Musings on peanut butter

I’m a big fan of China’s many regional cuisines, which provide a nearly endless array of mouth-watering dishes: solid, proletarian Beijing dumplings, grilled lamb skewers from Muslim western China, delicately steamed fish from Hong Kong, sweet Shanghainese “red-cooked” pork, fantastic green vegetables from just about everywhere, and, my favourite, the exquisite “numb-spicy” dishes of Sichuan.

But sometimes, I just really need a peanut butter sandwich.

China’s cuisine is many things, but every so often it will come up short, and a craving for a peanut butter sandwich is one that Chinese food is particularly ill-equipped to satisfy. Firstly, there’s the problem of the bread. “Western-style” bread in China, as in perhaps every Asian country other than Vietnam, is at best a weak approximation of the concept. It is as if bakers have tried to reverse-engineer recipes from photographs of foreign loaves, without ever having tasted them. The result is bread that looks fantastic, but has the consistency and flavour of an old bath sponge. My current preferred brand is a step above most, but still makes my teeth squeak when I eat it.

Peanut butter, thankfully, is an area in which China excels. In addition to a wide range of local brands, international p-b giant Skippy is well-established here, and its products — both smooth and crunchy — can be found in many local supermarkets. This, however, is where the story gets interesting.

At first glance, China’s busy supermarkets are visions of plenty. Behind their shiny exteriors, however, is a re-stocking system that could generously be called “spotty”. I still remember the day that my neighbourhood supermarket in Beijing simply stopped selling bacon. There was no explanation: it was as if it had never existed. I was disappointed, but took it in stride. Then, suddenly, the peanut butter disappeared.

Assuming it had been relocated in one of the supermarket’s pointless bi-monthly reorganizations, I asked the store manager where I could find it.

“We don’t have it any more,” he said.

Worried, I continued: would they be getting more?

“We might get more, but we might not. I don’t know.”

And just like that, the peanut butter was gone, its place taken by a random selection of salted plums and something called meat floss. The next few days went by in a blur as the cold reality of life without peanut butter sank in.

When I saw peanut butter back on the shelves a week later, I was euphoric. That feeling came crashing down a moment later as I discovered that the variety on offer was a pirated version of Skippy. Now, I can understand a pirated handbag or coat, but I draw the line at knowingly eating knock-off food products — especially when each jar of supposedly identical peanut butter had its own distinct hue.

The Skippy did eventually return, but I had learned my lesson: I began stockpiling peanut butter in anticipation of the next shortage.

When I moved to Shanghai, I was dazzled. For the first few months after my arrival, I couldn’t stop talking about my supermarket. Forget peanut butter — hell, it had balsamic vinegar!

How quickly the lessons of the past are forgotten.

By this time, my tastes in sandwiches had expanded, and I was venturing into recreational mayonnaise use. I thought I could stop any time. Little did I know I would be forced to quit cold turkey when it vanished from even the fancy foreign supermarkets.

What had happened? Who was to blame? How could an entire city of 19 million people suddenly run out of mayonnaise?

I pondered these questions for weeks, unable to find an answer.

And, just as suddenly as it had disappeared, the mayonnaise was back.

And what mayonnaise! The old standbys like Kraft were there, to be sure, but there was so much more. German brands I had no hope of pronouncing filled the shelves, their contents held suggestively within flexible tubes rather than the familiar, rigid jars. Light mayonnaise, “real” mayonnaise, spiced mayonnaise — it was all there.

I grabbed a selection and headed for the cashier. Standing in line was a friend of mine, his shopping basket filled with two dozen cans of tomato sauce, his eyes filled with a triumphant gleam. We nodded at each other knowingly — for today, at least, we were both victorious.