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May 24th, 2013
May 18th, 2013
May 14th, 2013
This is what happens when you wait a week to post: You forget everything.
So the final Living Below the Line post will be missing some crucial details – a breakdown of food costs.
During the Living Below the Line challenge, I scrawled recipes on Post-Its. They were strewn around the kitchen and on the fridge. I never use recipes, but these were different: next to every ingredient was a calculation of how much it cost, by the teaspoon or tablespoon, or by the cup. After a few days I found my favorite ingredients were out – because they were too expensive. As the week went on, and I got hungrier, three tablespoons of sunflower oil for 1RMB started to look a lot more appealing than a tablespoon of olive oil for the same price.
These bargain bin apples were a find: just 1 kuai per jin! (about 15 cents a pound)
The apples made a delicious breakfast every morning. Fast fuel for the day: bargain bin apples, extra-filling oats, a dollop of coconut milk, and freshly-grated Chinese cinnamon bark. Total cost: about 2.5RMB (40 cents)
A favorite dinner: red lentils at 1RMB per serving (15 cents) made a filling meal with "Italian taste pepperoni". Total cost: about 3.5RMB (60 cents) for a small bowl of dense deliciousness.
This "pepperoni taste" meat was the cheapest option I could find for (safe-ish) packaged meat at 13.50RMB per packet. I don't eat much meat in China, but craved it after a few days.
Most people in Western countries who were living below the line, weren't able to afford greens. But in Chinese cuisine greens are essential, and are available here year round at rock-bottom prices.
Like these, just 1RMB (15 cents) for 4
Living Below the Line is a first-world experiment, but there are times when it's good to remember what hunger feels like, and give some of the excess to places that can use it a lot more than we do.
May 2nd, 2013
It wakes you up in the middle of the night, and stays with you in the morning. You can ignore it but have to move slowly just to keep going. Sluggish, then euphoric after a shot of caffeine – or another drug to keep hunger at bay.
This was how I started smoking, half a lifetime ago when I was nineteen**. Not because it was cool, or because my friends did (they did), but because I was hungry and broke. Every day, for a year. And though I worked at a sandwich shop to pay rent and save for school, I had no idea how to cook anything but a can of soup. Smoking a few cigarettes was cheaper and more fun than an extra can of Campbell's.
(This was before I discovered ramen and coffee, which kept me going through university.)
Now I'm living below the poverty line for just five days, and the hunger has returned. The first day or two, it set me on edge with a constant thirst. When I downed a glass of water in three seconds flat, the Better Half looked up from his Nietzsche and said, "That's because your body's breaking down its own protein."
I experimented with combinations of cheap local protein and fats to fill up - eggs and sesame and oil – but still didn't get enough calories in. The May Day holiday in Beijing was warm and bright, so we biked to our favorite park. I burned through caloric reserves and wobbled on the way back.
But on the menu was the most satisfying dish I've made during the challenge, inspired by A Girl Called Jack. It's such a simple recipe that even the clueless 19-year-old me could've made it.
Beijing Bubbles and Squeaks
What I eat has to look as good as it tastes: the more colors, the better.
I've taken this British classic and used the cheapest ingredients from the markets of east Beijing,
and added sweet potatoes for an extra burst of color and nutrition.
2 potatoes (2RMB)
1/4 sweet potato (.33RMB)
1/4 cabbage (.5RMB)
1 tired old green pepper from the bargain bin (.25RMB)
2 eggs from the Egg Lady (2RMB)
1/2 cup white flour (.25RMB)
3TB sunflower oil (.75RMB)
20g Beijing cheese (2RMB)
1/2 bulb garlic (.25RMB)
lots of local salt (.1RMB)
Total cost: 2.81RMB per serving (45 cents)
* Boil root vegetables in salted water, then mash.
* Mix all the ingredients together, make into patties, and fry in as much oil as you can afford.
* Serve hot and be sure to keep half the mix for tomorrow.
** 6 years ago I quit smoking – on the day I moved to Hong Kong.
+ I'm supporting the Somaly Mam foundation of Cambodia with this project. So can you: http://www.livebelowtheline.com/donations/new?lang=en&participant_id=23563
April 30th, 2013
The rules of the Living Below the Line challenge say that 'tap water is free'.
Lucky are those who can drink water from the tap. We have an Aquasana filter. My favorite glass was once a jar of sesame paste.
Today I picked up some more, from a man with a van at the market.
He grinds the sesame seeds inside the van. The paste and oil fresh are every day.
His neighbor even had a mini sesame grinder.
Another character at the market is the egg lady. She's good with the hard sell.
- Look how big these eggs are, they're delicious! she cries
She's always calling me over to see her wares. I don't usually buy eggs, but this week is an exception.
Instead of taking the subway home, I indulged in some private transport: an electric rickshaw. The best way to enjoy a beautiful late afternoon on the highway.
The driver and I agreed on a price. Then, when I got out, he tried to charge more than double.*
He yelled and grabbed my bag when I walked away, shouting and waving at passersby to get attention. When they queried him about how far we'd come, they sided with me.
In the end, only two eggs were broken.
Breakfast and lunch were identical meals and portions to yesterday.
Dinner was a bowl of fat noodles. I added more oil than I would usually, to fill up for the evening.
Starving Artist Sesame Noodles
1 packet udon noodles (1.50RMB)
1 egg (1RMB)
1/2 tablespoon sesame paste (.17RMB)
1/2 tablespoon sunflower oil (.13RMB)
1/2 head fresh garlic (.25RMB)
1 small green pepper, slightly shrivelled, from the low-end pile at the market (.13RMB)
Sriracha chili sauce to taste (.1RMB)
Squirt Sicilian lemon juice (.1RMB)
Dinner: 3.38RMB or 54 cents
Lunch, hummus with homemade Sichuan pepper bread: 3.23 RMB or 53 cents
Breakfast smoothie and coffee: 2.81RMB or 45.5 cents
[photo of dinner to come when Flickr becomes cooperative again]
Due to a miscalculation with dinner, I was OVER today by 2.5 cents! A hungry brain misfiring…better luck tomorrow.
* The second time in a week a driver's blown up the price upon arrival.
April 30th, 2013
China is a nation obsessed with food, where people will line up for a block to get a piece of their favorite tofu or savory pancake. While the average person in China spends about 8RMB per day ($1.25US) on food, it's easy to spend a lot more in the capital city. My goal is to spend 9.32RMB ($1.50) or less on food every day this week, and go a little hungry to help others. This week I'll post photos of some of the deliciousness that Beijing has to offer, along with some affordable recipes for Below the Line.
Delicious (and a bit rough) Yunnan coffee – it costs a third of imported brands
The first day's challenge started at 7:30am with a (weaker than usual!) cup of Yunnan coffee from Southwestern China. .33RMB (about 5.5 cents)
Breakfast was a smoothie made with:
1 cup Oats (1RMB)
2 Bananas (2RMB)
1 Pineapple (3.3RMB)
Chunk of fresh Ginger (.25RMB)
80ml Hainanese Coconut milk (.9RMB)
and enough water so my blender didn't freak out.
Total cost per serving: 2.48RMB (40 cents)
Coconut milk from southern China's Hainan island (near Vietnam): it'll keep you going all morning long, and costs half of the imported brands
Lunch was homemade Sichuan pepper-whole wheat bread at half the price of store bought varieties. I made it with fresh Beijing honey from this guy:
Homemade bread: .93RMB for 2 piece serving (15 cents)
and homemade hummus (from dried chickpeas) left over from the weekend, about 2.30RMB per serving (37 cents).
Dinner tasted great but wasn't photogenic. I call it Ugly Delicious Curry:
160ml Hainan coconut milk (2RMB)
1/2 purple cabbage (1RMB)
1/2 packet red rice (2RMB)
2TB curry paste (2RMB)
2TB sunflower oil (.5RMB)
Price per serving: 1.88RMB (30 cents)
And for the final course, an egg (1.31RMB)
with a pinch of chunky Sicilian sea salt (say.05RMB)
Total for the day: 9.28RMB! ($1.49055)
Dinner was about half the size of my usual - I sized the portions quite small to fit into the $1.50 budget.
Now that the pantry's cleaned out, it's time to go shopping at the market for fresh fruit & veg and tofu. On a budget like this, meat is definitely out, and cheap staples like white flour noodles are in! Market photos and more coming soon.
* All currency conversions by http://Oanda.com
April 26th, 2013
After a visit to a Chinese doctor last week, I had lunch with a friend.
And cried a little as I told her about what a jerk he'd been. How he'd stuck his hand inside me and twisted, hard, (angry after he'd lost face in front of his nurses when I'd told him he'd added unnecessary tests and fees) and he had taken pleasure in causing me pain.
Luckily, the Today Art Museum was next door.
There was a piece of artwork that showed exactly how I felt:
Woodblock scroll of needles and plastic surgery by Zhou Yong at the Today Art Museum, Beijing
There are times when art is the best cure of all.
April 12th, 2013
April 7th, 2013
March 29th, 2013
I look for raw art materials everywhere: in art stores and galleries, and even markets.
Since moving to Beijing, I've been experimenting with a local specialty: tofu skin from wet markets. It's a cream-colored blank canvas for ideas.
I'm an artist who lives where I don't belong. For the past few years, I've been lost more often than found. As a way to trace where I came from, and places I've wanted to forget, I've been carving maps from tofu skin. Backwards.
When I pictured carving my home country, I shivered, afraid.
A sign this is a good direction to take.
So I carved some words into the paper used for festive Chinese paper-cuts:
I was born here
I was destined to die here
but took fate into my hands
as much as anyone can
as my ancestors did
Then laid them on top of the skin to print a cyanotype…
They looked nice but didn't print well. Water and thin Chinese papers don't mix.
However it turned out ok once I gave up on the words. Mostly.
The tofu skin sculptures curl up as they dry, shaped by atmosphere just as much as by human hands.
Then I was asked to join an exhibition in Beijing's 798 arts district.
The timeframe was only a few days.
There was no time to experiment with new ideas or materials, or to wait for sunshine to burst through the smog of a Beijing spring.
So I made what I knew. Backwards.
And big, just like the countries they represent:
In progress: Backwards America, The Past is Another Country, 70 x 130cm
Backwards America installed at 3C Creative Space
Detail of sculpture curling as it dries
Chinese characters trace the transcontinental railroad across the map:
China & the US have more in common than most countries.
I stretched their proportions to fit the borders of the handmade Beijing paper used as templates, to emphasize their similarities.
Backwards China in progress:
China carved with "peace" in its minority languages & scripts:
The Past is Another Country: Reverse China, 70 x 100cm, tofu skin sculpture
More images of The Past is Another Country on Flickr
Part 2 coming up next week, with the hidden paper artworks from the exhibition…