Friday, August 27, 2010

Culinary Adventures in China Continued....

Yesterday I wrote about Isaac's adventures eating on a farm in rural China, and about street food in Beijing. From Beijing I took off to Chongqing Municipality - which is sort of a city-state like DC is. It's right next to Sichuan Province, of the famed Szechuan cuisine.

I was nervous about this situation. I'd done my research and I knew that their food is famous for the liberal use of the sichuan peppercorn. The sichuan peppercorn is, to be blunt, really damn hot. In fact, it literally numbs your mouth, that's how hot it is. To me, that's weird. I don't like really hot stuff, and what's the point of something that numbs your taste buds? That's antithetical to tasty.

The most famous dish in Chongqing is the Chongqing hot pot. When we hopped off the plane they took us directly to lunch... at a hot pot place. We started off laughing because when our bus pulled into this street lined with hot pot shops, the owners began literally running after our bus, attempting to convince the driver to stop at their shop. We were headed to one in particular... the favorite restaurant of the billionaire that owns the university we were working for.

So... this was my introduction to hot pot:
Our guide (who is also my friend and a confusing mixture of American, Taiwanese, and Singaporean) was blunt and hilarious in his description. He told us we had to try it but we should probably never eat it again and we would most likely all get the runs. Hot pot comes in various forms but this one is essentially fish and veges of various types.... in oil. Looks like soup... but it's mostly oil. It is flavored by those aforementioned peppercorns. And it's especially popular on hot days, which is the craziest thing ever.
So... I tried the hotpot, but that's about it. I didn't try a peppercorn, because to me numbing is not tasting. The guy next to me tried a peppercorn unintentionally and his face got red and he began sweating all over.

Everything else was completely delicious. I love stir fried edamame. The white stuff in the bottom left is potatoes, and they do potatoes SO well, they were always delicious. I love green tea, love rice, love Chinese water spinach, etc.

The very next meal was a welcome banquet and the food was similar and was overflowing, and it was AMAZING.

From china

However, you can see again how most things are unidentifiable to your average American, and I always wish I actually knew what I was eating.

From that point on, my trip was centered around the University we worked with, and we ate...

Chinese Cafeteria Food

I was sure that eating at a cafeteria in a foreign country for two straight weeks would be an adventure, and it certainly was. You know how your university cafeteria always puts on a show and actually makes a nice meal for the first time in forever anytime outsiders, parents, or incoming students show up? That was true here too, and the first few days were complete with overflowing buffets of delicious food. At the end of the two weeks we fought over the few dishes we found palatable and then went roaming the streets in search of decent street food.

Regardless, I counted myself lucky that my raised-in-Asia stomach held up well and I did just fine on cafeteria food, unlike almost everyone else I traveled with. They nearly all spent a day hung over the toilet bowl.

It was pretty similar to America, really. Class got out and there was a mad rush through the sauna-like air to the cafeteria, where we all handed in our meal tickets and stopped at a huge vat of rice to fill up our plates. From there we fought the masses to find our personal favorite dishes from the various buffet tables.

From china

And we all sat with our groups at round tables...

From china

And happily dined ... with chopsticks of course...

From china

They were always worried about us because they pack it away at lunch time - HUGE plates full of food. We could never eat as much. On the other hand, we were always in desperate need of water and drinks, which none of them ever had, except for some to-go thermoses of hot green tea (in the sauna air!).

I actually really enjoyed the food until they started running out of my favorites. This, for instance, was a great lunch:

From china

Fried rice, spinach, bao (soft filled steamed rolls - one of these was filled with spinach and onions and the other was filled with a spicy potato mix), fried okra (it's not just in the South!), tomatoes (okay, we don't put salt on any fruit except tomatoes. They put salt on everything except tomatoes, which are sprinkled with sugar!) and the odd french fries (which I'm pretty sure they put out just because the white people were there).

My students told me they'd heard that Americans eat a lot of potatoes. I told them that was true. They said they liked potatoes but that eating a lot of potatoes makes you fat. I said again that this was true, but that in America we also say that eating a lot of rice also makes you fat. My students dropped their jaws. WHAT??? Rice... cause weight gain? Impossible.

They often had some sort of soup, which in my opinion was just a substitute for water because it had nothing in it but flavored broth.

From china

And of course, you don't put bones or other discarded food in a pile in a corner of your plate. It goes on the table. And it is left there when you clear your plates. This is polite.

From china

So funny, right?
Actually breakfast was also funny. We teachers were all staying at a hotel and going to their breakfast buffet. My poor team struggled with the Asian breakfasts. I happily partook of breakfasts of rice cereal, or stir fry, or fried egg and peanuts... but they had a rough time with it. Actually, there was one familiar item. Who knew banana bread, made exactly the same way we make it, is also standard Chinese fare?

From china

When my team finally reached the point of desperation in their need for something even remotely Western, we found a corner shop that looked completely Chinese but was practically a chick-fil-a. AC and chicken sandwiches were all we needed to be VERY happy campers...

From china

From china

Oh and speaking of western food, ever heard of blueberry, cucumber, or kiwi flavored Lays?

China: Blueberry flavor Lay's potato chips

Xin Jiang Cuisine..

Actually, some of the very best food I encountered in China was from little restaurants or stalls serving food from Xinjiang, which is the far northwestern province in China that is primarily Muslim and really wants to be a part of Central Asia and free of China. They're a sort of restive and probably persecuted minority group, and I was thrilled to find a restaurant right down the street from our hostel in Beijing that called Kashgar restaurant.

Kashgar used to be a stop on the Silk Road, and nowadays isn't much of anything. We LOVED the pita/pancake/naan type of bread they served fresh and warm with cumin-spiced mutton grilled over a charcoal fire outside. We came back several times.

From china

In Chongqing my team found another Muslim minority restaurant that we went to often. We bought what we called "breakfast burritos"... they were this thin pancake with egg, scallion, spices, and some pickled vegetables. It was delicious.

From china

I asked my girls if they liked them and they said yes, but they are very dry. They said this about most things I liked. I asked them what wasn't dry and they said rice. Haha... some things never change.


Melissa said...

here they say they "drink soup" and where i work, no one drinks anything at lunch, but they do drink soup everyday!

cclarebear said...


and beijing street food is the best EVER.

mmmm im hungry now and ive only been home for 4 hours!