Part 2 in a long series of posts about my month and a half in China. Part 1 can be read here.
Before I dive into a post of more history, culture and scenery of China, I thought I would do a short post on a question that was really weighing heavily on my mind when I arrived: what do I eat here?
China is a country with an incredibly diverse culinary tradition, and there are in fact officially eight major cuisine styles: Shandong, Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Anhui and Fujian. I believe I sampled three or four different styles on this trip, though I am not proficient enough at this point to be able to tell you the differences.
Jumping into Chinese cuisine for a midwestern-raised American like me is a bit of a culture shock, and I spent the first couple of weeks of the trip trying to eat things that were at least vaguely familiar to me. At one of the first banquets, we were given fresh salmon, which is rare in that part of China and quite expensive, and it looked it. Since I’m used to eating sushi these days, I was able to happily enjoy it.
Other things were new to me, but just familiar enough. When I visited Suzhou later in my trip, I was treated to one of the local delicacies known as “squirrel fish,” so called because the sliced and fluffed up fish body looks vaguely like a squirrel’s tail. It is a sweet-and-sour fish dish, and it is magnificent.
As an American, one has to get used to the food coming with the head still attached! I tried to explain to my hosts the scene in “A Christmas Story” in which the family is shocked because the Christmas goose is “smiling” at them!
And speaking of big birds, one of the culinary highlights was a trip in Beijing to a restaurant where we could get official Beijing (“Peking”) duck! The duck is sliced thin and one then puts it in a wrap with a selection of sauces and vegetables, much like making fajitas.
But what about smaller meals? At home, I tend to eat just a couple of granola bars for breakfast, and early into my visit I found some nut packages that served the purpose just as well.
But, really, when visiting China, especially on an extended stay, you really should step out of your comfort zone and try something different, even radically different. The breakthrough for me came during another one of our banquet dinners, where we were welcoming another colleague who had just arrived in town. This was after about three weeks into my stay in Jinan.
I tend to have a very nervous and cautious personality by nature. I’ve managed to overcome that and do some wild things at times — like skydiving — because I get increasingly irritated at my nervousness and finally the anger overwhelms the fear. At the banquet on June 5, that led me to finally try what I believe was cicada!
How was it? Honestly, it was just fine. I likened it to a puff pastry in consistency: the outer shell has a slight crunch to it, and the interior is almost ghostly and melts away in your mouth. It didn’t taste like anything in particular, and any unpleasantness I felt came from my own psychology! I freely admit, though, that although I’m happy I tried it, I won’t be making a regular habit out of it.
After that breakthrough, I got a little bolder! While in Suzhou, my hosts wanted me to try “preserved egg,” which appears as follows.
Apparently, most westerners do not like the preserved egg, but I thought it was just fine! It tasted like egg to me! That first plate was cooked preserved egg, and after that, my hosts threatened to have me try the uncooked variety. We in fact did that the next day, and… I still thought it tasted fine!
I tried one other very Chinese style of food just before I left: chicken feet!
I don’t know what I was expecting from it, but in hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised: it tastes like chicken, just like every other part of the bird! The only difference is that there is much less meat on the feet, so you have to work harder to get at it. My hosts explained to me that chicken feet can be purchased ridiculously cheap in the U.S., because of course very few people eat them but people eat lots of chickens.
One other thing I tried on my last week, but didn’t get a photograph of: sea cucumber. The photo below, from Wikipedia, gives you a sense of what it looked like, with the spikes and everything. Mine was presented in a soup, and I’m not sure it was cooked.
Kind of like the cicada, I didn’t know what to expect, but there wasn’t a particularly strong taste to it. Otherwise, it had a chewy consistency. I also had an appetizer of abalone early in my visit, which was about the same as sea cucumber to my insensitive taste buds.
Not every food was shockingly exotic. At one restaurant in Beijing, we tried a couple of unique rice dishes: pineapple rice and bamboo rice. Both of them get their name for what they’re cooked in, as one can see from the photo.
One of the loveliest stops we made on our trip to Suzhou was to a park called Tiger Hill, which I will describe in more detail in a later post. On the grounds is a small tea farm and accompanying tea house; my hosts treated me to a detailed tasting of the local teas grown only there, some hot, some cold. A server sat with us and served the tea to us, explaining (in Chinese) the details of what to expect from each variety.
One delightful restaurant near the hotel in Jinan was “discovered” by my colleague and his girlfriend. There, I had a really delightful stir-fry beef dish which is pretty much soaked in cumin, and I LOOOOOOVE cumin. That became the go-to meal for the last week in town.
But, in concluding this post, I must confess that I didn’t always eat Chinese food! In spite of all the new things I tried, it was still a bit overwhelming for me, so I was grateful to have a very familiar Burger King right next to the hotel!
I always tried to balance out my BK with authentic Chinese cuisine. I could only eat BK for dinner if I had something local for lunch! Incidentally, BK also served as a good way for me to practice my Chinese counting, as I had to listen for my order number to be called out!
So I tried a lot of new food while in China, and I’m looking forward to trying more on a future trip!