Foshan, China: Living on Sixteen Kwai a Day

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Foshan, China: Living on Sixteen Kwai a Day

Okay, it was a pretty insane, self-abnegating thing to do. But it turned into a most entertaining exercise. I was working in Foshan, in China’s Guangdong Province, about 30km from Guangzhou itself. I wanted to save the highest proportion possible of my monthly wage. And I conceived the idea of trying to live in this town of 7m people (it felt like a town, at any rate: this is China, after all) on a mere 16 Kwai (RMB) per day. That’s about two and a quarter bucks.

To do this, I tried to create a small daily profit by selling lunches to my colleagues at the office in Foshan. I had to undercut the 11/12/15 RMB prices of the dirt cheap noodle shops round by our office, or at least offer fare that was more tasty. My quest for ingredients would take me to Guangzhou’s ‘Chocolate Town’[1] and back.

It involved getting to the market before 6am every day to stock up on fresh ingredients, and cooking them in my tiny Foshan apartment kitchen on my single gas burner, then boxing them and taking them to the office. In principle, even if I only broke even on the ingredients, I’d still get to eat free.


Laid out on our postage-stamp-sized work top in Foshan, some of the ingredients Little Minx and I used in our Sixteen Kwai project. Those for our aromatic crab curry are pictured here. Pic: JC, 2014.

In the meantime, however, Little Minx had arrived from Thailand on a three-month spousal visa, so we were having a lot of fun going to the market and then preparing the food together. Wherever we go in Asia, locals simply assume that Little Minx is one of them (she has Thai, Shan, Burmese, Indian, and Chinese blood in her, so perhaps it’s not such a surprise) and jabber on to her in the local tongue (here, Mandarin and some Cantonese). We’d mastered ‘Wǒ bùshì zhōngguó rén, wǒ láizì miǎndiàn,’ which means ‘I am not Chinese, I am from Myanmar.’ So Little Minx would trot this out, only to be ignored universally, since no one we ever met had the faintest idea what or where ‘Myanmar’ was or is.


Little Minx outside one of our fave bakeries in Guangzhou’s Xiaobei district. LM loved coming here from nearby Foshan, as I did; we’d stock up on ingredients and bread, taking big bags of the delicious nans you can see in the background home to stash in the freezer. At around US 20c each, they’re filling, delicious, and piss-cheap. Pic: JC, 2014.

So we were cooking together, and I was writing down the ingredients and the recipes we were making up. I planned to try and mix recipes, political analysis, and history in a book. Crazy idea. But, on the other hand, we were having a lot of fun, and I was saving more than two-thirds of my wages. I was eating good, fresh food, and Little Minx and I were gallivanting around Guangdong province having a rare old time. In the evenings we’d hang at our local shop drinking 40c beers and munching on bread and salad. At weekends we’d go to Lingnan Tiandi, the restored old quarter of Foshan with its gelaterias and cafes, bars and restaurants. LM would coo over the jade and I’d suddenly suggest repairing to the gelateria for ice cream, a temptation I knew she’d never pass up on, with her sweet tooth.


A Xiaobei resident, but perhaps only temporarily…. Tethered ram just off Xiaobei’s main alley. Awaiting the executioner’s song, I’ll be bound. Little Minx and I had considered buying goat meat, but after encountering this fearsome-looking creature we plumped for mutton. Pic: JC, 2014.

(Almost) proper job pad thai, Foshan-style

Ingredients (serves five, but you need a large wok)

Noodles, obviously: you can use dried ones and each person should have about 150g for a generous portion. Don’t precook or blanch them, but soak them in water for 30-40 minutes. Plain or egg noodles are equally good: whatever you prefer.

200g prawns (in their shells). We’re strapped so we used the meat from 250g chicken legs. Also, we haven’t got any nam pla (Thai fish sauce, an essential ingredient), so we cannot claim that this pad thai is the real thing. But it tastes damned good nonetheless.

2 squares of tofu (I like smoked. In the markets in China they come in about 100g squares, so I’m guessing about 150g to 200g of tofu.)

3 eggs

A double handful of fine (i.e., thin) beansprouts (there are half a dozen varieties of beansprouts in the markets, or at least, sprouts of differing ages. We were using the youngest ones).

8 good sized spring onions (four for cooking, four for garnish)

3 large cloves garlic (or 10 tiny Thai cloves, whose skins you leave on as they hold a lot of flavour). If the ordinary cloves, microchop them. If the Thai cloves, crush and chop into 1mm strips

A pinch of chulotte, or Asian salt (ie. crystalline monosodium glutamate)

If you’re concerned about the possible health implications of MSG, don’t be. The salt has been used in cooking across Asia especially for more than a century. The lethal dose is 15g per kg of body weight in mammals similarly metabolised to man, compared to 3g/kg for cooking salt. Which is more dangerous? Its classic umami taste balances and enhances flavours right across the board, and used sparingly it’s an excellent ingredient.

The MSG scare began with a baseless and most unscientific assumption by US biomedical researcher Robert Ho Man Kwok that the generalised malaise he felt the morning after a visit to a Chinese restaurant in New York was solely attributable to the MSG used in the food. No studies have been undertaken to corroborate this impressionistic assumption, yet the ‘syndrome,’ first made public in Kwok’s letter to the New England Journal of Medicine, became an oft-repeated factoid trotted out by the West’s health-conscious chattering classes, who now had a legit way of sidestepping the humiliation of trying to use chopsticks in a public place.

Were darker forces at work? Was Kwok in the pay of Mafiosi concerned at the financial damage Chinese restaurants were doing to their money-laundering Italian eateries? Perhaps one day the FBI files will be declassified.

1tsp normal salt

Soy sauce (both the table variety and the black cooking variety)

Fish sauce (nam pla)

Rot dee (chicken or pork powder). This translates as ‘good taste,’ in that special literality that Thai does so well.

4tbsp cooking oil (not olive; the flavour is too intrusive; I use sunflower oil as it’s lighter than palm oil. Palm oil plantations have devastated the flora and fauna of Borneo and Malaysia, among other Asian nations.)


Breaking bread: Little Minx feasting on nan and salad after a visit to one of Foshan’s Uighur restaurants. Pic: JC, 2014.


Heat the oil in a wok. When it’s good and hot, add the chicken or prawns and fry over a medium heat for 4 minutes until properly cooked.

Add the tofu and fry for a further couple of minutes.

Add the eggs and swish around to break the yolks. Fry for 2–3 minutes, depending on the size of the eggs, stirring all the while to break the eggs up.

Add 1/4 tsp of chulotte (you can substitute sodium chloride if you’re more worried about MSG than the food’s dioxin content or the xenoestrogens in plastic packaging. Personally, I’m over all that). Also add the flavour powder.

Add the noodles and nam pla and fry for a minute over a low heat. You’ll need a large wok as you have to keep tossing the noodles like a salad to try and mix all the other ingredients in.

Add a good glug of table soy sauce and a tablespoon of the darker, duskier, concentrated cooking variety, and cook over a low heat for a further 2–3 minutes, again tossing and mixing all the while.

Add the beansprouts and spring onions and fry a little more. Mix really well, but do this with a pair of chopsticks rather than a wok spatula as you don’t want to damage or cut the noodles.

If at any point the noodles start to ‘pop’ too much (which means that the water molecules they contain are being overheated), add a little water to the wok.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve garnished with a single spring onion, topped and tailed, to be eaten as a crunchy accompaniment.


Sheep wrangling, Uighur-style, Xiaobei, Guangzhou. Animal rights have percolated little into Asian cultures, and these boys simply lobbed the sheep into the mototaxi and held it down by main force as it drove off to deliver its live cargo. Perhaps they should have popped a couple of Xanax into its morning feed; they’d have saved themselves, and the poor sheep, a deal of annoyance. Pic: JC, 2014.

[1] This appalling moniker is universally used by local Chinese to refer to the Guangzhou district of Xiaobei, where many African migrants live and work (of whom significant numbers are students on sponsored studies). The area, also home to Chinese Muslim minorities, is pulsing with vibrant eateries and specialist butchers and bakers. Here you’ll find goat, mutton, lamb, beef, and round nan bread of every description, baked Turkic-style by Uighurs from Xinjiang Province in China’s remote north-west. Entering Xiaobei you cannot help but start drooling, since the streets are fogged by the delicious smoke from innumerable barbecues. Little Minx and I loved Xiaobei and would go there whenever we could to source ingredients. Our Shan-style mutton curry went down an absolute storm with colleagues at work in Foshan. We sold out despite charging an outrageous 15 RMB for a portion.

John Clamp

John Clamp

John Clamp has lived, worked, and scuba dived in Asia for ten years. An incorrigible traveler, he knows Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, China, and South America. His favorite places are Rio de Janeiro, Borneo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, and the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea. He is currently an editor for Maqshosh English.


  • Erika

    If only I could cook…

    July 1, 2017 at 10:23 pm
  • Ronald

    Love it so much thanks for good tips

    July 2, 2017 at 1:57 am
  • saleha

    Fantastic blog. I lived in Foshan but spent far too much. I think it was the loneliness. All my friends were losing weight, I managed to put on a few pounds, which was okay. Nevertheless, I loved China and if you go to the right bars, you can definitely get free drinks even if you are not a white foreigner but a tanned one with a mix between English and American accent.

    July 2, 2017 at 4:51 am