What do you think of when you think of Chinese food? Fortune cookies? General Tsao's chicken? Egg rolls? Those nasty rib things? Maybe even those cute little white boxes. If you're anything like me, I get the image of disgustingly greasy food which leaves me with nothing but indigestion. Maybe something you crave when you have a horrible hangover, but generally not what you want to include in your daily diet. Because of my associations with the American style Chinese food, the only kind I ever knew, before I came here I thought, "What am I going to eat??" I thought maybe I would even lose weight for lack of interest in the food. But this was definitely not the case. Chinese food is nothing like what we eat in America. And there's certainly no fortune cookies. In fact, fortune cookies were invented in California.
Chinese food is as varied as the people and landscapes of this enormous country so you need to be a bit more specific when referring to it. There are 34 provinces in China, each with a very distinct culinary culture. And I love trying all the different tastes! Isn't that one of the best parts of traveling??
Food is very important to Chinese people. In fact, in Chinese people often say "Have you eaten?" as a basic greeting, like "How are you?". People here love to eat. And who would have thought that such tiny people could fit so much into their bellies? Seriously, I've traveled with Chinese girls that are half my size and I just couldn't compete with their appetites. I'm not sure where it goes, but they must have mega-metabolisms. Especially with all the carbs they eat! Huge bowls of noodles, fried bread, steamed bread, rice, rice made into noodles, rice mashed and made into sticky concoctions, fried rice, fried noodles....you get the picture. China is still a developing country and if you look into the not so distant past, there were some major problems with a majority of the population suffering from starvation. Many kinds of food were just not available for most people, especially meat. You ate what you could get. Maybe that's why the idea of waste not prevails today and you can see it in the cuisine, at least here in Guizhou. There's pig snout, chicken feet, dog butt, cow testicles...you name it. I've had the pleasure of eating out of the same hot pot with pig's brain after my friend ordered it the give the meal a little more kick. I have a few friends here who are vegetarian and when they ask for no meat, people look at them like they're crazy. If you could eat meat, why wouldn't you? It was denied to people for so long because of economic reasons, so they take full advantage of the meat they can get now.
Anyway, I've only experienced a very small percentage of what China has to offer the food lover, but I'll share what I've experienced. My first introduction to China was in the north, in Beijing. As you can imagine, heartier food is more popular there, like dumplings, stews and filling breads. People don't eat rice as much in the north because the climate isn't good for cultivating it. They like their noodles, and of course Peking duck. There's influence from Mongolia so there's a lot more milk from nomadic cows, goats and horses.
Down here in the southwest, people love their spice. La jiao, or chile, is put on everything. My friend Kelly once said that if it isn't spicy, it isn't food. Guizhou people are actually suspicious of non-spicy food. I've grown to love the la jiao, which is a lot different from spice in Indian or Mexican food. There's also suan la, which is like a sour spiciness, made from vinegar, garlic and fresh herbs. Sometimes they put in these little bamboo shoots which are pretty bitter, and in my opinion ruins the taste of the food. Usually you see people buying snacks on the street, like tofu cubes or potatoes, and it's always doused in la jiao. When you eat hot pot, you get a separate dish for your la jiao and dip the food in the chile before each bite. My tolerance for spice has gone way up and I think I'll be bringing a bag of this stuff home with me!
Of course not all noodles are the same...Here are some rice noodles cooked in a sour soup, famous in Guizhou:
And sticky rice wrapped in leaves:
Hot pot Miao-style
In Chongqing and Sichuan (where Chengdu is--I'll be going there in early May) provinces, the spice is kicked up another notch. I went to a Sichuan hot pot place once and the food was cooking in a sea of chile peppers. Just sitting near the pot made me cry and my nose run uncontrollably. I accidentally wiped my nose and got a little spice on it. I thought my brain was going to explode. In Sichuan they have this spice called mala that literally numbs your mouth.
In the northwest, where Xijiang and Gansu are, there's a large population of Muslim ethnic minorities like the Uighurs. I've written about my favorite restaurant in the Muslim quarter here in Guiyang in a previous post. Well, the food there is more like Central Asia. Of course there's no pork so lamb and beef are more popular. They make great kebabs and flat bread, and also laghman noodles. These are the kind that Marco Polo purportedly fell in love with on his travels to China and brought back to Italy to influence spaghetti. So yes, spaghetti is Chinese.
There's definitely a lot to try here in China. I have to admit I'm getting a little tired of noodles. And I have to be careful that there's no dog in my dumplings. And that I stay away from grease-drenched snacks on the street. I sometimes miss the Western stuff that I just can't find the ingredients for, like whole wheat bread, decent cheese, cereals, hummus, etc. But every meal out here is a fun experiment. Here are some other things I've tried that I think are really cool...
Jiaozi These are basically what we think of as dumplings. Popular in the North. Can be filled with meat or veggies. Good fried as well.
Baozi, or steamed bread. I love the barrels they make them in. You can see them on almost every street corner in China.
These can be made with white flour, or corn or sticky rice. Sometimes they're filled, sometimes not. I think without filling it's a little too bland. I've had them with spicy vegetables, pork and...sweet red beans.
Sweet red beans. Sort of like mashed kidney beans with sugar. Sounds strange but it tastes really good. It's put on bread and inside baozi.
Any kind of tofu you can imagine. In fact, tofu has come to be my default description of food. If I don't know what it is, I say eh, I bet it's tofu (and hopefully it's not cat). There's the jiggly white tofu that we usually think of in the West, there's smoked tofu, fried tofu, tofu skins, tofu balls, green tofu. And it's all delicious. Except for the kind that they put in plastic packages at convenience stores. That tastes like rubber. Bleh!
Lotus. It's a root vegetable that we barely cook with in the West. I'd never seen it before I came to China and I am a vegetable queen. Of course in Guiyang they normally douse it in chile pepper but I've also just had it with a lighter lemony sauce or in hot pot and that's very tasty!
There's an interesting philosophy that many Chinese people have about food. The concept of yin and yang relate to the kitchen as well. Some foods are believed to cool you down and some to heat you up. The idea is to get a balance of the two. Chinese medicines often dictates dietary change to cure illnesses, so as to restore the balance in your body. If you're sick, chances are the balance is off. Some examples of yin (foods that cool you down) are bean sprouts, cabbage, duck, tofu...and some yang foods are bamboo, glutinous rice, sesame oil, chiles.
Well, I think I've written enough about food for today. I'm sure you've already read about my obsession with the fresh fruits and veggies so I'll just leave it at that! I'll definitely miss Chinese food when I leave. I've already spotted a Sichuan hot pot restaurant in NYC on the New York Times restaurant review...who wants to join me when I get back to the US??