What I cook: Penne with Spinach Basil Lemon Sauce and Lemon Garlic Roasted Broccoli

I get asked a lot what I eat here in Shanghai and I respond that I cook quite a bit and then I get the follow up, “So, what do you cook?”  So I’m going to start posting some of the things I make to satisfy curiosity and to help some other expat who stumbles across this blog.

Disclaimer: This is not a cooking blog so I will not be documenting with lots of pictures, I don’t have time for that nor will I remember to take the pictures along the way.

What I made tonight was a new try and turned out pretty good and I’m already thinking how I could change it up for the next time.

Starting off, I came across these recipes for different sauces on the NYTimes Cooking page a few months ago and when I got back to Shanghai, decided to make these sauce bombs to keep in the freezer.

Ingredients:

  • cup cilantro
  • cup parsley
  • cup Thai basil
  • 4 cups spinach
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 tablespoons peeled and chopped fresh ginger (I left this out because I’m not a huge ginger fan)

Preparation:

  1. Tear all the stems off the herbs and spinach. (No need to be exact, just rip off most of them.)
  2. Blanch the cilantro, parsley, Thai basil and spinach in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds. As soon as they turn bright green, take them out and drop them into a bowl of ice water.
  3. Take the greens out of the ice bath and shake off excess water (but leave the greens wet). Put them into a blender or small food processor with the garlic and ginger. Blend until you have a smooth, dark green purée. If it’s too thick, add a little water to keep it moving, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Pour purée into an ice cube tray and pop it into the freezer.

One thing about living here is it’s not always convenient to just “go to the store” after work. If I did that, I probably wouldn’t get home until 7 or 8 and then be too exhausted to actually cook up whatever grand idea I had, so having things on hand or in the freezer is a necessity.

In the recipe it calls this a sauce stir-fry sauce.  After making and trying it, I would say I will definitely use these for lots of different things, like tonight with penne, or with chicken or vegetables.

I already had these made in the freezer.  I looked and saw I had a head of broccoli that needed to be prepared or tossed out soon, so I pulled that out and decided to roast it in the oven because it was on the less crisp side already.

Preparation for broccoli:

I pre heated the oven to 425º F or 220º C. I washed and chopped up the broccoli, coated the pan in olive oil, tossed the broccoli in a bowl with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, chopped garlic, and juice from half a lemon.  My head of broccoli was on the small side, and in the future I would only use juice from 1/4 of a lemon.  I spread the broccoli out on the pan and put in the oven for 20 minutes.

Preparation for pasta:

I boiled the penne, then strained and returned to the pot on really low heat and added one of the sauce cubes and a little olive oil.  I stirred continuously and after a taste test, decided to add a little salt and the juice from the leftover half a lemon I had.  The pasta turned out great, the lemon was complimentary to the sauce, and the flavor didn’t stand out too strongly which was good because the broccoli was pretty strong with lemon, but I LOVE LEMON, I always keep them in the fridge. So, it was fine with me.

All in all a pretty simple and quick preparation.  If I was making this for more people than myself, I would add chicken and maybe tomatoes to the pasta and definitely some grated parmesan.  Toasted garlic bread would be a good complement too, so if I was preparing this for a group, I would definitely add that. Since it was just me, I was fine with a simple vegetarian meal.  I keep chicken in the freezer but usually do not add it to my meals because I don’t feel I need it and it’s expensive.  I would rather just use it in bigger meals I prepare for others.

penne broccoli

Sanya, Hainan China

Back in October, after being in Shanghai for a mere 2 months and a rather turbulent transition into expat life and a new career, my friend Molly and I decided we needed to book a weekend away in the near future.  There are so many interesting and beautiful places you can travel to relatively inexpensively in Southeast Asia but after doing some research and wanting to get the most bang for our buck with little travel time and requiring we be on the beach, we decided on Hainan, China.

Hainan is a lush tropical paradise off the southern coast of China (still part of China, however).  We were able to find non-stop, round trip tickets, 3 weeks out from Shanghai (PVG), through Spring Airlines for $170USD, that sounded like a deal to us!  We booked a room at the Huayu Resort & Spa Yalong Bay Sanya for around $115USD that included breakfast.

We arrived in Sanya (an area of Hainan) late Thursday night and got a cab to the resort, around 100RMB, or 16USD, then checked in easily and turned in for the night.  The next morning we awoke and started exploring.  Our resort had 3 pools, all somewhat limited on seating, but never too crowded, and after a short walk access to a beautiful beach.

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A view of one of the pools, you can see there’s not much seating, but it wasn’t very crowded either.

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IMG_3770The beach was beautiful, extremely clean, and surrounded by mountains and islands in the distance.

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This was just as the sun was setting, Chinese vs. Russians volleyball, very interesting to say the least.

Overall the resort was nice, offered a few different restaurants on the property and was very close to Starbucks, Pizza Hut, many Chinese options, a large supermarket, pharmacy, and other places to accommodate tourists very easily.  The breakfast buffet was expansive and we left very full each morning and usually didn’t eat lunch. The only problem we had was the air conditioner in the room was not cool at all and after many reports to the staff we were changed to a different, larger room, but sadly it wasn’t any better there either.  We didn’t spend a lot of time in the room, but when you come in from being in the heat all day it would have been nice to come in to a cool room and especially at night.  However the property and room itself was nice and comfortable aside from that.  For a weekend getaway it was exactly what we needed and wanted.

the things people do when they’re in foreign countries…

Frank: [about Birdie] She fell in love with Generalissimo Franco!

Kathleen: No, don’t say that. Really. We don’t know that for sure.

Frank: Well, who else could it have been? It was probably around 1960. I can’t believe this! I mean, it’s not like he was something normal, like a socialist or an anarchist or something.

Kathleen: It happened in Spain. People do really stupid things in foreign countries.

Frank: Absolutely. They buy leather jackets for much more than they’re worth. But they don’t fall in love with fascist dictators!

This is from one of my all time favorite movies, “You’ve Got Mail”, if you haven’t seen it or seen it in a while, you should, it’s so good. Anyway, I’ve been asked a few times what is something crazy or unexpected I’ve done here.  I would say that there have been probably a lot of small, insignificant moments of crazy, but only one “leather jacket” moment.

It’s really true that being in a foreign place, especially living there, not just on vacation, really lowers your inhibitions.  Lots of things seem not to matter too much anymore because there are much larger problems on the horizon compared to wondering what people will think about things.

The next to last night of National holiday (the first week of October, which we had off from work), Molly and I were talking about what we wanted to do on our last day off for awhile.  She mentioned that she was wanting another piercing in her ear and maybe we could find a place that could do it.  It was late and you know, sometimes things just come spilling out at night.  I mentioned that in the days of my youth (college) I had always wanted my nose pierced but couldn’t because of work and future work.  Well, Molly immediately said, “You’re doing it.” Somehow, in a few seconds I said, “Yeah, I think I will.”

Now, those who know me best, know that I really take my time considering “big” decisions.  I  take my time with a lot of decisions.  But somehow in this moment my brain sped up the analysis  and I thought, “Hey, what’s there to lose?”  In reality, nothing (well, maybe there was the risk of infection or something, but I wasn’t counting that).  It’s a completely reversible decision.  So, we hit up our go-to Shanghai expat websites to get a recommendation for a reputable piercing locale.  We decided on a place called Utopia Tattoo and after wandering around the city playing tourists for the day we made our way there and got our respective piercings done.

It went perfectly fine, minimal pain, no infection or anything afterwards, I actually completely forgot it was there most of the time.

A month later I took it out.

Not because it was bothering me or anything, and I actually think it looked good, but just because I was over the novelty of it. I loved it for that month and I’m glad I did it.  Whether it’s a nose piercing or a new hair cut or bolder clothing choices, whatever, I think it’s good to make a practice of trying to new things and taking little risks that you want to do and who knows, they might give you a small or large new perspective on things.  Since moving here I learned there is a lot of value in doing what you want to do and doing the most with the very few things you have control over.

So, here’s the photo evidence… IMG_3643

(Molly photographed the procedure, for better or worse…)

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(immediately after)

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(piercing free!)

40 observations on being an expat in Shanghai

I’ve picked these from a few different lists, I wanted to choose the ones that closest applied to me (or who I encounter here daily) so y’all would get another glimpse of the “new normal” here, I had a good laugh seeing them all in a list and realizing how weird life is here:

  1. Overhearing nigguh no longer stops you in your tracks.

那个(pronounced “na ge”) and 这个(pronounced “zhe ge”) mean “that one” and “this one” and are generally the first things you learn upon arrival in China. There’s also the disconcerting, repetitive “ne guh ne guh ne guh” which is used as a Chinese way of saying “umm…”

  1. You have a mask for high pollution days and an app on your phone.

There’s no escaping the smog that looms over Shanghai. Sadly enough, it’s become a part of the skyline. An Air Quality Index of 150-200 is the norm in Shanghai. A level that would severely alarm any city outside of China.

  1. You no longer wait in line, but go immediately to the head of the line.
  1. You stop at the top or bottom of an escalator to plan your day.
  1. It becomes exciting to see if you can get on the elevator before anyone can get off.
  1. It is no longer surprising that the only decision made at a meeting is the time and venue for the next meeting.
  1. You rank the decision making abilities of your coworkers by how long it takes them to reply, “It’s up to you”.
  1. You accept the fact that you have to line up to get a number for the next line.
  1. You find that it saves time to stand and retrieve your luggage from the overhead bin while the plane is on final approach.
  1. You have developed an uncontrollable urge to follow people carrying small flags.
  1. When listening to the pilot prove he cannot speak English, you no longer wonder if he can understand the air traffic controller.
  1. You regard it as part of the adventure when the waiter correctly repeats your order and the cook makes something completely different.
  1. You are not surprised when three men with a hairdryer and a ladder show up to change a light bulb.
  1. You’ve conceded to paying luxury prices for mediocre products.

China’s cheap if you want to fully immerse yourself and try to “be one of them.” It’s far from cheap if you want to indulge in anything remotely foreign.

  1. You know better than to play chicken with the bus drivers.

Pedestrians do not have the right-of-way. Buses will speed up and probably not honk before shifting their ankle to the left to brake for you.

  1. You can actually provide numerous examples for when you realized you were living in a communist country.

Always the question from folks back home. No, I don’t have propaganda in my face daily, but, yes, I do notice when the government steps in occasionally. Most often when I want to check Facebook. Or YouTube. Or Instagram.

  1. You blow your nose or spit on the restaurant floor (of course after making a loud hocking noise).
  1. You look over people’s shoulder to see what they are reading.
  1. You throw your trash out the window of your house, your car or bus you are on.
  1. You honk your horn at people because they are in your way as you drive down the sidewalk.
  1. You regularly fumble for five minutes to find 10 jiao despite 10 people waiting in line behind you.
  1. You have a pinky fingernail an inch long.
  1. You no longer have any quandaries elbowing Granny Zhang in order to exit the metro/elevator.
  1. You now realize those old people helping people park their cars are a necessity.

Old — I assume retired — folks are always hanging out along the street. As soon as a car approaches, they run over to direct them on how to park properly and, of course, collect their due. Parking meters don’t exist and parallel parking seems to be an anomaly to the citizens of the Middle Kingdom.

  1. In a meeting you say everything will be ‘wonderful’ and give no details.
  1. You forget that the other person needs to finish speaking before you can start.
  1. You start to watch CCTV9 and feel warm and comforted by the governments great work.
  1. You think Pizza Hut is high-class and worth lining up for.
  1. When having conversations with your friends you start leaving unnecessary words out of sentences and end up talking like an imbecile.
  1. If everyone in the subway would look up from their screens when they get to their stop, that would really be an improvement for the traffic flow.
  1. I guess no one here has heard of the ‘stand right, walk left’ concept.
  1. Subway bag checker may be the worst job in the city.
  1. Am I invisible or did that person just walk straight into me on the sidewalk?
  1. I wonder if we’ll be able to see the sun through the smog tomorrow.
  1. I really hope this is just fog.
  1. I really hope this isn’t acid rain.
  1. Blue sky day – what foreign dignitary is visiting?
  1. No one in the history of mankind has ever spent this long at an ATM before.
  1. I’m totally bringing Ayi with me if I ever leave China.
  1. Can ayis get visas to exit China?

indoor climates in China

It’s weird to think that the only time I’ve spent in a/c or heating since I’ve lived here has largely only been in my own home. Occasionally a mall will be climate controlled but by and large I spend the majority of my existence here in China at the mercy of the weather.

There is a stigma or what have you here about getting enough “fresh air”, let’s keep in mind this is a relative term. I don’t think true fresh air exists in Shanghai, in fact I think the air is taking years off my life, but I digress. So whether it is 110 or 34 outside the windows will likely be open and you just adjust your wardrobe accordingly. Somehow just like many, many other things this has become the norm, and actually we have only turned on the a/c or heat at home a handful of time besides in our bedrooms. If someone had told me that I would live in a climate essentially the exact same as Houston, Texas and I wouldn’t use/have access to a/c or heating much I would have said you were crazy, there is no way I would be ok with that, but here we are.

Today the high was 43 and I just wore my wool coat, sweater, thermal pants and socks and went about my day and didn’t think much of it until now. When in Rome…

American vs. Chinese: showing emotion & the China smile

I decided I would start a series of posts about general cultural differences I experience daily.  Obviously there are exceptions to these but the first one is spurred by an exchange I had with a new coworker the other day.

Culturally the Chinese are a very stoic people.  They do not show emotion easily and are rather uncomfortable with any overly emotional gestures, happy, sad, angry, love, relief, hurt, etc.  Americans on the other hand, whether the person would describe themselves as an “emotional” person or not (This is where I’m going to sidestep my soapbox about there being nothing wrong with having the capacity to feel deeply.) are very comfortable speaking their mind and displaying their opinion or attitude about any given situation within respectful (or sometimes disrespectful) parameters.

This week has been extremely difficult with my kids.  They have seemed to hit their stride in bad decision making.  I’ve been hoping it can be blamed on coming off of a week off school or the change in the weather or something and they will snap back to being only reasonably misbehaved 7 and 8 year olds.  Yesterday between a series of unfortunate events and a series of bad decisions by my kids, by lunch I was tapped out mentally and emotionally.  After arriving to the cafeteria and finally sitting down with a heavy sigh, a new Chinese coworker, JM, asked me, “Kristin, are you ok?”, I just looked at him and before I could say anything, tears suddenly appeared in my eyes without my consent.  I assured him I was fine and that it had just been a hard day, but it made him extremely uncomfortable.  His response? “Uh, here, please eat some soup…it will make you feel better..please just eat the soup.”  Sadly, the thought of eating that soup made more tears appear.

Later I retold the story to my other Chinese female coworker and told her that I scared JM at lunch with my involuntary tears.  She responded, “But why were you crying?  Do you need a rest?” If I needed a rest, I would have been yawning.  I was feeling overwhelmed in the moment by things going on at work and outside of it.  The outward expression, or even discussion, of feelings is a very foreign concept here.

Another example is during a staff meeting early on in the year, I strongly disagreed with something that was being said by an American coworker and felt an urgency that it be addressed in open forum right then.  I did so in a respectful but firm way and throughout the dialogue back and forth, I could see a look of sheer shock across my Chinese coworkers faces.  My coworker and I discussed the issue and worked out a solution with the input of some others, but afterwards my Chinese coworker told me that was the most uncomfortable meeting for her (and probably the others) because in their culture they NEVER question anything being said by “the boss”.

The Chinese way is to keep your head down, keep quiet, and flash the China smile.  The china smile is what is offered ALL THE TIME by everyone in any given situation.  From insult to compliment and everything in between the Chinese always respond with a close lipped gentle smile that communicates everything from true humility to “if a smile could take you out…”.  I’m sure that somewhere in the middle of the two cultures is best, but I also know myself enough to know I’m a feeler, I own that and I think about this quote from Anne Lamott:

“Some people have a thick skin and you don’t.  Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world.  The cost is high but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams.  However you’re not going to feel that a lot…just hang on.”

 

workdays and non-workdays.

As of late, my mind is thoroughly wiped clean of the notion of weekdays and weekends because for my entire life one has signified school and/or work and the other has signified not that, at least in the structured sense.  Here is the school calendar from the last few weeks:

SUN

MON TUES WED THURS FRI

SAT

9/21 9/22 9/23 9/24 9/25 9/26 9/27
9/28 9/29 9/30 10/1 10/2 10/3 10/4
10/5 10/6 10/7 10/8 10/9 10/10 10/11

The bolded, underlined dates are workdays.

Somehow, just like all the other adjustments here, it’s not a big deal to have school on Saturdays anymore (However, I’m thankful we don’t have anymore for awhile!), you just go with it, and welcome it as the new normal.

a biker coffee bar and “cheese sticks”.

Tomorrow (October 1st) begins the National Holiday Golden Week in China. Always from October 1-October 7 schools are closed and most businesses are as well to give workers time off to visit their families and travel.

Molly and I had discussed traveling during this period, but as we arrived in China in late August and didn’t get settled into our own place and begin school until September, other things occupied our time and when we began looking into where to go prices were through the roof to go anywhere.  We were rather sad about not getting to get away for a few days as we had hoped, but we are thinking we might try again in December.  As for this week, we have been warned by our coworkers about “people mountain, people sea”.  This is the Chinese idiom meaning huge crowds of people EVERYWHERE.  As if things were not crowded enough, I can only imagine what getting around Shanghai in the next few days will be like as we venture out and explore more of the city.

I have been sick with a bad cold the last few days and am finally recovering. My kids were so sweet and concerned about me, especially when I started wearing my glasses to work instead of my contacts, they believed my sickness was also making me blind.  I still came to work just to teach in the mornings even though I felt like death and then went home to crash afterwards.  We had to work this past Sunday to make up for a Monday holiday a couple weeks ago (the logic train derailed somewhere for me around ‘working on a Sunday’, so I have no further explanation…). I’ve been feeling better as the day goes on and cabin fever has set in so I left the apartment after work with Molly and a couple of my other coworkers to go to our nearby “western street” we have come to love.  Not feeling like walking around the mall or much of anywhere I decided to make camp in a new coffee shop and get some work done, I’m hoping to try to get ahead over the break, this might be wishful thinking!  This coffee shop I’m residing in appeared normal at first and then I sat down and was glancing at the walls and it is laden with dozens of pictures of a Chinese biker gang (is that the right term?)/group/organization, and all the places they have been. I believe this coffee shop/restaurant might be their home base.  The places I seem to stumble into never cease to amaze me…

As for their food…a great latte, better than where I normally visit.  And for dinner, now that my appetite has returned, I ordered (don’t judge, I promise you would order this if you saw it on a menu here too and hadn’t eaten much of anything in the last few days) popcorn chicken and cheese sticks.  The popcorn chicken was SO GOOD.  I’m so happy, I will definitely order it again.  The cheese sticks…

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Yes, that is french bread with melted cheese, drizzled with ketchup, which I think ruins any food.  I understand everyone to be either a lover of ketchup or an enemy of ketchup, I am the latter.  I’m just getting a to go box for it and I think Molly will like it, so not completely wasted.

I will report back on people mountain, people sea during Golden Week…

apartment tour

Our apartment in Shanghai is located theoretically next door to our school.  Because of a canal and many gates it’s actually a 20 minute walk to get to work.   A couple days of facing environmental elements have made it not that fun, but overall I like walking to work.  There are no major grocery stores or western restaurants or coffee shops or the like within walking distance of our apartment but there are a few smaller convenience type stores, lots of noodles, dumplings, other Chinese restaurants, and an endless string of random storefronts that offer a specific niche of items like picture frames, bedding, or office supplies.  A 15 minute or so cab ride though can take us either to the subway or to the closest more western area of town with the essentials, a larger supermarket/department store, coffee shops, “the western place” (the first western restaurant we discovered nearby and so thats what it became referred to as), a great place to get a manicure, etc.

I will write posts in the future about some of my favorite finds around town, but here I’ll show you around my apartment.  The apartment was completely furnished, we just purchased linens, kitchen items, etc.

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getting off the elevator

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welcome to our home.

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after passing the downstairs half bath, you see our living room to the left.  the windows are huge, 17′ long looking out into our complex and across to the main street.  and yes, we have a huge purple couch.  you would see heinous pink and white satin curtains too but I found a way to take them down and turn them around so you only see when matte white lining.  Chinese decorating bewilders me.

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one of my favorite things I brought from home that hangs in the living room.

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homage to a city and people I dearly love and miss.

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next when you turn back to the right you will see our dining area where Molly and I share many a laugh before we leave for work and at the end of the day.  when the skies are clear we have a wonderful view of downtown (pictures don’t really capture it, I quit trying, you’ll just have to come visit).

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then you will turn right from the dining area and into the kitchen.  that thing that looks like an oven is not really an oven, by the way,   it’s a dish sanitizer which we never use  and which is not the same as a dishwasher, we don’t have one of those either, so I wash dishes a lot.  we found out the hard way we don’t have an oven, but at least at the end of that lesson, brownie batter tastes just as good as baked brownies.  the wok and the pot are sitting out not because we are cooking but because those are the only pots and pans we own (aside from the now obsolete brownie pan we bought), so they just stay out on the stove.

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we have lots of great counter space and cabinets, but only 1 drawer, so we have a junk cabinet instead that has many random things it it.

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next you’ll walk from the kitchen back towards the front door and you will pass our washer.  where is the dryer, you ask?

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here it is.  the succulent was left from the previous tenant. I think it’s cute and makes me smile when I go to hang up everything to dry and when I go to collect it all and everything smells like smog.  it’s the little things.

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headed upstairs…

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to the right is my bedroom.  thank you IKEA.

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I have the same massive window that is downstairs.

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Back in May when I saw this cover of Texas Monthly I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.  Now it hangs in my bedroom here in Shanghai.

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my closet makes up for some things I do without.

I would put a picture of my bathroom here, but there was just no good angle to get a picture.  so imagine an all white modern looking bathroom.  it’s great too.

I feel I should make a disclaimer that our apartment is not 100% typical of China.  It was designed by a German architect and is fairly new.  It is A LOT nicer than I  expected and just happens to be the closest complex to work, however the trade off is we are not conveniently located next to a subway, so ups and downs but mostly up.  It really feels like home and is where I look forward to coming to at the end of the day.

swedish meatballs & barley yogurt

Living abroad changes you from the moment you step off the plane. When you are in a foreign country for an indefinite amount of time you make decisions a lot differently than you do when you are on vacation. You enter survival mode and all of sudden things are weighed as necessary or unnecessary? What resources will be required? How much time will it take? How much money will it cost? Will it fit in a cab? How do I get there? There is no concierge ready and waiting at your beck and call to make your stay the most pleasurable it can be. Instead of asking, “What do I want for dinner?” you ask, “Where can I get to easily enough and order something digestible?” Dumplings, noodles, the coffee/pizza place or the other western place. Those are the current options on a work night. Noodles and dumplings are a walkable distance away and super cheap, the others require who knows how long of a cab ride and are more expensive.

So tonight, while we were at IKEA around dinnertime, Molly and I walked past the restaurant inside and both turned and looked at each other with the knowing question, “Have you ever eaten inside IKEA??” Neither of us had and we knew it would be the path of least resistance for dinner and gladly ventured in. That’s another thing about living abroad, you all of a sudden become so open-minded to trying anything because your options are limited, knowing if it turns out well, it increases them that much more. Today I also tried strawberry barley yogurt (that came served with a straw). When your stomach is still growling after the cafeteria lunch where you only ate rice and some vegetable that was a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower, you try the weird dairy product that someone hands you that previously caused you to turn your nose up.  While at IKEA I tried the infamous Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes and it made my day.