In China, Quarantine Challenges Cooks To Get Clever

Feb 17, 2020
Originally published on February 18, 2020 7:33 pm

As cities across China remain on quarantine lockdown to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, the epidemic is testing the country's ability to get food to its citizens.

Restaurants and cafes have been closed since the end of January, leaving grocery stores as one of the few options for buying food. With families encouraged, or sometimes forced, to stay at home, supplies are often hoarded. Shipments of food from other cities across China take time, as many places have closed off roads.

For food bloggers Christopher Thomas and Stephanie Li, passing the time inside has meant making the most of what's in their pantry — and getting creative.

"When the news originally hit, it was very difficult to get fresh vegetables," Thomas tells NPR.

The couple lives in Shunde, China, a few hundred miles from the epicenter in Wuhan, but their city is still mostly closed and deserted. They run a food blog called Chinese Cooking Demystified, which focuses on traditional Chinese recipes. Their YouTube cooking channel features videos on how to make "the same taste that you'd get in China."

Christopher Thomas prepares Chinese vegetable stir-fry paired with flour tortillas and Oaxacan cheese.
Stephanie Li and Christopher Thomas / Chinese Cooking Demystified

Li says their local grocery store gets a fresh shipment of vegetables just once a day, but most of the highly sought-after items, like cilantro, scallions and leafy greens, are snapped up just a few minutes later. Hearty staples like broccoli and yams always seem to be available, Li says.

"You start to approach cooking a little bit differently. You're not going into the kitchen thinking, 'OK, this is kind of what I have a hankering for.' You really kind of look at what can you do to really make the best possible thing out of that," Thomas says.

They recently paired a Chinese vegetable stir-fry with homemade flour tortillas, Oaxacan cheese and fermented soybean chili sauce. "Kinda like fajitas," Li wrote on Instagram. "It was so great! We accidentally discovered something awesome! Restaurants should totally do this kind of meal."

They've also added sausage to a breakfast Dutch baby. And Thomas made a Cholula-style hot sauce out of Chinese chiles (one of the few ingredients found in abundance still, he says). And they've eaten a lot of soup broths made out of dried mushrooms.

"Before, we do a lot of testing and we would have a lot of ingredients. And we usually buy too much," Li says. "But then this whole experience makes me think about how you can approach all the ingredients and food you have on hand without wasting it."

They hope others in China will be inspired. Their meal photos are posted on Instagram with the #cookupinlockdown hashtag. Instagram is blocked in China, but Thomas and Li use a VPN to skirt the firewall.

Stephanie Li makes fresh noodles. Li says she has lots of flour on hand, so making fresh noodles is a good way to spend time and ingredients.
Stephanie Li and Christopher Thomas / Chinese Cooking Demystified

Li says food has become a major topic on Chinese social media. With much of China under lockdown, people have started devoting their free time to cooking.

"There's this interesting phenomenon because almost everybody [in China] is in lockdown. So you don't have much to do at home and people just start cooking," she says. "Now there's this kind of running joke or meme on the Chinese Internet that [since the lockdown started in late January] everybody's just become such a great cook."

Thomas says people are teaching themselves to cook more difficult dishes, both out of necessity as well as out of boredom.

As for food shopping, the couple places grocery store orders online that get delivered. If they want to pick out their own food, they head to a nearby convenience store, which Thomas says has remained well stocked. But it's not selling anything fresh.

"The 7-Eleven right downstairs has those little packaged kimchi, and that was really scratching my fresh vegetable itch for a while," Thomas says.

He says they're lucky because their apartment building has no confirmed coronavirus cases, so residents can actually go outside. Some buildings are completely locked down. But the couple plays it safe and rarely leaves, maybe once every other day. Thomas says that when they do go outside, they see only "a couple of people" on the streets.

Thomas and Li hope that for those in China who can see the couple's posts, they will be inspired to eat well with limited ingredients. But the two are also hopeful that the end of the quarantine is near. Thomas says outdoor markets with fresh vegetables have begun to reopen in Shunde.

"The first shipment from the market was like a breath of fresh air," Thomas said.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

In cities across China, restaurants and cafes have been closed for weeks; same thing with open-air markets, where people buy meat and vegetables. So the only place to buy food is at the grocery store, but that has its limits.

CHRISTOPHER THOMAS: When the news originally hit, it was very difficult to get fresh vegetables.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's Christopher Thomas. He writes a food blog along with his fiancee Stephanie Li.

STEPHANIE LI: No, you don't buy vegetables every day now. Your kind of only option's the supermarket. But supermarkets', like, vegetables really run out fast.

KING: Christopher and Stephanie live in Shunde, China, and they say that since the coronavirus outbreak, they've been staying inside. They're a few hundred miles from the epicenter in Wuhan, but their city is still mostly closed and mostly deserted.

THOMAS: We probably go out about every other day, go down to 7-Eleven, get some supplies, come back up.

GREENE: Their food blog is called Chinese Cooking Demystified, and they usually cook traditional Chinese recipes. But with the lockdown, they're looking for ways to make new things out of old staples. They hope others in China will be inspired. But the overall scarcity of food has forced Chris and Steph to rethink their approach to cooking.

THOMAS: You start to approach cooking a little bit differently. You're not going into the kitchen thinking, OK, this is kind of what I have a hankering for; you really kind of look at what can you do to really make the best possible thing out of that.

LI: Before, we do a lot of testing and we would have a lot of ingredients and we usually buy too much, but then, like, this whole experience makes me think about how you can approach all the ingredients without wasting it.

KING: It's also made them more creative.

LI: We have some dry rice noodles.

THOMAS: The random hot sauce I whipped up.

LI: Tomato sauce-ish.

THOMAS: Yeah.

LI: Whenever we have tomato that's - like, we get a bunch, and then we'll make tomato sauce that lasts a little bit longer.

THOMAS: You know, the 7-Eleven right downstairs has those little packaged kimchi, and that was really scratching my fresh vegetable itch for a while.

KING: And there is some good news - Chris says an outdoor market with fresh vegetables in Shunde recently reopened.

THOMAS: The first shipment from the market was like a breath of fresh air.

GREENE: And Chris and Steph are hopeful that the rest of China will be able to breathe easy soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.