As Shanghai extends its COVID-19 lockdown, millions of residents have turned to self-organized “group buying” amid logistical challenges to secure daily necessities.
But some of the city’s residents are grappling to make use of their hard-earned groceries — they don’t know how to cook. Those used to the country’s convenient takeaway services and online grocery deliveries are struggling to find ways to keep themselves fed, probably for the first time in their life.
Sixth Tone spoke with four Shanghai residents navigating through the food — and also personal — crisis.
Yi Yu (pseudonym), 25, new media editor
Our community in Minhang District has been under lockdown since March 8 after an infection was detected.
I didn’t know how to cook before. I only used my kitchen to store beverages. I thought I could live off takeaways my entire life.
I ate instant noodles for the first 14 days of the lockdown — after that I just felt like throwing up whenever I saw their packaging. I even swapped different types of instant noodles with my neighbor.
It’s an unhealthy diet, and I have finally decided to cook. Initially, I couldn’t even recognize the types of various vegetables or how to cook them. I learned from (lifestyle platform) Xiaohongshu and Douyin, and my mother also sends me cooking tutorials every day.
I burned frozen dumplings when frying them for the first time but didn’t want them to go to waste. Then I tried to stir fry vegetables but put too much salt in, though I can make sure they’re cooked and I won’t starve to death.
Photos of frozen food Yi Yu cooked and some of her vegetables, 2022. Courtesy of Yi Yu
During the lockdown, I need to stock up on some stuff every day to feel secure and also figure out how to cook. You should never feel like you have enough food — we don't know when the lockdown will be lifted.
I will leave Shanghai by the end of the year. The city cannot give me a sense of security. I don’t want to suffer similar experiences anymore.
After this COVID-19 wave, I will keep improving my cooking skills, stock up on supplies, and plant some vegetables at home. You never know how long you will be confined at home. Someday we might also have to return to bartering.
Sam (pseudonym), 30, government relations worker
I was placed under a one-week lockdown in late March before the citywide lockdown. For the first few days, I just ate whatever snacks I had, like yogurt. We were allowed to order takeaways after three days.
After the two-phased lockdown was announced, I didn’t bother to get any cooking equipment or have any means to cook anything. I didn’t think it was going to get bad enough for me to need those.
So I just picked up a few things at local grocery stores — carrots, cucumbers, yogurt, and bread — and also ordered on JD.com four days before the lockdown started. None of them arrived.
In the first few days, I lived off raw vegetables, yogurts, fruit, crackers, and cereal. Three days after the lockdown started (in the other half of Shanghai) on April 1, my landlord got me a small pot and a couple of spatulas. But I still don’t have any cooking oil, spices, condiments, or sauces.
Now I cook but it ends up burnt and flavorless. It’s sad. The food doesn’t taste like anything. The only thing that I can use to flavor any of my food is beer and red wine.
I know how to cook, but I’ve never cooked for a year and a half in China. I always eat out.
For a lot of people, it’s probably the first time in their life that they’ve ever had to worry about not having enough food. Normally, you would worry about the options to choose from.
But suddenly, it’s a completely different mindset. It’s always like I have to look for ways to be able to get more food because it could actually run out. People aren’t used to this kind of stress.
Being locked up is already stressful, but stress about food worsens that. I’ve been off work for the most part of the lockdown. I’m trying to figure out how to manage this situation better, and not be overly stressed from work as well.
I still have a few boxes of cereal, two packets of instant noodles, one cabbage, half a carrot, one cucumber, and some remaining vegetables. They could last for two more days.
Now we’re trying to do group buying, but it’s difficult because we only have 15 people in our building. Otherwise, the expectation is probably the neighborhood committee will try to offer something.
Zhang Zhongyun, 24, bank teller
I rent a commercial apartment and live alone. I started to work from home on April 1.
I don’t have a kitchen here — there’s no stove, so I cook using an electric pot. I bought it and a rice cooker when I moved into the apartment early this year, but didn’t use them until the lockdown. I usually order takeaways or eat at the company canteen.
The meals I cook taste very average, and I have limited ingredients. I often eat similar food, such as beef rolls, for several days in a row. I’m not motivated to get out of bed in the morning because I’m already thinking of what I’ll have to eat.
During the lockdown, you are always panicking no matter whether you are fully stocked up. Even when you have sufficient food, you’re worried about their expiration date. When you’re running low, you panic about what to eat and how to secure supplies.
I have enough food for a week. There are several packs of dumplings, instant noodles, beef rolls, and some vegetables. I bought them all through group purchases.
We’ve never received food supplies from the neighborhood committee. They said commercial apartments don’t have a kitchen and they would prioritize only those with property rights.
When I lived with two roommates in 2020, cooking was a social activity and we were happy cooking and talking. Now cooking is a necessity. I have to cook or I’ll starve to death.
I will not continue cooking after the outbreak is contained. I’m usually tired from work and not in the mood to cook.
Wang Nan (pseudonym), 30, software developer
I ate instant noodles every day for the first week of the lockdown since April 1. I’m running out of the 10 packs of noodles in stock, so I’d have to do with the only ingredients left. I have sausages, rice, and some vegetables distributed by the neighborhood community, which could last for about a week.
I do find instant noodles delicious. I also take one multivitamin tablet a day as a supplement.
I thought the lockdown would be lifted as announced (April 5), so I didn’t prepare much foodwise. I wasn’t concerned about what to eat then. I thought at least I would not starve to death.
Now I’m getting worried. I look for ways to buy whatever supplies there are, in case the lockdown keeps extending.
The last time I cooked was in 2015 when I worked in Shenzhen and had a larger kitchen. I often cooked one or two times a week then.
Wang Nan fries cabbage and onion using the only ingredients left on Monday (left) and his instant noodles and some snacks left in stock, 2022. Courtesy of Wang
Still, cooking is troublesome. I usually rely on takeaways, and only cook when I have to.
Time is valuable for me. I often work from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and do overtime to around 9 p.m. once or twice a week. I would rather spend time dealing with problems at work than making meals.
The lockdown has reminded me of the importance of stocking up on a few more boxes of instant noodles for emergencies. But for now, I’ll just need to stay alive first.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: DuKai photographer/Moment/VCG)