Preparing for the Cook
20 May 2004
Recently I decided to hire a housecleaning ayi in Shanghai. I used to hire one every two weeks or so in Hangzhou to do a thorough cleaning job of my apartment to supplement my own occasional half-hearted attempts at sanitation. It cost 8 RMB ($1) per hour, and they would usually stay for two or three hours each visit.
I’ve talked to some foreign friends in China before who feel bad about hiring someone to clean up after them in their own home, and for such a low wage. I, on the other hand, feel great about it. I don’t feel like I have a lot of spare time these days, so it’s a great way to give myself some more free time without even spending much money. Plus I’m giving someone some honest work. I don’t set the labor prices in China, and it’s not a slave wage. (For comparison, McDonalds in China only pays 3 RMB an hour to start.) Those that engage in housecleaning are usually people from other poorer parts of China who really need work. I’m nice to them and I chat with them, and I usually tidy up along with them as they clean. I see no problem with it. Win-win.
Anyway, I recently had an epiphany. I decided to hire an ayi not only to clean, but to cook for me regularly. She will come every weekday evening for 2 hours and cook a meal and clean up a bit. I will pay her 250 RMB per month, plus the cost of the meals’ ingredients.
My new ayi came tonight for the first time and cooked an awesome simple meal. Stir-fried pork strips and jiaobai (茭白: Wenlin translates this white Chinese vegetable as “water-oat shoots,” whatever that means), garlic mixi (a vegetable which is like pink-pigmented spinach; ayi said it’s written 米西), egg and tomato soup, and rice. It was really good! Not too salty, not too oily. This woman is a genius. She’s from Hubei Province. That meal was 6.2 RMB in ingredients. This new plan of mine is not only going to keep my place a lot cleaner, but I’m going to eat better and save a lot of money!
OK, so I admit I was completely lazy up until now. I never cooked at home. That means yesterday I had to buy all the ingredients for my ayi so that she could cook most dishes. In the USA, you would need to have milk, butter, salt, flour, oil, etc. So what do you need in China? This is what I bought:
- vegetable oil (very important!!!)
- soy sauce
- rice (a nice 10kg bag for 41 RMB)
- rice vinegar
Those things are all pretty much indispensable in Chinese cooking (note: no milk or butter in that list). In addition, I also picked up:
- black pepper
- hot sauce
- ketchup (the Chinese actually use it a fair amount for certain dishes)
- jiang (some kind of soy paste)
I also gave my ayi a list of things I hate eating so she could easily avoid them. My list was:
- xiangcai (the vile weed cilantro)
- animal organs
- chicken feet
- fish with a million harpoon-like tiny bones in them
- thousand-year-old eggs
- stinky tofu
Note that in each case, I determined that I didn’t like the above items after I tried them. Some of them, such as stinky tofu and cilantro, have been given many, many chances but fail miserably to meet my high standards of delectability each and every time.
Anyway, this ayi deal is looking mighty sweet.