I have been asked to show a few photos of the appliances I have had the misfortune of acquiring here in Shanghai. There are so many that I had difficulty choosing which one to show you first! One of the hardest things for me to find here has been a slow cooker. In the United States, I used my crock pot a few times a week, especially when the weather was cold and rainy. Since it was cold and rainy for endless stretches when we first arrived, a slow cooker would be the kind of thing that would be great to have in Shanghai. In my search for one, I first went to my easiest and most convenient store, Carrefour. I have told you about Carrefour. Ah, trusty Carrefour! It is a grocery store and they have electronics and office supplies and dishes and bicycles, but they never have exactly what I need. So I end up buying something that is close. There is always something that gets the job done sort of, but part of my purchase there is the crushing disappointment I get once I open the package up at home and get to miss all the perfectly good things I have in a storage space in the United States.
I found the slow cookers easily in Carrefour. They are near the rice cookers. Sometimes I mix those things up, so I was very carefully looking at the boxes and the items out on display when the saleswoman came up beside me. Usually these ladies don’t speak English and sometimes this makes them shy. They have been known to rush off to look for the one person working there who has passable English so that they can figure out what in the world I am asking. What do I want? No one knows! Many of them press on despite the language barrier, however, and we end up playing charades in the aisles until their faces suddenly light up and they drag me over to the item I have been describing. They have opinions, and they aren’t afraid to share them even if I might not understand every word. When I bought my iron, the woman insisted that I buy the foreign brand even though it was less expensive than the Chinese brand. They had all the same features, so I kept looking at them to see why she would recommend one over the other. Finally she told me in Mandarin that the one she kept putting back on the shelf was “Chinese” while wrinkling up her nose. I was pretty sure they were both actually made in China, but she insisted that the Chinese one was inferior and so I gave up and bought the Phillips. It was cheaper and she was happy. My Chinese teacher has explained that sometimes the salespeople actually work for one brand or another and are paid to sell you specific things. In the end, that is usually the least of my worries as I try to find the things I need here. If they can convince me through vigorous pantomime that their brand is the best, I will part with Mark’s hard earned money.
The slow cooker was more difficult than the iron, however. I know what I want in a slow cooker and it should be pretty easy to find here. At least this is what I thought when I started looking for one. I wanted a digital one with a solid top—no holes—because I wanted to turn it on and leave it. You can’t do that with one with a knob because it will keep cooking all day. I like them to switch to warm eventually. And if the top has holes in it then you end up with dried out food. The whole point of a crock pot is to keep the moisture and steam in. If this is the first time you are hearing this then I am guessing I have just blown your mind with all that crock pot knowledge. You are welcome. And, yes, I know they sell them with vent holes in the United States but I would never buy that there, either. Apparently, in China almost every appliance that looks like a slow cooker has a hole in the top. When I finally manage to convey to the salesperson that I want one without holes, the reaction is universal. Don’t have. Also, you are crazy! You need the holes! Where will the steam go?! They are concerned for me. I continue to insist that they do make them without holes and they continue to insist that the very idea of this is insane. No one understands what I am talking about. Does no one else use the crock pot? I feel like I have fallen into some sort of twilight zone where no one understands the beauty of the slow cooker. For shame.
When Mark and I are out one Sunday afternoon, I find a slow cooker without holes. I do a little dance of joy until I see that it has a dial and not a digital setup. I wander around and find one that is digital. Score! Wait, it has holes in the lid. By now the saleswoman is with me and I try to explain that I want one that is a combination of the two I have found. Digital plus no holes in the top. Simple, yes? Um, no. She doesn’t understand. She calls out to younger sales associates and urges them to practice their English with me. They cover their faces and run away. They shake their heads in vigorous disagreement and disappear behind the refrigerators. She looks at me and shrugs.
Another customer comes up behind us and in perfect English says, “Perhaps I may be able to help you.” He is an older Chinese man and the saleswoman and I look at him as if a prince has just ridden in on a white horse. I explain what I want and he translates. She answers and he turns to me with a serious face. “She says they don’t make that,” he informs me. Cue the sad trombone.
“What do you plan to use this appliance for?” he asks. “For soup?” I tell him sometimes, yes, sometimes soup. But also meat. Also other things. “Maybe Americans and Chinese do not use this appliance the same way,” he gently suggests. I tell him how I use my slow cooker at home, sparing no detail. I am sure he regrets stopping to be so helpful. “That is how this appliance works,” he tells me, “But this company doesn’t make one with no holes that is digital. Maybe another brand?”
Here is where my head always explodes. Really, China? I can find one of these in any Target or Walmart across the United States! I had one of these in Australia! They are made in China! We poke around the store a little but by now Mark is back and he does not want to look at slow cookers. My new friend runs off to pay for something but he sends his teenage daughter over to be my translator. She is even less excited about the crock pots than Mark. I ask for Mark’s opinion and he tells me just to choose one. So I look again at the one with the digital display. Everything is in Chinese, but I am sure I can figure it out—high, medium, low, and warm, right? I mean, obviously!– so I take that one and we pay (289 rmb) and bring it home.
At home, I unpack the slow cooker and try to read the directions. Sometimes they are in English in the little instruction booklet but this one is only in Chinese. I have to ask my ayi for help. We hunch over the book in the kitchen. She has never used one of these before and she needs some time to look at the directions. She isn’t sure that this is what I want. I explain again what I want it to do and she says it will do that. Maybe. Sort of. You see, the buttons are not heat settlings like I had imagined them to be when I was considering them in the store. No, that would be easy! They are actually settings for specific Chinese dishes! Like congee, with or without meat. Like some sort of Chinese soup and some other thing that not even the ayi can explain. One button does keep the pot on warm, but the other settings are anyone’s guess when it comes to temperature and duration. I can set the timer but I am never sure how hot the thing will get.
The first time I use it I manage to turn chicken into charcoal and I learn that the warm setting still keeps liquid bubbling in the pot as if it were boiling on the stove. I use parchment paper to cover the top so that the holes are no longer an issue, but this makes no difference if you have the food cooking all day at 500 degrees. So, thus far the crock pot in China is an epic fail. It seems that China is determined to break me of my will to cook. Well played, China. Well played.