Did I mention that the food in China was great? Travelling there I was full of trepidation about the food. Chinese is not my favourite cuisine, though that’s more likely because of the bland, generally Cantonese skewed dishes we get served up at our local take-away joint. I had the idea in my head though too that it would be somehow confronting. Though I never consciously pondered it I feared I might come across a market with cute little dogs stuck in cages. Or else happen across the generally smelly and practical wet market you see across Asia. I wondered to if the food itself, closer to it’s roots, might not be too unfamiliar to me, and challenging to swallow.
As it turns out none of that occurred. I saw live ducks for sale at different places, and turtles in markets and by the side of the road, but nothing near as full-on as I feared. For the most part the difference in the food from home was well in China’s favour. I remember once being unpleasantly surprised by the presence of large, roughly chopped bones in a chicken dish, but that was mere inconvenience – the dish was delicious. In fact pretty well everything I ate was delicious. Should be no surprise, but it was about a hundred times better than the Chinese tucker here – and not once did I see a lemon chicken, beef and black bean, special fried rice or a number 46 on the menu.
The fact of the matter is that the Chinese we eat has been westernised to fit in with our generally blander palates and more delicate sensibilities. We get a narrow band of food in general, with the exception of some pretty good restaurants. China is a bloody big country, with different ethnic groups and regions all with their own particular specialties. For the most part we don’t get exposed to that here. Sure, we tuck into our spring rolls, like our dim sum, and delight in the variety of dumplings we can get here; we get plenty of Cantonese food, Sichuan cuisine is pretty well known, plus we get other bits and pieces from all over – I guess the greatest hits package. What we don’t get is the vast range of different food available in China, and little of the street food. It’s a lot to ask that we might be exposed to so much variety maybe, but really, we’re missing out on a lot.
Chinese love their food – in fact one of their common greetings translates to “have you eaten yet?” – but are also pretty matter of fact about it. I guess when you’ve got over a billion mouths to feed there’s not much sense in being squeamish about the available food sources. And so besides the conventional chicken and pork, beef and fish, there are plenty of other options that Chinese swear by – turtles obviously, and reputedly dog, donkey quite commonly, as well as a variety of insect life – beetles, centipedes, cockroaches, etc. There’s sheep penis (though, as a friend pointed out, more correctly ram penis), and the various nether reasons and entrails of lots of different formerly living things.
I steered clear of all of that stuff. I’m all for adventure and believe one of the great delights of travelling is the food, but this mouth doesn’t need a penis in it, let alone a bug.
My adventure was largely with the street food, which was great. Dumplings obviously, but also fried noodles, a little shallot pancake the locals have for breakfast, a spicy chopped chicken wrap sort of thingy, and skewers, generally lamb, cooked over a small metal barbecue, as well as little sesame buns, and so on. All this is cheap, very popular, and generally delicious. I was happy to get by on street food.
Still, I ate out most days, and had some cracking meals. My favourite Chinese cuisine is Sichuan. I like it hot and spicy, and I sought it out while I was over there. I had plenty of meals chock full of Sichuan pepper and chillis. When I wasn’t having that I tried regional favourites from all over China, and found I liked the food from Tibet and close-by – but really it was all pretty good. The only doubtful meal was when I was in Xidi, where I got served a dark, liquid dish containing chunks of potato and glutinous hunks of fatty pork belly in a sauce redolent of star anise. It wasn’t bad, it was just a bit fatty for my taste, and I’m not a big fan of star anise.
Bottom line is that I return to Oz and Chinese food now is now one of my favourites – but the Chinese version, not the bland counterfeit we get too often here.
- Do you like Chinese food? (rbclark.wordpress.com)