Food Tales from China
Some years ago I was working in a relatively small restaurant. It was a quaint place with a large outdoor seating area, a few indoor tables and an open kitchen, so open in fact that guests would often walk right in and chat to us Chefs. This was also because most of the customers were on a first name basis with us and felt completely at home in our kitchen. It was a very comfortable place to work. Most nights we ran with just 3 of us in the kitchen, myself the apprentice and the kitchen hand. The kitchen hand, Jason, was originally from Shanghai. A very mild mannered humble man of about 45. He had a young child and pretty wife that would often pick him up at the end of his shifts late at night. They were in Australia on a working holiday, and although he was a high ranking civil engineer back in Shanghai, he was completely comfortable with washing dishes here in Sydney as he knew his minimal English was a limitation. Having said that even with his minimal English there were plenty of conversations in that kitchen.
They eat with pride and cook with pride even the simplest of meals. This is not a culture that invented the sandwich or fast food.
I had in those years developed quite an interest in all things China and Jason had plenty to tell on that topic. He told me of the phenomenal growth Shanghai and the whole country were experiencing. He told me of the food he grew up on and told me the Chinese names of all the seafood we had in the cool room. He told me of how the rapid change in his country had meant that many generations could not relate to one another, grand parents had grown up in Dynasty ruled China, parents in dictatorial communist China, and children were raised in the current all Capitalism embracing Communism. All these things, some good some bad intrigued me to get there even more. So when my best friend Trevor moved there from Canada for a job as a Journalist in Beijing with Chinese Radio I knew it would only expedite my inevitable trip to China.
That trip came a few months ago and I have to be honest I was impressed, very impressed. I shall stop short of telling every aspect of it that impressed me as that would take more room than we have here. Instead I will just focus on the food and what amazing food it is. This, my first trip to China saw us eating from Beijing to Hong Kong via rail and back again. To give you some idea of the scale of the space between those 2 amazing cities, it is around a 26 hour train journey.
Maybe it is my ignorance or maybe it is the fact that China has so much else worthy of mentioning, but when people used to mention great food cultures of the world, I would tend to think of countries where I know food is an integral and everyday part of the culture and lifestyle. Places like France, Italy, South America and South East Asian countries like Thailand, Viet Nam and the likes. Obviously I knew China had an important food scene but I did not expect it to be as an integral part of everyday life as it is. The Chinese do not just eat for the sake of eating, they do not eat just because they are hungry, they eat because it is an important part of who they are. They eat with pride and cook with pride even the simplest of meals. This is not a culture that invented the sandwich or fast food. This is a culture where eating is almost always a social event to be shared and enjoyed. This is not an eat a muffin during rush hour in the car on the way to work sort of culture. This is a culture where many everyday dishes have a connection to the history of the soil on which it is eaten. I was lucky to eat with many locals during my trip thanks to Trevor’s connections and I recall many occasions where someone would tell me how a certain dish is named in honour of an emperor or how a meal we were having was the same meal that was eaten after a significant battle or how a dish we were sharing was the signature dish of the province they had grown up in as a child. These are not one off special occasion dishes either, this is everyday food eaten by everybody!
My first day saw me arriving on a comfortably warm yet very smoggy day in the Golden City; Beijing. Trevor and his beautiful fiancé Jing Jing & I went for Dry Pot, a new style of cuisine on the abundant Beijing restaurant scene. Jing Jing ordered the food, chicken beef, vegetable, fish balls and chilli. In the middle of our table was a large hole with a conductive thermal hot plate. We laughed a lot as we caught up and talked over some green tea and very large cheap Tsingtao beers. The food arrived in a big mixing bowl, wow, how much food was there? We ate the food on mee-fan; my first Chinese word meaning rice. The dish was very spicy and absolutely delicious; I had to pace myself and remember to enjoy it before I was too full too quick. There were whole cloves of garlic that were nutty yet subtle, the fish balls were juicy and tender and the chicken & beef were delicious. Trev’s friend and colleague Paul joined us near the end of the meal and after digesting the dry pot we all jumped into a cab and moved onto an area called Nanjie and settled in at a nice quaint outdoor bar. It was just off the main street down an alley and felt a world away from the bustling street it was just off of. We spent the next few hours on that warm autumn night completely relaxed in that courtyard catching up on days gone by. Near the end of the night I remember mistaking the smog for a balmy tropical climate, whoops forgot Beijing is not in the tropics, probably enough Tsingtao for day one.
The next morning we checked out some of the sites in Trevor and Jing Jing’s area and that afternoon we went for a beautiful Dim Sum breakfast/lunch/dinner (which on subsequent days we simply coined; brunner). A few of the dishes that stand out for me were a taste I had of Jing Jing’s cold Turtle soup. It was served stiff like one would store a quality stock or consommé, and then served with a unique briny like sugar syrup, couldn’t have eaten the whole bowl but it was better than I thought. As most dishes Jing Jing ordered it was also apparently ‘very healthy’, I think the health qualities in this case were good skin and teeth, but don’t quote me. Another very pleasant surprise was the sweet braised chicken feet and the countless dumplings of spinach, mushroom & peanut, prawn and pork & broth. Although it wasn’t a dessert per se I chose the last thing that would meet my palate that evening to be a unique yet not too dissimilar from a South American Churro fried pastry consisting of shredded purple potato and sugar, delicious.
A later day saw us eating a very unique style of food from China’s western side, Islamic Chinese food. This is the original ‘Fusion’ cuisine, taking influences from the Middle East and merging them with the flavours of western China, amazing! We had a side serving of crispy bread, similar to Turkish bread, pieced out chicken coated in a delicious and spicy sauce, there were sautéed green peppers, red chillies, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. All of it was delicious except for the onion salad as it was much more onion than salad. The most interesting thing I remember was that unlike many other parts of Asia where a meat based dish may be served on top of a noodle dish, in this cuisine, the noodles, in this case beautiful broad egg noodles were served on top of the chicken dish. Makes sense really when you consider that it was a communal plate and we all served our own plates from it, causing the noodles to again end up under the chicken on our own plates.
That evening we went to the Donghuamen Night Market where you will find everything from sea horses to live scorpions on skewers awaiting to be grilled and eaten. I did not partake in any of these ‘delicacies’ as it seemed to be namely for shock value that these things were offered. Again my luxury of being with many locals was a big plus, Jing Jing informed me that for all her years living in Beijing she had never known this to be a local delicacy and that it’s popularity had increased in relation to the number of international flights into China. Thankfully so, as I am one to subscribe to the ‘When in Rome’ school of thought.
The following day we went for some good and simple local food. It was a restaurant that Jing Jing had chosen and once there Trevor insisted we try the Gung Bao Ji Ding, or as we in the west may know it Kung Pao Chicken. What a difference, this meal to me was the one that really hit home to me that what we had been eating as ‘Chinese’ food in the west has just as much in common with China as does Icelandic food. None of the foods have the glutinous ‘Corn Starch Shine’ you see in western Chinese food, there are none of the glowing purple sauces we know as sweet and sour and even less pineapple. Instead the food is fresh, vibrant and resembles the food in its raw state, the sauces are more ‘dressing’ than the western ‘drowning’ and the meats are naturally tender rather than the processed ones
found in our Chinese food. I was very thankful that we had had at least one western clichéd Chinese item that night so I could finally be certain that what we eat is not Chinese at all and I could get back to eating the things the Chinese do eat. Which in this case was the aforementioned real Gung Bao Ji Ding; a very interesting and equally delicious fried bean salad with diced pork and a wonderful salt & pepper fish garnished with abundance chopped dried chilli and fresh herbs, delicious.
The pride and respect for the foods the Chinese eat is not only something demonstrated by the end user but by everyone, from the farmer who grows it, to the peasant that packs it, to the driver that ships it to the market stall owner that sells it. The vendors who sell in the fruit markets, the vegetable stands and the meat and seafood markets are proud to sell only the best, and selling anything less is shameful. I witnessed Jing Jing claim some lychees were not very juicy (after of course the fruit stand owner let her try it for absolutely free). At first the fruit vendor seemed offended but when he realised she was right, he became ashamed and immediately offered her a cut rate price or an alternative fruit. At this same market were seafood vendors and on their tables were beautiful fish that looked as fresh the minute they landed in the boat, prawns that were alive and jumping as though the 2 inches of water in the tray on that table was the mouth of a great river. Later I saw a pork butcher with her wares laid out on a table, no refrigeration or ice to be seen, just amazing fresh cuts of beautiful pork laid out on a piece of plywood. Now normally this sort of lack of refrigeration would have the ‘Professional Chef’ in me up in ‘Hygiene Standards Arms’ and very wary. However one of the best detectors of pour hygiene I have I keep on my face; my nose and on that day it said nothing, there was no smell in the air, no chemicals, nothing just the smell of fresh food all around. After spending some time at that market I realised why there was no smell, the turnaround was phenomenal. Rickety little trucks brought the fresh goods to the back and tough little Chinese men and women with skin like leather and hands like those of somebody twice their size unloaded them and carted their contents to their respective stalls and immediately started, sorting, cutting, cleaning and putting it all out on display. On our end; the retail end, the flow of goods out the door was less chaotic but equally consistent as bag after bag of the most amazing fresh seafood, pork and produce made its way out the doors in the hands of locals and onto their respective bicycles, scooters, trains and taxis to be cooked into the most amazing meals that evening.
The rest of our trip saw us eating cuisine from virtually every remaining province or region in the country and each left me with an equally memorable experience. Since returning from my trip I have been asked numerous times which region had my favourite cuisine and it is a question I can honestly not answer. Even during my time there I would fall for the spice of Sichuan, only to find that I enjoyed the flavours of Hunan and their different spices and peppers just as much, then we would have Canton and I would be taken by the cleaner flavours and abundance of seafood just as appealing, Then we might have Guangdong cuisine or local Beijing specialties and at the end of the trip I decided that I fell for the nation as a whole based on ALL of the amazing food it offers. I can’t wait to go back and would highly recommend paying it a visit yourself. Bring an appetite and a sense of dining adventure I believe and you will become equally enamoured.
If you’d like to read more about the food in China, and the buzzing Beijing food scene then check out my friend Trevor’s Article at the CBC.