A recurring difficulty living in China, was food. We are a family of foodies, we love all types of foods which made the first couple weeks in China great, but after we had tried so many new Chinese dishes, we missed variety. Something we were always trying to do was recreate dishes from home, but it took a lot of tweaking. Not having the same ingredients or equipment were the 2 biggest set backs. I don't know if you've ever tried to cook pancakes on a wok over a hot plate...but it does not work.
In order to create similar, familiar dishes, we relied on trial and error and often had to forgo meat and sometimes dairy. Some of our go to dishes that we could make, that tasted the same, were homemade spaghetti sauce, homemade mac and cheese, and Thai food. We had these dishes almost every week.
The homemade spaghetti sauce was made from garlic, bell pepper and onion which were easy to find anywhere, and we would go to Walmart to find canned tomatoes and spaghetti noodles. Because we rarely had luck with meat, we would often eat green olives with our spaghetti in place of meatballs or sausage. You can find green olives at the chain store Metro, which is an import store in China or on Taobao.
Mac and Cheese was more of a splurge and became a lot less cheesy the longer we were in China. It was hard for our stomachs and our wallets to handle that much cheese! All the ingredients to make mac and cheese had to come from Walmart, Metro, or Taobao, and it wasn't fancy. We used cheese that we grated and melted it together with a little butter, finely chopped onions and garlic, and boxed milk until we got the right constancy. We would cook our noodles and incorporate it together. You can eat it just like that, nice and gooey, or you can crack an egg in the cheese sauce pour it over the noodles and bake for about 20 minutes. We would always eat our mac and cheese with a side of cucumber salad. All it is, is sliced cucumber, sliced tomato, and sliced red onion. If we had it in the house, we would add a little balsamic vinegar to the top (another Walmart/Metro/Taobao purchase)
Thai curry was by far the easiest to recreate. We could easily get all the ingredients for curry. Many different stores would sell canned panang paste or other types of curry. We would mix the paste with canned coconut milk and any type of vegetable we were in the mood for. Some of our favorites were bell pepper, eggplant, potatoes and carrots. Pour your stovetop curry over cooked rice and you have an easy, delicious, China-friendly meal.
Once we had figured out dinners life got much easier. But lunch remained difficult the entire year. We were always having a hard time thinking of what to make or eat for lunch. We often resorted to leftovers, Peanut butter and Jelly, or ramen. We also had a cafeteria on campus we could eat at for cheap but it as extremely hit or miss. We had some of the best foods there, and also completely inedible foods.
Every once and awhile, I'd go out of my way to make something special. One time I made flour tortillas and it was a highlight for everyone! It took SO long, and made such a mess, but the kids were so exited! I had to laugh at myself through the process of rolling my tortillas out with a thermos and cooking them on a wok, but it was a fun memory we made.