Times are chaotic. People are panic buying and we’re starting to see food workers and Instacart workers go on strike. While grocery stores are still deemed essential, some get closed periodically for cleaning if there are reports of COVID-19 at those places. Just getting food can include long wait times at certain places if they have implemented limits on shoppers. You might also find yourself or someone you know with less work and less income right when financial and mental stability are more important than ever.
The vast majority of guides to pandemic food prep in American food media has been much the same advice, in slightly different variations, all sounding the same, nothing too different. Stock up on things like pasta, rice, bread, and cereal, milk, butter, canned foods, beans, frozen foods, frozen vegetables etc. Did I mention beans? So many beans. Just so many beans. It’s not that this advice is bad for a one-time event of being quarantined for two weeks or so, but it already looks like we’ll be in this for the long-haul and eating like this will get old real quick. This chaos is new for most of us, yet staying in touch with my Chinese parents showed me that they seem oddly calm throughout this madness. What’s their secret?
How are they so level-headed during these turbulent times? Turns out they’ve experienced hardship when they were younger, but also coming from a farming community, they were used to cooking their own meals which they continue to this day and have a lot of practical advice. My parents immigrated here with not much money and only worked in blue collar professions. They more often than not cooked at home to provide for their three children. The food was always good and nourishing, but much of it was economical and they always knew how to make a lot of dishes. In these crazy times, for my Chinese parents, other than planning a little more in advance and stocking up on a few non-perishables, their eating habits remain mostly the same.
We’ve seen how a lot of Asian Americans spend so much time making jokes (especially on Subtle Asian Traits) at the expense of their Asian parents about their “weird” immigrant habits. I don’t do this. To be honest, if I did, I probably wouldn’t find value in their habits and I don’t think I would have learned any of these tips to share with you. Also, I probably would have been stuck with a pile of beans.
I am so glad to have Chinese parents. It’s not just them, but other accounts of how Chinese people were stocking up on food that made it clear that fresh vegetables were still a priority. I live in Chicago and saw the same thing reflected in the Vietnamese community on Argyle and in Chinatown. At these Asian groceries, certain vegetables were sold out or mostly gone and included gai lan, mustard cabbage, taro, and cabbage. At the grocery store where the customers were mostly white, I saw shelves of bread, canned goods, beans, pasta, frozen food, meat, and dairy being emptied. The fresh produce mostly sat on the shelves. Strangely, it was St. Patrick’s Day weekend when shelter in place began, but corned beef was hardly sold. The food that was already preserved and on sale just sat on shelves. During shelter in place measures in China, many Chinese people took up home cooking. In America, we’re seeing a possible revival of processed foods, as if our food system and food culture wasn’t industrialized enough. If I’m going to stay healthy during these times, I’m definitely going with the Chinese way of doing things.
Everybody cooks differently and has different households to feed. There’s no magical advice about what exactly to buy. The general rule of thumb is to buy a variety of ingredients and with proper storage they can be spread out over weeks. People who are more experienced at cooking will develop a better sense for what to buy and to see possibilities and combinations of what to make with ingredients. Since as early as I can remember, my parents always had a great sense of how much to buy without needing lists because they just cooked at home all the time. If you are not as comfortable with this, that’s okay too. I recommend these four steps.
- Clean and reorganize - If you have the extra time, clean out your pantry and fridge of very old things that you forgot. Reorganize those spaces to make more room to stock up for an extended period of time. Some people are still very busy and it’s understandable if you can’t get to this.
- Meal planning - Read the tips below before you do any meal planning. You can stock up on a variety of ingredients so you can cook pretty normally as you would for 2-3 weeks at a time without resorting to mostly instant, canned, or frozen food after the first week.
- Check your inventory - Double-check what kind of seasonings, spices, and other ingredients that you already have on hand to see if you are low on anything.
- Make a list - Always bring a list and stick to it at the grocery store so you don’t forget anything.
I highly recommend going to stock up at Asian grocery stores. They stock many ingredients that come from food cultures and traditions which pre-date refrigeration and will open up many more options for you. With the extra time that you have, learn how to cook from your parents. Reach out to your other Asian diaspora friends and check up on each other. Since we can’t share meals in person, let’s share knowledge about cooking with each other so we can take care of ourselves and our loved ones.
Fresh Vegetables & Fruit:
It’s important to have a variety of fresh vegetables and fruit in your diet. As a rule of thumb, when selecting produce for longer storage, look at the base of the stem where it was picked and check how fresh or dried they are. Dried, wilted, or soft brown spots in this area generally mean that the produce has been sitting on the shelf for a while and might not last too much longer.
While it’s fine to get hearty vegetables like cabbage, carrots, onion, daikon radish, etc, many other vegetables can have an extended life in the fridge just with a simple trick using just paper and plastic bags. Many fresh vegetables will last at least 2-3 weeks in your fridge with this method. Delicate vegetables can last about 7-10 days.
- After buying your vegetables from the market, take a clean dish towel and pat them dry of any excess water that was sprayed on them at the market.
- Place your vegetables inside of a paper bag. If you don’t have a paper bag, wrap the vegetables in paper towels.
- Put all of this inside a plastic bag. Don’t completely close off the plastic bag leave a small opening so it can breathe a little.
The paper will help absorb any excess water and condensation that might form causing faster rot while at the same time act as a humidifier slowly releasing any water moisture back to the vegetables. Fridges have very low humidity and will make most vegetables wilt very quickly when fully exposed. The plastic bag will help your vegetables from turning into prunes.
Every few days, check on your vegetables and peel or trim off any parts that start to get soft and decompose.
Keep in mind certain fruits can be left out of the fridge like apples, citrus fruits, and tomatoes. If some start to get too ripe and you need a little extra time, put them in the fridge like how you would for vegetables.
This is how your vegetables and fruit should be stored in your fridge after they are wiped of excess moisture.
If they haven’t been panic bought out yet, they are always great to have around for their versatility.
I think having a good amount of salt, sugar, and vinegar on hand is really useful for a number of reasons. Besides seasoning your food with these, they are all ingredients used for picking.
Be sure to have enough cooking oil and if you enjoy things like sesame or chili oil, they are fantastic additions to many dishes.
Double-check how much soy sauce and fish sauce you have in your pantry.
If you need wheat flour chances are Asian grocery stores will still have it in stock.
These are extremely versatile for any home cook. My parents always had a big container of Knorr chicken bouillon around and I use that regularly. I’d also recommend instant dashi, like Hondashi and Dashida beef and/or anchovy bouillon. I also always keep some powdered cà ri gà in my pantry at all times.
Never underestimate having fermented sauces around. Doubanjiang (spicy or not-spicy, it’s up to you), doenjang, gochujang, and shiro miso can all last a long time in the fridge, but they’re all versatile and add fantastic flavor to your food.
Shelf stable/dried ingredients:
Other foods that are shelf stable beyond canned goods and instant noodles that you can keep around are dried shiitake or wood ear mushrooms, yuba (tofu skin), dried seaweed, and a variety of unseasoned dried noodles. Salted eggs or pidan are also great to have around since they don’t need any refrigeration at all.
Many Chinese cured meat can be stored without refrigeration too, look for the ones that are pretty dried and sold on room temperature shelves and not sold in refrigerated cases. If in doubt, store them in the fridge.
Some Chinese specific ingredients I recommend are 豆豉 or fermented black beans for many Cantonese dishes. Fermented mustard tuber 榨菜 ja choy is great to have around. They’re cheap and very flavorful and you can buy them canned or in packages. Fermented radish 菜脯 choy pou is another fantastic shelf stable ingredient to have around. 鹹酸菜 haam sin choy is also another great option that you can buy packs of, but it’s also very easy to ferment your own at home.
I also would recommend Japanese curry blocks and furikake if you enjoy these.
Note for all meat: If you choose to buy meat, of course prepare it for freezing if you are not cooking it soon.
*This tip doesn’t apply to just meat, but it just so happens it’s very practical with meat. When freezing produce, try to package them and to flatten everything as much as possible. Once frozen flat, they can be easily be stacked horizontally or vertically. Dating frozen produce will remind you when to use it so it doesn’t get too old!
Freeze everything as flat as possible!
Buy whole chicken, drumsticks or whole thighs since these give you the most bang for your buck. Dark meat is also much more flavorful than white meat. With the extra time you have, learn how to debone a chicken. Drumsticks or whole thighs can also be used to be trimmed and cut apart for steaming, stir-frying, or deep frying. Leave them whole for braising. They’re very versatile.
Pork shoulder is a very versatile cut and a lot can be done with it. They can be braised, used for stews, roasted, or cut thinly for stir-frying. Neck bones are also highly recommended for making soup, stew, or congee. Ground pork is also convenient if you want to try making dumplings as well.
I wouldn’t recommend beef at the moment unless if you are financially secure. Beef prices has also been increasing for many years so this tends to be more expensive. I’d recommend buying 牛腩 from a Chinese or Vietnamese butcher as this cut is a little less expensive, but fantastic for braising or even used for stir-frying if you have the patience to trim off any connective tissue yourself. Shank is also very good for braising, soups, or stews and is relatively inexpensive.
I cannot recommend fish heads enough, especially salmon. They are great for soups if you can use them very quickly. One of the lesser known things about fish heads is that they often come with the collar which is a very rich and fatty cut. It’s often neglected in America because it has an uneven shape and a large bone in the center of it. Many times this is priced close to about $2.00 - $3.00 per pound. Pick the ones that come with a large collar attached. If you discard the head (for example it’s about 50% of the total weight, but this can vary greatly) just to get the collar, then you’re still only paying about $4.00 - $6.00 per pound for excellent meat.
The easiest trick for selecting fish is to look at the eyes and see if they are transparent, shiny, and plump. If they are slightly deflated or cloudy then I would avoid getting them as this is a sign that the fish isn’t fresh. If you can, try and smell the gills if they are attached. But sometimes this is impossible as they are either pre-packaged or mixed in a pile with other heads and they all smell the same. The gill should be a deep red color.
At home, I would rinse the head under cold water gently rubbing the entire surface and cleaning out any blood clots. Use kitchen shears to remove any remaining parts of the gills. Pat the fish dry and smell it afterwards, it should not be fishy smelling otherwise it might mean you picked one that was bad. All fish will naturally develop a fishy smell soon after it dies and most of the fishy smell comes from certain fats that are oxidizing. So giving a quick rinse and rub under cold water removes some of the odor. Use a knife or kitchen shears to separate the collar from the head. If you’re not as confident with the knife on this piece, use kitchen shears, especially when cutting through the bone.
Heads are great for soups and steaming. Collars can also be steamed, but I prefer roasting them. You can make saikyozuke to season and preserve collars and then they can be frozen for later. I recommend looking up recipes for shioyaki or saikyoyaki recipes to cook the collars.
Highlighted is the collar. Sometimes they are trimmed smaller, so be sure to notice how big they are if you really want this cut!