When it comes to food, I am the butt of evolution’s cruel joke. In fact, in the absence of modern medicine, my traits should have been selected against many years ago. Specifically, my immune system is so hypersensitive that if I eat a legume, it will stop at nothing to eliminate the offender, including suffocating me and inducing my painful and agonizing death. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face — thanks for nothing, white blood cells.
Picture this: you encounter a street vendor. You select a snack item you want, you purchase it, and you eat it.
Though many people engage in this sort of activity every day, this is a scenario I cannot conceive of. Nothing goes into my mouth before I assess what’s in it. Many hours of my life have consisted of scanning nutrition labels and weighing the chances that “may contain peanuts” means “Mars, Inc. is not liable if you die in a freak accident,” or that the factory conveyor belts are dusted nightly with peanut shells.
Further, people’s misconceptions thwart my most sincere attempts at prudence. A waiter in Charlottesville, Virginia, stared wide-eyed as I jammed a two-inch needle into my thigh, blood seeping into my white cocktail dress in macabre Rorschach ink blots. “You said this didn’t have peanuts,” my date said (I was busy choking), to which the waiter responded, “Yeah, it doesn’t have peanuts, but it has peanut butter.” Needless to say, it was not the most romantic second date ever.¹
My embarrassment and difficulties maneuvering the routine task of eating are compounded in Asia by the language barrier², as well as a new fitness regimen that requires I eat virtually no processed carbohydrates. It would follow naturally to cook for myself, especially so as not to annoy others with my ridiculous dietary restrictions–but I’ve had closets bigger than my current kitchen, and there’s no oven. (I know what you’re thinking: then where am I supposed to put all the shoes that can’t fit in my closet?)
Incidentally, no one has written the cookbook on How to Cook Sugarfree, Peanut-free, Soy-free, Low-Carb, High Protein, Nutritious Meals in a Kitchen the Size of a Normal Person’s Bathroom. But, after speaking to a few of the girls in my training group, I wondered whether other people were grappling with these challenges, and I thought I would give my take on what has worked for me thus far.
I know it might come to the surprise of some of you that I actually consume solid food rather than subsisting on a diet of bourbon, but hear me out.
- A spatula that is not necessarily your fingers
Ordering pre-portioned, uncooked gourmet meals feels a little like cheating; you don’t get the satisfaction of reaping the fruits of your labor, because somebody else labored for you, and other people’s labor is not as fruity.
However, one reason Secret Ingredient may be doing well in Hong Kong is that it addresses the problem of not having enough physical space for prep work. You’re not losing red onion slices to the sink or floor because they’re already chopped up for you. This method is also ideal for someone like me, who is sort of careless with a knife (much to my fingers’ chagrin) and far more interested in the “idea” rather than its implementation.
So perhaps instead of renouncing it as an indulgence of my laziness, I can learn to embrace Secret Ingredient as my own personal sous chef.
Below, seared pesto tuna with a salad of sprouts, green beans, and almonds:
2. Stir-frying ALL OF THE VEGETABLES
- Cutting board
It has occurred to me, looking at these photos, that I cook much in the same way that I dress, paint, and talk: colorfully.
Say what you will about America and our obese little children mainlining Coca-Cola and rolling through McDonalds on their motorized scooters, but at least we can get reasonably-priced, local produce in the super market. Not so on the Island of Imports. I have to go to the international market to pay three times what I’d pay in the States for avocados, peppers, asparagus, and spinach. The day I saw a cauliflower head, I squealed audibly.
Chopping all these vegetables is a process that’s exacerbated by the fact that I never learned proper knife technique and I can’t reach the top shelf of my cabinets with all of the bowls. What ensues is haphazard improvisation: I mangle the produce into various shapes and store them in pots, buckets, and any other containers I can find that are hopefully not the trash can.
Then comes the cooking, which mimicks a strange dance as broccoli hops from one pan to the other, until the veggies look vaguely glossed-over or I’ve eaten enough from both pans to consolidate into one.
3. When in doubt, FRITTATA.
If I pour a mixture of half-eggs, half-egg whites, almond milk, seasoning, and maybe a bit of feta cheese over the vegetables in the large pan, cover with foil, and turn the heat down low, I can make a frittata without an oven. In the past I’ve thrown in some sauteed shrimp or ham for extra protein. This is the perfect breakfast food for someone who knows she takes over an hour to get ready, but only allots herself 25 minutes. You can pre-portion slices at night, wrap them, and stuff your face as you run out the door and over old Chinese women wobbling down the street like zombie glaciers.
4. Searing Meat: Not for the Faint of Heart; Make Sure to Wear Clothes
- Cheese grater
I have been following The Londoner since college, when my roommate introduced me to her blog. She is the classiest, most beautiful goddess in all the land, and I pretty much take everything she says as gospel. This recipe, with crispy chicken and cauliflower “fried rice” was adapted from her healthy burrito bowls, which I would have made in their entirety if I had more space, more time, and fewer urges to commit homicide in a Chinese grocery store.
I left my chicken to marinade in the fridge while I moved onto grate a head of cauliflower to stand in for my “rice.” I ended up accidentally grating my fingers, which was pretty painful. Cheese grater: 1, Lauren: 0. But hey, a little extra iron never hurt anybody.³
Operating in a small space on just two burners is a little like juggling flaming batons. As soon as I had stir-fried the cauliflower with salt, pepper, and cayenne, I switched the pan out with a pot of boiling water for green beans. All the while, chicken sizzled on the griddle, splattering hot oil everywhere–hence my recommendation of a protective layer of clothing.
5. Sugar-free, Peanut-free, Soy-free, Low-carb Protein Bars
- Blender or food processor
When people ask me what I miss about the States, my answer is always the same: Target and Trader Joe’s. The former because sometimes you need a store where you can buy flip flops, vanilla extract, a DVD player, and a shower curtain in the same place, and the latter because I need my organic, fair trade, non-GMO, vegan Kale chips pronto. This recipe is a testament to the fact that you can find hippie, granola-crunching ingredients in Hong Kong; you are just going to have to schlep across town to five different stores and file for bankruptcy.
These bars were adapted from a recipe I found on Tastespotting. Tastespotting, for those who have not yet stumbled across its magnetic pull, is like porn for hungry people, or waterboarding for people on diets. I can get sucked into the vortex of Tastespotting for hours before I realize I have drenched my keyboard in drool, I’m late for work, I haven’t showered in three days, and the year is 2046.
I substituted chocolate for cocoa powder, used unsweetened almond milk, and switched out the maple syrup for Stevia. Not trying to consume simple sugars, aka cancer cell food pellets, y’all! (Even though artificial sweeteners typically contain carcinogens.) (For those of you who are interested in tumor metabolism, see here. For those who are interested but don’t speak Biology and don’t understand the Mysteries of the Science, see here.)
They’re actually pretty delicious, though I might be saying that because I can’t remember the sweet release of a homemade chocolate chip cookie. The situation has become so desperate that I am now dreaming about donuts.
And whenever I want to eat a donut, I look at this picture and think about how much of a powerful warrior princess scholar I have become:
So here’s to problem-solving, and nerds without sufficient intellectual stimulation in their lives getting bored enough to work on turning their bodies into machines, but still having a lot of existential reluctance about it, but then realizing that this very scenario is analogous to Sisyphus’s task in that Sartre essay, and feeling a little bit more sanctimonious and smug about it all.
And if anyone is interested, I don’t really [know how to] use The Pinterest, but when I do, it’s to collect recipes, so head on over.
1. “How long have you two been together?” the doctor asked in the ER as I vomited my fancy four-course meal into a bucket, sensually. “Uh… two weeks?” (…It didn’t work out.)
2. A typical conversation with waitstaff at a non-Western restaurant:
Me: Does this have peanuts?
Me: But does this dish contain peanuts?
Waiter: Oh, yes.
3. Except for enemies of Magneto