I Cooked Through My Depression with China’s Eight Great Cuisines


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I Cooked Through My Depression with China’s Eight Great Cuisines

It sounded simple enough—make one dish from the eight provinces of Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, Fujian, Anhui, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Guangdong. I had just uprooted from Mumbai to Beijing, and was extremely lonely.

“Pulse the sesame seeds in the food processor with ginger, garlic, scallions, rice vinegar, and peanut butter.”


I stand glaring at my recipe app, next to a kitchen counter that looks like I have emptied the entire contents of my fridge over it. Small piles of cucumbers, groundnuts, and chilies lie scattered over it, as do jars of peanut butter, three kinds of soy sauce, and rice vinegar.

I wildly rummage through the kitchen cabinets, just in case. Nope. My roommate doesn’t seem to have a food processor either, and I’m already halfway through the recipe.


A pot of noodles bubbles away, dangerously close to done. I need to drain them now (fast, fast idiot, they’re gonna be all mushy!) and “lightly toast” my second batch of groundnuts (you burned the first, as expected), then chop the metric fuck-ton of cucumbers (was it lengthwise or crosswise?) and finally, figure out how to mash the sesame seeds without a machine, before my head explodes from the stress.

I wish mum had bullied me into packing a khalbatta into my luggage, the traditional brass mortar-and-pestle that’s a staple in most Indian households. It weighs approximately 20 kilos, or so it’s always seemed like to me. In any case, I’d have been able to mash the damn sesame seeds.

I take a deep breath, and a giant swig of my now-lukewarm wine.

Saute dice drain the noodles slice cucumbers press down gently with broad flat side of knife to deseed cucumbers don’t chop your finger off remember we need all our fingers. Moron.

I pour the sesame seeds into a stainless steel bowl, grab a giant ladle, and begin pounding the seeds under it.

That doesn’t quite work. But I mix the half-broken sesame with the other ingredients anyway, pouring the sauce onto the noodles and adding fresh scallion. The cooking app and the inside of my head can stuff it—I will take my noodles slightly crunchy, please.

Dan dan mian with smashed cucumbers. All photos by the author.

Fifteen minutes later, I emerge from the hot kitchen, with the dan dan mian (dan dan noodles) and the pai huanggua, a cold dish of “smashed” Chinese cucumbers, drizzled with soy sauce and chili oil.


I’m exhausted. This Sichuanese meal, which I have spent close to three hours preparing, is the first in a project I have recently begun: a wildly idiotic one of cooking a dish each from China’s Eight Great Cuisines, distinct culinary traditions from eight major provinces across the country.

Later that week, on a Tinder date, I will narrate that afternoon as a hilarious story—the groundnuts burning, the mix-up with the food processor, and what a khalbatta is. The fact that I had teared up in the kitchen after realising I actually managed to make this elaborate meal—that one’s just for me.

I began learning to cook Chinese food in the spring of 2017, to sustain myself through a deep depression. I was in Beijing, a city I had recently moved to after a lifetime, or 27 years, of living in Mumbai.

I had moved here on an impulse, following a breakup and an extremely radical desire for a Big Life Shake-Up. The first couple of months had been wonderful. I found my way around my new home and every other thing proved a source of endless fascination. I signed up for Mandarin classes, tentatively managed to get the hang of chopsticks, went for expat meet-up events, and bought my first pair of boots—unimaginable in hot, humid Mumbai.

There’s a thing that happens, however, when you make yourself believe moving somewhere new will magically make you a new person: you can’t get away from your old self. When the initial thrill wears off, all your familiar anxieties and sadnesses and every single thing you disliked about yourself crowd in for attention.


There’s a thing that happens when you make yourself believe moving somewhere new will magically make you a new person: you can’t get away from your old self.

A few weeks later, I could barely remember why I was in Beijing. I was extremely lonely. I missed the security of familiar friendships and the Western-heavy expat circles made me, with my accent and aversion to chicken tikka masala jokes, feel like an interloper. I missed the comfort of a partner. Determined to get over my ex, I had jumped into a string of terrible romantic choices and developed body image issues. I spoke to my family back home less and less, straining under the stress of pretending like everything was OK and figuring out a “Life Plan” as I edged closer to my thirties.

I started engaging with China less too—I would finish the year and get the hell out, I decided. I began skipping my Mandarin classes, doing the bare minimum at work, hardly going out, and ordering in all the time—greasy, overpriced comfort food.


One weekend morning though, I wake up to find it’s snowing.

I’ve trekked on icy mountains up north in India but never been in the middle of a snowfall. I look at the room around me that looks like a bomb’s hit it. After an hour of trawling through recipe subreddits, I go grocery shopping.

It sounds simple enough—cooking one dish from the eight provinces of Sichuan, Hunan, Zhejiang, Fujian, Anhui, Shandong, Jiangsu, and Guangdong, spanning the length and breadth of the country. It’s also a fairly dumb idea because outside of eggs and a couple of sabzis Mum insisted I learn, I don't know how to cook. But at the very least it might be interesting and with its clearly defined tasks, I am hoping it brings me some sort of structure.


A couple of weeks later, it seems like just a really dumb idea. I’ve now spent about seven minutes in the kitchen, convincing myself to stick my hands into raw chicken. It isn’t gross, to be honest, or spewing salmonella everywhere. Nope, these are perfectly unassuming, cling-wrap-bound chicken breasts, procured from the meat aisle of the local “Western” supermarket. But to me, a woman who was raised in a strictly vegetarian household in Mumbai, I may as well have been rolling around in butcher waste. I only began eating meat of any kind five years ago (only outside the family home, please and thank you), and have never attempted to cook it. Until an hour ago, I had been Googling “raw chicken breasts” on my phone, right there in meat aisle, just to make absolutely sure I knew what they looked like. I mean, the pork belly did look awfully similar and …

OK, this is getting beyond ridiculous. I make a kind of tortured gnarly sound in my throat, and stick my hands on the chicken.

Well, it’s definitely cold. But not too bad. I try to speed through the recipe for Hunan chicken, afraid I’m going to lose my nerve. Somewhere though, between trying to cut the pieces exactly right, and trying my best to not have the boiling hot oil splattering in my eye, I forget. By trying to make sure that the chicken isn’t raw, I manage to overcook it. There may also be a tiny bit too much salt. But it’s edible and my roommate wanders by to grab a piece. It just looks so pretty, studded with the bright red chilies characteristic of Hunan food. Instead of peppercorns, unlike in Sichuan, the emphasis is on chilies—fresh and pickled.


“You can’t be a revolutionary if you don’t eat chilies,” once said Chairman Mao, whose favourite dish it apparently was. Post my confrontation with the scary chicken, I empathised.


After the first two are done, I don’t cook for ten days. Yeah, this is typical. My hobby of choice is getting excessively enthusiastic about a new project, and then, almost immediately after, abandoning it entirely. It’s also been a shit week. I am lying in bed, scrolling through the waimai food delivery app, when the guilt makes me stomp to the grocery store. That night, I make asparagus, Shandong-style. The eastern province’s culinary style is all about simplicity and drawing out the natural taste and texture of ingredients.

And what goes into it? Hah. Nothing more than blanching asparagus stalks (that’s “tossing them in boiling water for, like, a minute or so” for the culinary troglodytes among us), and then drizzling them with a bit of soy sauce, sesame, and chili oil. It’s topped with toasted sesame seeds, which I do not burn.

Asparagus made Shandong-style is a popular restaurant side-dish but I’d happily eat it all by itself. Also it led me to use words like “blanch” and “drizzle.” This fact alone obviously meant I was now a much better cook.

I am lying in bed, scrolling through the waimai food delivery app, when the guilt makes me stomp to the grocery store. That night, I make asparagus, Shandong-style.


Or at least, a happier, more engaged one. I start cooking at home more outside of the project. Nothing elaborate—a stir fry here, a pasta dish there. I begin finding prep work—all the chopping and the slicing and the garlic peeling—oddly soothing. Sometimes, when I’m stressed, I actually draw out the process, as opposed to trying to wrap it up as quickly as possible. By the time I’ve assembled the various components, I’m less on edge, I’ve had some time to (and yes, I use this word entirely without irony) centre.

I get an anxiety attack one evening and am wound up and jittery, with thoughts spinning around in my head that are urging me to do something, anything. Generally, this particular source of advice never leads me to particularly productive results. But this time, I go home and make an elaborate meal. I chop mushrooms and a yellow pepper and onion really fine, as my favourite food podcast plays in the background. I add the eggs and the various masalas, and make something that is halfway between a shakshuka and an Indian egg bhurji By the time I’ve eaten and done the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, I feel better.

Xiao long bao.

I make sweet-and-sour pork for Guangdong—or Cantonese—cuisine, and the ban mian an intensely comforting bowlful of noodles swimming in a broth packed with mushroom and vinegary anchovies—for Fujian, a dish by the Hakka Chinese who had settled in the province. For Anhui, there’s honeycomb tofu where the recipes all emphasise using really firm tofu, so I go around my grocery store, surreptitiously squeezing tofu cubes over the packaging like a crazy person. And when I attempt Jiangsu cuisine, it’s easily the most fun I’ve had cooking. Among the most interesting of the Eight Great, it brings together a bunch of other culinary traditions like the Nanjing, Wuxi, and Suzhou styles. Jiangsu cooking has also inspired a ton of Shanghainese food, and though us northerners may maintain that Beijing is far superior, Shanghai cuisine is frankly a thing of wonder. I mean, it has xiao long bao—those gorgeous, delicate dumplings full to bursting with meaty soup. Jiangsu cuisine is after all known for its high levels of precision, refinement and some serious work. It’s essentially the group’s show off cuisine—you cannot hope to wing it.


Which is precisely why I decide I need help, and sign up for a xiao long bao class. Making the soup that goes inside the dumplings (no, it’s not injected in) is itself a long process. Meat stock (pork skin is mandatory) is cooled and frozen into gelatin cubes. It’s then sliced and wrapped into the dumpling cases, along with the pork-and-scallion filling. “Knead, knead, knead!” goes chef Michelle, patiently guiding us as we struggle with the dumpling pleats. The best of our creations are steamed, and we eat them by slowly sucking out the delicious soup within (the gelatin cubes having liquefied in the steamers.) Remember to never put a whole xiao long bao in your mouth—the scalding broth will most definitely burn your tongue. The wonkier ones were pan-fried. No dumpling left behind.

I get an anxiety attack one evening and am wound up and jittery, with thoughts spinning around in my head that are urging me to do something, anything. I go home and make an elaborate meal.

It’s a very happy-making thing for me, this rising confidence about cooking. I still screw up a whole lot but the victories are growing, and the mean little voice inside my head tends to now shut up more often.

Like the time I reach the final dish of the project, for instance. The cuisine is Zhejiang, where the food is rich, with liberal helpings of soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar. Among its many “feast dishes” is Dongpo pork belly, from the very pretty Hangzhou.

This dish is the most difficult to pull off in the entire project. And it’s actually been the simplest Zhejiang recipe I can find. There are those that demand at least three hours just for simmering but having to share a stove with a roommate does not afford you these luxuries.

Dongpo pork belly.

End to end, Dongpo pork takes me two and a half hours. I bring it out to the dining table, and lay it over rice for a friend who’s round for dinner. We toast the finale of the culinary enterprise with cans of the local Yanjing beer.

Not even grandma's admonishments that not knowing my way around the kitchen would make me unfit as an arranged marriage prospect pushed me into learning to cook like this project did. I still have bad days. That’s never going to change, but hey, I think I can handle them because I could handle this goddamn glistening pork belly that looks like an Instagram wet dream.

It's a feeling I have not had for a very long time.