Shanti Christensen, storyteller and food explorer, travels China meeting families who teach her their favorite home-style recipes. She writes and photographs for ShowShanti.com while collecting recipes for her future cookbook. Her Filipino mother and Danish-American father passed their wanderlust and passion for food through their own stories. Shanti and her husband are from San Francisco and have lived in Beijing since January 2007. Shanti enjoys making dinner for friends and family, bringing new flavors and tales to the table.
WildChina’s Alex Grieves recently sat down with Shanti to discuss food, travel, and how the two intersect in an interesting journey through culture, customs, unknown ingredients, and more.
WildChina Travel: What inspired you to begin this project?
Shanti Christensen: I had already been in Beijing for two years, working previously as a hospitality coach for Chinese staff. When the economy soured, I reevaluated what I wanted to do with my life. I originally was going to get an MBA, but right before I had planned to leave Beijing I slipped off my bike and broke my arm – thus, traveling was out of the cards. I thought about my interests, and knew that I loved to travel, design, eat, cook, blog and tell stories. Then I had the idea: I love to cook but don’t really know how, so why not travel China and learn from local Chinese families? I want to teach my children to cook in the future, so this opens many opportunities.
WCT: Why China, and why Chinese food and culture?
SC: I really wanted to be part of this growing culture. I arrived here with my husband before the Olympics, which was an incredibly exciting time to be here. I loved being a part of that. Furthermore, I have always loved food – my own heritage [Filipino American] is all about eating, and my mother wanted her children to try everything. I believe that food is something that defines a culture and defines my trips, so I gravitate towards it, and I really enjoy hosting and story telling with recipes and meals.
WCT: When, and where, did your project start?
SC: This project came to me in late March, 2009, and I began traveling in April, 2009. I first visited three families in Shandong province, in Zhanqiu (an area known for its hot springs), a countryside village, and Qingdao. To date, I have visited families in Beijing, Guangdong, Shandong, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces.
WCT: How do you decide whom to visit, and where?
SC: I find people through Chinese online social networking sites, such as Sina.com and MySpace China. Right now, modern society, particularly in China, is very focused on reaching people in interactive spaces, as these spaces are where ideas and connections can grow. Young Chinese internet users are avid engagers and commenters on these sites, and have shown a lot of enthusiasm for my project. The connection I build with these ‘netizens’ can be really strong, to the point where they ask me to visit their hometown for a taste of their cooking.
WCT: How do you travel to these towns to which you are invited? How easy or difficult is it to access them?
SC: My first idea was to backpack, to travel by hard sleepers [hard beds in 6-bed cabins] on trains or take hot and crowded buses, because I think this makes the trip more colorful and more connected to local people. However, I have to balance this interest with being time efficient, so my general rule of thumb is whatever it takes to get to a place safely and efficiently is the way I will take. If a plane ticket is cheaper than a train ticket, I will take a plane. When in a given area, I like to stay in hostels or dorms – they’re cheap, fun, and give my assistants who haven’t traveled China the opportunity for interesting interactions.
WCT: What have been the biggest challenges for you on throughout this project?
SC: The biggest challenges that I have encountered thus far have been ingredient nomenclature, finding these ingredients, and trying new foods beyond my comfort level. Having an ever-increasing, but still not fluent, level of Chinese means that it’s hard to tell which term for ‘shallot’ I should use at a market. Also, I consider myself an adventurous eater, but some dishes that have been placed before me in recent months have really tested how far I am willing to go to try new things. Of course, I always oblige – you can’t allow a family, who has worked so hard to help you with your work, lose face over a plate of something you’re not entirely comfortable eating. In that vein, another cultural difference to overcome is delicately navigating situations where losing face, elders and dangerous circumstances clash. Maintaining safety, efficiency and while preserving one’s ego is not always easy, but incredibly important in Chinese society.
WCT: What have been the biggest surprises for you?
SC: People have been incredibly generous in opening their homes to me and sharing even their most secret of family recipes with me, and this generosity continues to inspire my project. I find that while people within big city centers are quite protective of their lives and family, people in smaller towns or villages are much more open and welcoming. Probably most surprising to me is that people in China truly care about organic food, which has been eye-opening and relief. While China is in a rapid stage of development that affects the quality of its food, Chinese people themselves are reacting against this and value homegrown produce and livestock. Furthermore, many do not use MSG [monosodium glutamate] in their food, but rather reserve it for guests’ visits.
WCT: What regional differences have you found as you travel across China?
SC: People’s opinions and biases on cuisines are really intriguing. One person might not be very familiar with another region, but will nevertheless immediately have notions of the cooking and skills of those from that area. Regional food is, of course, made and discussed with pride. Flavor-wise, Northern food is delicious and very comforting, but I find that Southern food is such an explosion of flavor, given the bounty of produce available there. Throughout my travels and experiments with a variety of cuisines, one thing that both excites and saddens me is that so many ingredients I have tasted are strictly local. It makes me wonder, when will I ever taste this again? How will other people ever find these ingredients? How will I explain these flavors? This really makes me live in the moment and absorb everything I can while on-site.
WCT: Where will your culinary adventures take you next?
SC: This month [March], I’ll be traveling to Sichuan and Hunan, and I’ll visit Jiangsu and Shanghai in April. In the future, I hope to publish a cookbook of my recipes. Maybe I will even have my own television show someday…
Photo credit: ColoRising