"Offbeat" is a SmartBeijing column about stuff to look at or do or experience in Beijing that's interesting or weird (relatively, of course), that doesn't fit anywhere else. It appears weekly, monthly, or maybe even annually, when we're not busy working on other superfluous column ideas.
Deep in my soul festers a hatred for Jenny Lou’s and April Gourmet, a hatred which almost ALMOST tops my desire for soft cheeses, olives and Chilean wines. In the end, the insidious, import empires usually win me over and, after stumbling into the air conditioned oasis of Betty Crocker and Kraft Dinners, I resurface many hundreds of kuai lighter and with little more than a bag of Doritos and a jar of pickles to show for my efforts.
Almost every trip to the register results in a dispute over the cost of foodstuffs; discounted items never scan accordingly and half the things in the store have no prices on them at all. The employees are terrible and God forbid you need a fapiao because you will have to fight for weeks to get one. The prices of goods fluctuate indiscriminately, butter costing 14RMB one week and 22 the next. I have always found myself staring at the register, watching the price climb into the 400s and looking down at the sad bag of groceries, wondering why I didn’t just order a pizza.
My recent bout of unemployment has given me two things: time to cook and poverty. To make our food budget stretch, I have started shopping exclusively at Chinese supermarkets and have quickly realized that I can make a meaty meal for four people for under 150 kuai every time. From pulled pork nachos to quiche, I can almost exclusively shop at my local Chinese supermarket, get most everything I need and save a ton of money. The other benefit of supermarket shopping is that you buy less processed and prepackaged things and use more fresh vegetables, herbs and spices.
This week, I made my carnivorous man one of his favorite dinners, shredded beef tortillas. I invited a couple of girls over for dinner to ensure I could feed the four of us. I did my shopping at the Tianshuiyuan Jingkelong (甜水园京客隆) and then took the receipt to Jenny Lou’s at Chaoyang Park West to price check the same items. Below are the two price lists for comparison and my recipe so that you can try it yourself.
Local Goods Supermarket: Jingkelong Shopping List
• Australian beef 876grams = 62.72rmb (71.60rmb/kg)
• 10 Bimbo tortillas 400g = 10.2rmb
• Celery 624g = 1.81rmb (2.90rmb/kg)
• 2 large carrots 558g = 2.32rmb (4.16rmb/kg)
• Cilantro 78g = 1.15rmb (14.74rmb/kg)
• 6 medium tomatoes 1126g = 4.03rmb (3.58rmb/kg)
• 1 large red onion 342g = .81rmb (2.37rmb/kg)
• 1 large yellow pepper (organic) 338g = 9.46rmb (27.99rmb/kg)
• 1 can red kidney beans = 8.8rmb
• 1 pack 180g Beijing Cheese = 20.30rmb (buy 2 packs get 1 free)
• 1 pack tomato paste (75g) = 1.45rmb
• 1 pack chili powder 38g = 1rmb
• Brown Sugar 454g = 4.8rmb
Total = 128.85rmb
Imported Goods Supermarket: Jenny Lou’s Shopping List
I have two prices on most products here because Jenny Lou’s have such a huge range. I found the cheapest option for each item and the priciest. If you are a savvy shopper you can get some ok deals at J’Lo’s, but if you are like my boyfriend and shop with blinders on, you can get severely ripped off.
• Australian Beef Flank = 110rmb/kg - Sirloin 288rmb/kg
• 10 Tortillas (locally made) = 28.80rmb
• Celery = 9rmb/kg
• Carrots = 5rmb/kg to 15.90rmb/kg
• Cilantro = 19.16rmb/kg
• Tomatoes = 6rmb/kg to 30.50rmb/kg
• Red onion = 3.20rmb/kg to 19.60rmb/kg
• Yellow pepper = 14rmb/kg to 52.8rmb/kg
• Red kidney beans = 6.8rmb/can to 18.60rmb/can
• Cheese = 29.90rmb/227g (local) to 39.90rmb/227g (imported)
• Tomato paste = 5.80rmb/can to 10.50rmb/can
• Chili powder = 6.60rmb/bag to 26.90rmb/shaker
• Brown sugar = 7.50rmb/bag (local) to 37.60rmb/bag (imported)
Total = 204.24rmb to 489.41rmb
After some calculating, it works out that to get the exact same products in the closest quantity as possible at Jenny Lou’s, you will pay a minimum of 204.24rmb and a maximum of 489.41rmb. That’s a minimum savings of 75rmb per meal. Imagine that you cook only three nights a week; that’s 225rmb per week, 900rmb per month, 10,800rmb per year. That’s a trip to Thailand every year on the savings you will make by avoiding Jenny Lou’s. Not to mention all those impulse purchases -- Sun Chips, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, a beer or two and a box of Cheerios.
I am not saying that one can simply avoid J’Lo’s completely; of course you need to go there if you want sour cream, camembert, salami and a plethora of other imported goodies and cooking must-haves. I am also not saying that Jingkelong is the best option; I also love Sanyuanli Market and even my local Tuanjiehu farmers market for cheap, fresh veggies. I’m simply suggesting that, for the average home cook -- for someone who enjoys making awesome fresh food, entertaining and feeding loved ones -- doing big, weekly shops at import supermarkets is an obscene waste of cash...
Shredded Beef Tortillas
• Brown the beef on all sides in a skillet then chuck it in a crock pot
• Peel the tomatoes (I like doing this by charring the skin on the stove) and break them up with your hands then throw them in the pot
• Peel the onion, cut it in half and chuck it in the pot
• Put the bag of tomato paste in the pot with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, a bit of chili powder, salt and pepper then fill with bottled water till the ingredients are all covered
Note: Tomato really needs sugar or it will be very bitter, use more or less to taste at the end.
• Put the lid on the pot and stick it in the oven on 170 Celsius for 4 to 7 hours. (I use a tall toaster oven)
Note: The time it takes to get pull-apart-tender depends on the cut of beef. If your oven is too small for a crock pot, this can be done in a rice cooker but you will need to monitor closely and turn it on for just a few minutes each half hour, leaving it on the “keep warm” setting for the rest of the time. You could do this in a heavy based pot on the stove but your gas will need to be at its lowest and you will need to turn it off and give it rests when it boils too much. The key is low heat for a long time and keep it covered.
• After a couple of hours, take it out, give it a gentle stir, you want to be careful that the meat doesn’t break up
• Add a few sticks of chopped celery and finely chopped cilantro as well as the can of drained kidney beans.
• Cook for a few more hours then test it with a fork, once it is tender and pulling away easily, it is ready to go
• Gently take the chunks of meat out of the pot, put them on a chopping board and remove any visible chunks of fat or connective tissue which didn’t dissolve. Pull the meat into large hunks and put them on the serving platter
• Strain the broth from the veggies and meat bits. Keep the broth, this makes a great soup or sauce base for another day, freeze it if you want
• Place some of the celery, tomato and onion chunks along with the beans on the meat for serving
• Cook your carrot slices separate for a different flavor and texture. I like to slice them thinly and pan fry them with some salt, pepper and a sprinkle of brown sugar then place them on a serving dish
• Cook the tortillas so they don’t taste raw, a moment in a hot pan on each side will do (no oil). Stack them up and put them on a plate
• Serve with a bowl of grated cheese and thinly sliced raw yellow pepper (capsicum) and let your dinner guests DIY those suckers.
Obviously this is the most adaptable recipe ever. Pretty much any flavors you want to bung in your crock pot will end up yummy after hours of stewing. You can do red wine and garlic, Indian curry, Thai seasonings or spicy Tex-Mex BBQ. Same goes with the finished product, put lettuce on them, sour cream and salsa, guacamole or whatever else you like. Go with your instincts and taste the product often, adding seasonings as you see fit.