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The first time I ate at a restaurant by myself, I live-tweeted the experience. “Hot-potting alone!” I enthused, posting a photo I’d taken of a burbling electric pot, ringed by plates of enoki mushrooms, plump squares of tofu, and green-bean-infused vermicelli noodles. (If Chinese food fosters communal dining more aggressively than other types of cuisine, then hot pot—think fondue with chicken broth and chili peppers rather than melted cheese—forcefully commands it.) Sitting companionless at a table patently designed for four, I composed the portrait of my meal with some care, both to entice my viewers and to deride my circumstances. “Desperate times call for desperate measures!” I supplied as an additional caption before picking up my chopsticks. Then I hastily put them down again, to link the post to Facebook and Instagram.
Yanni Cai, the author of a new book called “Eating Alone,” might understand the impulse. The book, published last fall in China, is a follow-up to a series of short videos, by the same name, “dedicated to the art of cooking for yourself.” Cai, a thirty-something former magazine editor who lives in Shanghai and is unmarried—or, in the ugly parlance of practical-minded Chinese, a “leftover woman”—came up with the idea two years ago, after one too many embarrassing experiences at restaurants where the staff disdained her solo patronage and refused to pack up her leftovers. Rude, perhaps, but not uncommon in a culture where cooking (and dining) is an inherently social function, centered upon the idea of community. For millennia, the most basic of Chinese meals have involved “three main dishes plus a soup,” a spread that only makes sense for a table of three people or more. It’s no wonder that a perennial staple of stir-frys—a merry medley of beef, chicken, pork and vegetables—is named “happy family.”
“At first, I made French fries and ate fast food,” Cai writes in the book’s preface. “As time wore on, I wanted to cook for myself, but didn’t know where to begin.” So she did what so many of us have tried: she sought help on the Internet. Cooking instructionals on the video-sharing Web site Vimeo offered her useful techniques and inspiration. Eventually, she decided to make her own.
Her three-minute creations—which have attracted close to eight million page views on Youkou, the Chinese equivalent of YouTube—are stylistically indistinguishable from their English-language muses: extremely pretty, with ambient music and a life-style-magazine sheen. Some open with a premise—a single mother shopping with a toddler strapped to her back, or a husband waking up famished next to his still-sleeping wife; others launch expeditiously into expert chopping and dicing. It’s the sort of aspirational food porn that a young person, bored and alone, with nothing but a WiFi connection for company, might mindlessly click through while eating a bowl of microwaved ramen—which is exactly what Cai discourages. “A person who is eating alone cannot do so casually. He cannot simply make do,” Cai admonishes. “Food has healing powers that exceed the imagination. It will nourish you, fill your stomach but more importantly, it can heal your loneliness.”
But in the world’s biggest and busiest economy—where striving urbanites and struggling migrant workers alike regularly work seventy-hour weeks, and where rapidly changing life styles perennially outpace the evolution of social norms—is cooking elaborate meals for oneself all that realistic? With her videos and her book, Cai offers a way to avoid feeling ostracized, but she fails to question why a person dining solo in China is made to feel ostracized in the first place. As a coffee-table topper, her epigrammatic prescriptions and sepia-toned photos are quaint, and she writes that she intends to share “a mode of existence and attitude about life.” But she does not go on to explain what that means, exactly, and she does little to address the cultural context in which eating alone in public—when one does not have the luxury of a kitchen, or the time to prepare an elaborate meal—might be appropriate or even necessary.
Instead, Cai’s “recipe stories” depict smartly turned-out men and women concocting preternaturally photogenic meals from an almost parodic, parallel universe. One story, centered on the summer waffle—a decadent confection of strawberries, cream, and sugar—follows a silken-haired young woman taking herself out on a sumptuous picnic set on a patch of grass as artificial-looking as the story’s premise. Another popular episode features a Cantonese clay-pot classic requiring such a baroque set-up that it’s difficult to imagine anyone doing so without professional culinary aspirations. Very few characters in Cai’s charmed universe seem to be functioning under any sort of time constraint. (Fewer still seem to contemplate cooking in bulk, surely a more sensible option for the lone chef, if infinitely less pleasing on the small screen.)
Scrolling through the series, I tried to remember where, exactly, I had tasted any of the items I was being instructed to cook. Sha-cha kebabs: at a food stall in Shanghai sometime in the early aughts. Sesame pudding: at a dessert shop down on Mott Street? Spicy broiled fish: in a subterranean food court in Flushing, Queens, called New World. Come to think of it, New World—a connected warren of eateries, each touting a regional cuisine from the old world—has been the site of many of my solo culinary adventures. In China, food courts like New World are on the rise precisely because they fulfill the urban Chinese’s desire to eat eclectically and economically, without the fuss and mess of preparation. In Kunming, a Yunnan city I visited two summers ago, the food court in the basement of a newly opened Walmart resembled nothing so much as a college cafeteria.
There’s a reason Cai’s videos and book are as delectable as the dishes they feature; they, too, are made for consumption, much more so than imitation. They may, ostensibly, seek to teach, but the more necessary lesson, perhaps unbeknownst to even the teacher herself, can’t be taught in the kitchen. What’s needed, most pressingly, is the acceptance of a more individualized and independent way of living, befitting a changing China. Societal permission for solo diners to consume un-self-consciously—to savor solitude without fear of discrimination and the anxiety of judgment.
“I’m watching this alone,” a commenter wrote wryly beneath the video of the summer waffle. “It relaxes me and loosens my heart.” To be alone isn’t always to be lonely. Sometimes, a strawberry waffle is all the companionship you need.
Of course, the stigma doesn’t belong to the Chinese in China, alone. In South Korea, where the word for family translates into “those who eat together,” the online phenomenon of Mok-bang, or “eating broadcast,” in which a video host shares the consumption (and sometimes the creation) of his or her solo meal with an online audience, amounts to a Millennial response to the increasingly outdated cultural faux pas. If you are eating in front of a screen and conversing with virtual companions (sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands) in the comment section, might an act of solitude transform itself into one of solidarity?
I’ve returned many times to Shell Cove, my little hot-pot hut on a stretch of Elmhurst, Queens, that, with its riotous neon displays and Mandarin bustle, might as well be the mainland. Sometimes I eat with friends, and other times without. That first time, it took a while for me to admit to myself that it was not whimsy but embarrassment masquerading as whimsy that accounted for my furious engagement with social media. Broadcasting the fact that I was eating alone rather than sitting in private shame seemed like the right choice. That is, until I splattered chili oil all over the table, stuffed condiment bowls with enough garlic to repel an entire village, and opened my novel—a shameless thriller.
I was alone with my book, my breath, and a boiling cauldron big enough to contain a newborn, and it seemed like the sort of date where I could be myself—if I weren’t so busy worrying about what my twelve hundred Facebook not-quite-friends thought. My phone pinged several times after my posts: texts from friends mocking my self-mockery or asking if I needed any assistance, in my state of desperation, finishing up those enoki mushrooms. More than halfway through my novel, and my meal, a disarray of stringy white stems,remained untouched, and the broth in the pot had boiled off to reveal a lukewarm slurry. But what was so wrong with that? Hot-potting alone has its perks: I got to pack the leftovers.