleuthing to source ingredients; dining or ordering out presented language challenges and often stretched our comfort zone.

I went to cooking classes to learn how to properly pleat dumplings, let a stranger feed me with chopsticks, ate in Michelin-starred restaurants and in places I was sure would kill me. I didn’t die. In fact, I’d never felt so alive.

Red, crackly, sugar-coated hawthorn berries made my lips pucker with their tart-sweet combination. Slippery, hand-carved noodles honed my chopstick skills, and stinky tofu? I only ate it once, by mistake, until I learned how to say “no thanks” in Mandarin. Experience really is the best teacher.

Some of my food exploring was done solo, but much of it was with strangers who became friends through shared adventures. Cute little quail egg skewers grilled with a splash of sauce? Sure, let’s share one. Know the best place for jianbing, Beijing’s famous breakfast pancakes? Let’s go together!

My hiking group lingered over lunch at countryside restaurants after long treks on the Great Wall. Steaming plates of pork with local chestnuts and a few bottles of Tsingtao revived us and created bonds of friendship.

Just when the rest of the world was closing because of COVID, restrictions in China were lifting. Tea tasting tours, coffee mornings, and market excursions filled my days. Lunch outings resembled a United Nations gathering; at one point I counted friends from over a dozen countries. As we shared meals, we shared cultures and developed an amazing camaraderie.

Shopkeepers and market vendors became part of my circle, too. My neighbor and I wheeled our “granny carts” to the Worker’s Stadium fresh market every week. It didn’t take long until the rice vendor automatically scooped up my favorite grain, smiling as she saw me coming.

If I ran into payment problems buying pork-stuffed buns from my favorite shop, the owner waved me away saying “ming tian ming tian” – just pay tomorrow. He even gave me a discount for being a regular, charging me seven yuan (about one dollar) instead of eight for a bag of warm, fluffy buns.

Once a retired cooking instructor came to my house to teach me how to make stuffed buns for the donkey meat that was in my freezer. (That’s a story for another day). At age 72, Teacher Wang was a living history book wrapped in a chef’s apron. We discussed China’s one child policy, the Cultural Revolution and life under Chairman Mao. I hung on every word, furiously trying to translate in my head as I rolled out the dough.

Of course, there were low points: occasional bouts of “Beijing belly,” cravings for Triscuits, and a few nut-allergy scares for my older son (who puts walnuts on a steak?). Dog meat and dried rats hanging in the markets in Guanxi province temporarily spoiled my appetite. It wasn’t always easy or fun. But the community and cultural experiences that came with living in China created lifelong memories.

Translating Taste

In June 2021, my husband’s assignment ended, and we came home. My sweet friends stocked my new house in Winter Garden with things I’d craved, including cottage cheese and Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream. Hey, don’t judge. You never know what you’ll miss until it’s gone.

A few days later, I found myself standing in the frozen food section of Publix. For two years, I’d fantasized about buying Ranch dressing again and loading groceries into my car instead of carrying them home. But I was paralyzed. It was too foreign. Too clean. Too many choices. I grabbed a gallon of milk and fled.

I was ecstatic to be home, but I missed the community I had in China. For two years I lived on high alert, ready for the next exciting adventure, positive or negative. And there was always someone to share it with.

Now, the weekly hikes, weekend trips on the high-speed train and dumplings with mystery filling were gone. And so was my community. I felt lost.

So I did the same thing I did in China…I took to the streets.

Over the next few weeks, I took daily walks to explore my new neighborhood. I was up at six one morning, thanks to jet lag, and headed east on Plant Street. A steady flow of people streamed in and out of a strip mall shop which advertised “the best Mexican Breakfast in Central Florida.”

Intrigued, I ducked inside. A dozen chafing dishes lined the counter, with a variety of breakfast tacos. Everyone was speaking Spanish, ordering up tacos al pastor, quesadillas and gorditas and grabbing coffee to go. As I waited in line, I realized that at Just Tacos, I was the foreigner again. I was in a new place, with an unfamiliar menu, in a different language. I felt right at home. I spent $10 and walked home with enough tacos for my family.

Excited by my success, I went back to the strip mall and checked out Los Amigos Super Mercado. To be honest, in 2019 BC (Before China) I would have been afraid to go in. What if I wasn’t welcome, or they didn’t speak English, or I didn’t know what to buy?

But China made me brave, so I went in. Hector Gutierrez, the owner, greeted me with a smile, and $9 later I left his tidy store with warm tortillas, fresh limes and instructions on how to cook the al pastor meat for dinner. Now the market is my go-to for a quick stop for fajita or taco meat, or a few ripe avocados and a jar of salsa.

Next came Spice Culture Indian Market, where I found my favorite new Chai tea, and learned how to simmer frozen paneer to add to my homemade curries. On days I don’t feel like cooking, there’s Butter Chicken and Garlic Naan from Curry Kitchen, the takeout restaurant in the back.

How many times had I driven by Choice Meats and not stopped? Now it’s where I get just the right kind of ground pork to make my favorite Chinese dish, mapo tofu. And I love shopping at Key Market just across the street for bok choy, Korean barbecue sauce and empanadas from the deli.

Now, if too much time goes by and I don’t stop at the Mexican market, Hector says “Hey, I haven’t seen you for a while.” We chat and sometimes he teaches me a few words of Spanish.

When Candy sees me in line at Just Tacos, she asks “Want some gorditas? We have a few left.” She knows my favorite. She’s in constant motion, telling me stories about her restaurant in between customers. She starts at 4am, prepping tacos for the customers who will be waiting at 5:30. By 9, the breakfast rush is over, and she gets ready for the next day, making everything from scratch using her father’s recipes from Jalisco, Mexico.

It feels good to be recognized. Discovering these smaller places and getting to know the owners has helped me a build a new community. So, I keep going, keep searching for places to connect. I’ve got a list of restaurants and markets that reads like a travel itinerary: Brazil, France, China, Italy, Jamaica, Turkey.

I’ve learned that connections don’t happen by ordering groceries on Instacart or eating alone in front of the TV. They come from buying limes and fresh tortillas at the tienda down the street and stopping at that place I’ve passed a million times and always wondered about.

We’ve all lost a lot in the last two years, and we hunger for connection. In China, food opened the door for me to a new culture and lasting relationships. It can do the same for us, right here. Why not try a new restaurant, invite a friend over for dinner or just walk into that strange bodega or bakery? I guarantee life will taste so much sweeter.

 

Kirsten Harrington is an Orlando-based freelance writer specializing in food and adventure travel. She can tell you where to get the best French Onion soup in Beijing, how to visit the home of former headhunters in Kota Kinabalu and why you should try donkey meat sandwiches once in your life. Her work has been featured in Edible Orlando magazine, The Seattle Times, The Beijinger expat website and numerous other print and digital publications. When she’s not writing, she loves to spend time in the kitchen with her husband and two teenagers, recreating favorite dishes from their family travels.

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