On Thursday a friend and I planned to have a quiet dinner together, enjoying a gift of Russian caviar. I was in charge of the menu. Since I've been eating a lot of heavy food recently I decided to keep it light: thinly sliced pumpernickel bread, boiled egg, chopped onion, a crudite platter and yogurt dipping sauce. This should have been fairly easy.
In the afternoon I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the ingredients: pumpernickel bread, onion, celery, red and yellow peppers, asparagus and other vegetables, and some plain yogurt. I expected to have a relaxing and unrushed evening so I checked my email before I started prep work and put on some music. As the eggs boiled I poured plain yogurt into a bowl and added freshly chopped parsley, mixed Italian herbs, a little bit of olive oil and some black pepper. I've made this dip many times before and know how to get a flavor I'll like.
After mixing the ingredients together I took a taste. ICK! It was wrong. Very wrong. It was sweet. The yogurt was sweet! I quickly realized that there was going to be no way to save that batch - sweet yogurt and savory herbs don't mix well.
The disaster went into the sink and I called my friend, a longtime Beijing resident. She laughed after she heard my story. She'd had a similar type of experience when she first moved here. People here like things sweet, so even plain yogurt is sweetened. Since my heart was set on having a light, and savory, yogurt dip we discussed which of the foreign-foods stores would be most convenient for me to visit on my way to her apartment. I ended up at the Friendship Store in Sanlitun, a holdover from a time when foreigners were first being allowed into the country after the Chinese Communist Party took over. The Communists had plain yogurt. I was grateful.
When I arrived at my friend's apartment I quickly made another batch of dip, this time tasting the yogurt before adding other ingredients, and we had a lovely and relaxing evening together enjoying caviar and crudites. It was GOOD.
The next day I realized I still had a problem. Fig yogurt and coconut yogurt and berry yogurt (and others) are all good but sometimes I don't want something that's been pre-sweetened. I ended up at a local outlet of the French-owned Bonjour grocery store. They had some imported Australian yogurt in the 'foreign foods' section. Chinese labels were pasted over the English ingredient lists, so I ignored the fruited yogurt and put a container of 'natural' in my cart, hoping that I'd be safe.
That done, I headed to the Chinese dairy product section, and the wall of yogurt products. I picked up a number of containers, waxed cardboard containers, plastic bottles and plastic bags all containing yogurt. Finally I located one that had the ingredients listed in both Chinese and English. I used this to find the three characters that mean sugar. I then picked up a container of each and every brand of yogurt that didn't have a picture of fruit on the front and searched for those three characters. They seemed to be everywhere.
I asked a shop assistant to help. I pointed at the yogurt: "wo yao zhege" (I want this), then at the three characters that mean sugar: "bu yao zhege" (I don't want this). She appeared to understand, then started doing what I had done. She picked up every container of plain yogurt and looked that the ingredients, said "you" (this has it) and put them back down. She did that until she located sugar free yogurt, then showed it to me with a smile on her face. I happily yet warily looked at the lable. Aspartame. That's worse than sugar. "Zhege bu hao" (this is not good).
There was no way I was going to be able to explain it was a cancer causing agent so I just told her it wasn't good. Every Chinese yogurt that didn't have sugar had aspartame. Since there was nothing else to be done I asked her to read the Chinese characters on the Australian yogurt and confirm there was no sugar or aspartame. She did. 46 RMB later I had a pint of imported sugar free yogurt. A similar sized container of the Chinese yogurt would have cost 7 or 8RMB. I bought it anyway. I really wanted, needed, craved something that wasn't sweet. The silky, creamy, sugar-free goodness was worth every fen!
Now that I've learned my lesson I've found somewhere else to buy sugar-free yogurt at a more reasonable price. Jenny Lou's sells a pint of Chinese sugar-free yogurt, produced near Beijing, for 7.9 RMB. I'm stocking up.