Inspired by this post on one of my favorite blogs, I’ve decided to share what I’m making for dinner tonight and how you, too, can make a simple Mexican dinner in just two weeks!
Remember in college when a quesadilla was quick food? Throw a tortilla and a handful of cheese onto the George Foreman grill!
Well, we are not in college anymore.
Step 1: Make plan for acquiring taco seasoning
Thankfully we have tons of sweet friends who send care packages and ask what we’re craving. We ask for Trader Joe’s snacks, Chick-Fil-A sauce, hand-written cards, and… TACO SEASONING! LOTS of it! It’s cheap, it’s light, and it always makes our day to receive it. So our pantry is stocked 🙂
If you also live in East Asian boonies but don’t have a stockpile of taco seasoning, plan a trip to a major city, request it for your next care package (and wait months) or order it on Taobao.
Step 2: Make plan for acquiring cheese
In June the year-long interns cleaned out their fridge for the summer and gave us the remainder of the precious cheddar brick they were rationing all year. Tonight, we’re finishing off that orange cheddar brick.
The local stores don’t carry cheese because very few East Asians have a taste for it. Two years ago the foreign students had a little potluck, and the Swiss brought cheese and crackers. The East Asian students took a bite, grimaced, and exclaimed in their proper, classroom-learned English, “I can’t bear it!!!”
If you don’t have generous repatriating American friends cleaning out their fridge, then you’ll have to place an order on Taobao and wait a few days for your cheese to arrive. Packages don’t come to our door; they get delivered to a little market (like a bodega) in the neighborhood. Gotta be prompt in picking up that package so the cheese doesn’t melt in the sun!
Step 3: Soak beans
What we’d call kidney beans are ubiquitous here, but they’re considered a dessert food. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bitten into a pastry, expecting chocolate chips… only to be duped again by (shake fist at sky) The Bean.
So, beans are plentiful, but not convenient canned beans like you can get in the States. At least 2 days before you want to eat your Mexican dinner, soak the beans in salty water all day. Then change out the water and slow-cook them all the next day.
Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom. Beans.
Step 4: Make a liter of sugar-free yogurt
This is for the sour cream. A liter of yogurt, with the whey strained out, makes an appropriate amount of sour cream for dinner.
I can read more now than 3 years ago, but I still struggle with reading food labels. Compassionate supermarket workers insist that 风味 (literally: wind-flavored) means sugar-free, but it just means there’s artificial sugar. Memorizing the label-features of a brand that fits my needs doesn’t help because there are no guarantees the store will carry it next week.
Yogurt is literally called “sour milk.” I’ve asked workers, “Does this sour milk have any flavor?”
They reply, “Yes… it’s… sour.”
Once I find that elusive cup of plain yogurt, I take it home and dump it with a carton of milk into my bread maker on the “yogurt” setting, but an oven on low would work just as well. Let it sit for 8 hours.
Step 5: Make sour cream
You thought the waiting was over? Nope. Stir about a tablespoon of vinegar and a pinch of salt into the yogurt and set over a paper towel in a colander to strain for 8 hours. (Oh yeah, throw some paper towels into the above-mentioned Taobao order.)
Step 6: Make tortillas
I use a simple recipe that just combines 2 cups flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 3/4 cup water, and 3 Tbs oil. Someone back in America once admired, “Oooooh, that’s so great that you make your own tortillas!” It might sound romantic/wholesome, but I just do it because there are no tortillas in the stores.
Notice in the above photo that we cook on a hot plate, so if the power’s out, as it’s often want to do, skip this step and come back to it later.
I COULD order them off Taobao, but they’re imported from the States and therefore pricey. There’s also an East Asian version of tortillas called 淡饼 (literally: bland pancake), and I could probably buy a stack off a street vendor, but they’re really not the same.
Besides, I like eating the messed up amoeba-shaped ones fresh from the skillet. Mmmmmmm.
Step 7: Visit veggie vendors and make salsa
The best produce is sold by old people on the side of the road. But old people take long naps after lunch, so you HAVE to visit them before lunch or right before dinner. Make the salsa at least a few hours before dinner, so the flavors have time to marry.
Step 8: Visit the butcher and try not to think about bacteria
Everyone handles raw meat with their hands here. Everyone. I’ve seen people just walk straight up to the cash register with a raw hunk of pork in their hands and plop it down on the same scale where they weigh fruit and vegetables.
Cut up some meat, plop it into a bag, take your money, give you your change… the butcher does this all with the same meaty hands.
I’ve worked out a system where I put a plastic bag on each hand to select my meat, and I prepare a third bag in which to receive the bagged meat the butcher hands me.
And then I douse my hands with antibacterial gel after the whole transaction.
I get some sideways looks.
But anyway, now we have meat for the burritos!
Step 9: Enjoy!
Cook the meat, assemble the burritos, and enjoy this simple Mexican dinner! But take some time to savor it unlike the easily-made quesadillas in college.