Cookbooks

The Spicy Peanut Noodles That Got Me Through My Move to Beijing

Mandy Lee, cookbook author and blogger at Lady & Pups, shares about her move from New York to China's capital city, and the recipes that eased the tough transition.

November 18, 2019
Photo by Mandy Lee

Writer Mandy Lee, whom you might know from her blog, Lady & Pups, is one of our favorite recipe developers and storytellers. In her debut cookbook, The Art of Escapism Cooking: A Survival Story, with Intensely Good Flavors, Mandy shares about her journey moving from New York to Beijing—a new home she didn't really like, but wanted to accept because her husband's job brought her there—and how cooking was the only thing that helped her cope with the transition. The following excerpt (plus, three delicious recipes) from The Art of Escapism Cooking is about the kind of food Mandy loves to cook when she's by herself.


When I first arrived in Beijing, I was blissfully excited. Undeniably, a city cloaked in complicated ancient history, much of which is beautifully mysterious and some of which is evidently dark and savage, should be a pulsating magnet for anyone who is the least bit curious about the world at large, including me. Not to mention my adoration of the foods I found there, which obviously inspired many of the recipes in my cookbook. I swear that I went to Beijing with my best effort at an open heart.

But ultimately, for lack of a better way to put it, a dick is a dick.

In fact, due to my general reluctance to say Beijing on a regular basis, I like to and often do call Beijing by the nickname I chose for it—Richard, derived from a proto-Germanic root meaning “hard ruler.” But more importantly, Dick for short.

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Top Comment:
“Good grief, if you don’t like reading the article, just skip it. I found it enjoyable, interesting, and felt sorry for her going through a rough time - but - and you’ll pardon the cliche - she ultimately made lemonade out of lemons. It even somehow reminded me of the meandering writing of M.F.K. Fisher. It’s a personal blog; if you don’t like hers, write your own. Complaints like some of the ones on here make me question the extremes of political correctness. ”
— Carole K.
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So, meet Richard.


My relationship with Richard went by in a heavy daze. My mind was crawling with questions, but my body retreated into detachment. Many nights I had the urge to scream at him, but instead I sat silently on my bed, in frozen acquiescence. Each morning I opened the curtains to a smoky sky and saw his face, then simply closed them again. We started to fight a lot. There were often, on my end at least, tears of extreme disappointment, from hurts that we couldn’t and didn’t want to take back. The relationship between Richard and me grew cold, stagnant, yet there was turbulence underneath.

I became less willing to go outside. Even when I made an effort to do so, more often than not I returned home mute, in a wordless smolder. On a sweltering summer day in which both the air and the soot inside emulsified like a cream soup in a blender, I found myself once again trapped in a cab and cornered into agreement on the touchy politics between Taiwan and China, something I considered emotionally equivalent to an assault.

Richard just stood quietly, watched.

Had he ever loved me? I wobbled home, pinned by emotional splinters, while on TV some travel-show host was grazing on cacio e pepe in the mockingly beautiful city of Rome, seemingly in another universe. In eerie silence, I floated into my kitchen...and came out two hours later with my very first, handmade fresh tonnarelli (think fat spaghetti).

That...that was the beginning of my breakup with Richard.

For the record, the pasta didn’t taste like salvation, but more like rubbery tubes with an extra snack of mockery. It sucked. But that moment was the turning point in our toxic relationship. Despite how silly it may sound, measuring my level of mental stability by how I feel about making fresh pasta at any given moment is an accurate, scientific, and time-honored tradition.

Many years ago back in New York, I tried making ravioli for the first time, and it failed in the same unmistakable fashion, so I, as any other healthy, internally fulfilled human being would, simply stopped trying. However, this time, as I looked around at the emptiness where I stood, with Richard smiling creepily on the right...I turned left.

I started to cook more. Not just more frequently, but more obsessively, desperately, like a leech on open flesh. A new recipe could fail once, fail twice, fail compulsively to no apparent end—it didn’t matter. I took is as good pain. I took it as refuge. I would rather fixate on something else—anything else—than the constant inner antagonism I was living with. I dove deep into books on pasta making; plowed through a dozen adjustments with variations on flour, yolk, egg white, and water ratios; was cooped up for several weeks of voluntary confinement before eventually emerging again, dangling a handful of tonnarelli that I was finally happy with. And after that, I jumped right back in for the next escape.

Cooking had become a hobby, but slowly it became all-consuming. I’m not saying it was healthy, or that I was proud, or that any of this was a proactive or even justifiable outcome of my violent contempt for my surroundings. I could have gotten a job. I could have become an activist. Since I stayed, I could have fought. If I’d wanted I could have picked up and left. But I didn’t. I just cooked.

Early in this phase I started with recipes that took hours, but before long, I embarked on cooking projects that took days. I began to make breads, with microorganisms that farted gasses in my kitchen, and together we joked about what it was like to have big holes in our hearts. I even started to bake pastries, reconciling with an activity that had sent me into a deep state of worthlessness via a few muffin-making sessions in my college years, episodes that are best forgotten entirely. I began to try my hand at charcuterie, which gave a high that often stretched on for weeks, if not months, plus a delicious period of reeling that tasted like summer in a French chateau. Fortunately or not, it is extremely easy—too easy—to buy cooking ingredients online and have them delivered to your doorstep in China, and because of that, I could go on fussing with recipes for days on end without ever leaving the apartment.

Sometimes I forgot how long I stayed inside. Sometimes I lied about having gone out.

And that can’t mean anything good. But for me it was a matter of survival, of staying sane. I cooked like a self-loathing desert ostrich burying her head under an endless terrain of sand, and before long, this method of survival began to taste like delicious noodles in intense broth and flaky buns that crumbled in denial. Looking back, I’m not sure if how I dealt with my situation was shameful or glorious. It felt passive at times, but also empowering. It didn’t shrink Richard, but I grew bigger in size. Two years into it, in 2012, sunk deep in my mental exile next to a stack of recipes growing restless at my passivity, I finally did the unspeakable.

I started a food blog.


Despite my escape into cooking, I don’t cook for myself.

Or at least, not the way it looks on my blog or in the rest of this book outside this section. I don’t know how it reflects on me as someone who’s selling recipes, but in my view, cooking and eating are two very different, entirely separate areas of investigation. Cooking, to me, is about curiosity, the insatiable need to know beyond necessity, the compulsion in the process of unwrapping a question, rephrasing it again, moving on to the next, the hunt.

I rarely find enthusiasm in repeating the same recipes, answering the same questions. But I can eat a select few of the same things over and over again. These things don’t involve a lot of thinking and rationalizing; they aren’t even bothered by common decency or responsibilities. I eat them free of my own judgment.

Here are three of the dishes that I cook for myself and enjoy repeatedly, starting with the best, most life-changing spicy cold peanut noodle dish I’ve ever tasted.


Best Recipes from The Art of Escapism Cooking

What recipes helped you get through a tough life change? Let us know in the comments.
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13 Comments

Cleowhiskey November 24, 2019
Agree with the haters. The same metaphors people commented on already really offended me and the writing is nauseatingly self-absorbed. It's not her unhappiness and anger that are unsettling, but her narcissism that renders her tone deaf to the insensitivity of her own language.
 
Carole K. November 21, 2019
Good grief, if you don’t like reading the article, just skip it. I found it enjoyable, interesting, and felt sorry for her going through a rough time - but - and you’ll pardon the cliche - she ultimately made lemonade out of lemons. It even somehow reminded me of the meandering writing of M.F.K. Fisher. It’s a personal blog; if you don’t like hers, write your own. Complaints like some of the ones on here make me question the extremes of political correctness.
 
Elaine1990 November 19, 2019
I have been a reader of Food52 for years and a happy and loyal reader too. Yet, reading this article today made me feel compelled to leave my thoughts on the inclusion of this article and perhaps this author too. This piece reads initially like a CNN political commentary full of deceptively, politically charged descriptions yet reads on to become about someone who has problems coping with a new environment she moves into, which definitely happens to the best of us and in no ways warrants any criticism. However, my problem is how the author seems to blame Beijing, or what she so insinuated to represent (Chinese government) for her own problems. She can dislike China And Beijing all she wants but this is a platform for people to share their stories on food instead of passing their political views insidiously and surreptitiously, especially when you realize she is only describing her negative emotions, not facts (I am sorry, was she in anyway persecuted by any authority in Beijing or did she just not like living in Beijing?). And the worst of it is when I read the names of her recipes! When you go to someone’ house you should express thanks for their hospitality and acknowledging their efforts in hosting you and I think it’s a universally acknowledged common courtesy. Yet this author refused to even acknowledge the source and origin of her recipes! (I only read the three she posted). To my knowledge, Huang feihong is a famous brand of peanuts and other nuts in mainland China (also a legendary kungfu character) and chongqing obviously is a place in China. I think it would have been respectful to acknowledge where one’s inspiration comes from, even if one has no praises to sing about that place. I think it is akin to “always annotating your sources” we hear so much from teachers in school to show proper respect as any “author” should do
 
Brinda A. November 19, 2019
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Elaine. In the first paragraph of the excerpt, the author does actually pay homage to the culture and cuisine she encountered in Beijing: "When I first arrived in Beijing, I was blissfully excited...Not to mention my adoration of the foods I found there, which obviously inspired many of the recipes in my cookbook. I swear that I went to Beijing with my best effort at an open heart."
 
HeidiLea November 19, 2019
Brinda, I see from your comment below that you are the editor of this piece, which you have not disclosed here. You're response to Elaine is somewhat disingenuous, you cite an opening byline of c. 50 words that is apparently a justification for the following 1000+ words of copy. The extended metaphoric personification of a city as an abusive, or at the least neglectful, partner is odd, off putting, and insensitive. Frankly, I'm unclear why either you as the editor or the author thought it a terribly good idea to make light of abuse. And Elaine is right, given the political undertones, it reads as tone deaf. Moreover, is jarringly at odds with with the general tenor of Food52 as a publication. Within this piece as presented, the author seems entitled to have had a good time moving to a foreign city, and the city's failure to delight her is suggested to be a fundamental failing of that city. An injection of personal responsibility might have made this piece (and possibly this experience) an opportunity for self-reflection for the author and the audience. By personifying Beijing, she has not only given it agency, but also sole responsibility for her mental state, sadness and situational stress. I hope in future both the author and the editorial team take the time to be more thoughtful and nuanced in their approaches.
 
Brinda A. November 19, 2019
Thanks for weighing in, HeidiLea. This article is an excerpt from Mandy’s new cookbook—an extremely personal account of her experience living and cooking in Beijing and Hong Kong. As they’re drawn from that deeply personal experience, the opinions (and difficulties) conveyed here are, too, personal to the author, and not meant to be reflective of everyone’s point of view. Above, I hoped to address in particular the feedback given that the author did not mention the inspiration from her surroundings for her recipes; she does indeed recognize that her place of residence for nearly a decade greatly informed her cooking, even if her relationship with said place was, for her, extremely challenging. Thank you again for your note.
 
Elaine1990 November 19, 2019
Thanks Brinda A for your response. I agree with HeidiLea completely. I am glad you are the editor of this piece as HeidiLea pointed out below which means my concerns can go directly where they should go. Just saying she “went to Beijing with her best effort at heart” then launching into an essay on “pasta making”, “bread making” and even the all fanciful charcuterie making does not justify one’s “best effort at heart” to explore and fit into one’s surroundings. All in all, it’s fine if she really is THAT antagonistic against China and Beijing but behold her three recipes! Three Asian ones and two directly with origins from China yet she refused to even introduce where her “three favourite recipes” come from and how China inspired her with her riffs on traditional Chinese palettes. If the author has the serious intention to have a long lasting career in writing or food writing, I suggest her try her best effort to see the logic fallacy in her arguments or simply start trying a bit harder to pay homage to her food inspiration and that is the kind of story I believe most of us want to read-real, genuine stories of human relationships with food.
 
insan_art November 20, 2019
Wow, how do you even leave the house without melting?
 
insan_art November 20, 2019
"I believe most of us want to read-real, genuine stories of human relationships with food."
THAT IS LITERALLY WHAT YOU JUST READ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
 
beejay45 November 21, 2019
I don't know that my feelings are as strong or clear cut as yours, but I understand what you're feeling. I used to follow this blog because there was a lot of good, intelligent and flavorful stuff there. Eventually, the author's anger turned me off, and I quit reading it. That said, blogs are there for people to express themselves. Perhaps the editor of this article might have thought ahead a little more in deciding what to present. Isn't the point here to highlight the food? Turning off readers and potential cooks isn't the way to do that. Do we all have to feel the same? No. Are we allowed to be angry? Yes. Just keep in mind the broad audience you're trying to satisfy on Food52 when you select you clips.
 
Kris T. November 18, 2019
"Early in my addiction I snorted recipes that took hours, but before long, I started shooting up cooking projects that took days." Addiction is a serious issue that dispropotionately affects marginalized communities and should not be trivialized by comparing with baking projects. It's offensive to those who struggle with addiction and those of us who have lost loved ones to this harrowing disease. Editors -- what is your editorial policy on this? You need to get with times. Christina Tosi has renamed her "crack pie," and Soleil Ho includes the word "addictive" as a word she will never use in her writing.
Source: https://www.sfchronicle.com/restaurants/article/Words-you-ll-never-see-me-use-in-restaurant-13652564.php
https://www.eater.com/2019/4/15/18311763/crack-pie-new-name-milk-bar-pie-christina-tosi
 
Brinda A. November 19, 2019
Thank you very much for this feedback, Kris. While I (the editor) and the author were in no way trying to offend anyone, especially not marginalized groups, I understand that describing food and cooking in these terms may be insensitive for those who have struggled with addiction or lost loved ones to it. I've removed the reference you mention and we will strongly reconsider publishing material in any way related to this subject moving forward. Thanks again for your note.
 
insan_art November 20, 2019
I feel sorry for you dear. I hope these aren't the kind of comments you deal with every day. The article was great and I think it went right over these other commenters heads.