“To travel is to live.” – Hand Christian Anderson
Although I just started telling the stories of my journeys thus far, I wanted to switch tracks a bit and share with you some of the foods I have tried in China. They range from things with which westerners with a “Chinese” restaurant may be familiar to things that may seem absolutely bizarre to anyone not acquainted with Asian cuisine. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your personal view), I have gotten to eat food from all parts of this spectrum.
I will start by saying, yes, China does have western food. Of sorts… The western food in China is comparable to the Chinese food in the west. By that, I mean that neither is really similar to the food it is imitating. They do have western chain restaurants, such as McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, but they do not taste anything like the ones in America. They still offer a realm of familiarity, however, if one is feeling particularly homesick. The best western food I have eaten in China comes from westerners, namely myself and a few local restaurants that are run by ex-patriots. There are a few wonderful German restaurants, a handful of good British/Irish pubs, and only one true America barbecue place that I have seen so far.
I did not come to China for food that I could get at home. I came to China to be a local, which means eating as the locals eat. The first and, in my opinion, best thing about Chinese food is the abundance of street food. Almost anywhere you go in the major cities (and anywhere else that has at least moderate traffic), you will vendors selling a variety of snacks, treats, and even bigger food items. They have the Chinese version of sandwiches, there are candies and many other sweets, they even sell noodle and rice dishes, depending on where you are.
Another set of places in China with lots of food varieties are the developed hutongs. Hutongs are alleys in China, but many of them have businesses, bars, restaurants, and stands selling snacks, food, and trinkets. There are several larger hutongs like this in Beijing and Xi’an. My favorites so far are the the hutong near the Wangfujing area of Beijing and Huminjie in Xi’an. They offer wide varities of foods and trinkets, with many more things to see than some other hutongs. These places offer things that foreigners and locals alike may not be able to find anywhere else. Some of the strangest I have seen are fried insects and arachnids – scorpions, beetles, cicadas and such, as well as parts of animals we are not accustomed to eating in the west, like intestines and testes.
The hutongs do not just offer the oddities, they offer more palatable options, as well. Many stands sell chips, seafood, duck and chicken meats, and several types of sausages. There are also vendors who make the Chinese version of pancakes, filled with various things – from chives and egg to mushrooms and meat. There are dumplings, steamed buns, and many other delicious things that are both familiar and unfamiliar. There are also quite a variety of drinks that are not usual for westerners – like plum juice and hawthorn tea. On the subject of hawthorn: Chinese eat more of this fruit than any other I have seen. There are all different types of prepared hawthorn, from dried fruit to sugar-covered fruit to drinks and desserts. There are also many stands and open fruit-vegetable markets along the streets at any time.
The hutongs offer the extreme foods for everyone, but if you want to try something much more local, nothing gets any more Chinese than Huoguo, or hotpot. Hotpot a Chinese food style that involves a large pot, sometimes divided into two or three parts, that has boiling broths. Typically, these are spicy broths, but they can be mild as well, with tomato and chicken stock flavors. Vegetables, meats, tofus, noodles, and other dishes are ordered. They are brought to thte table as the broths begin to boil. Once boiling, the food is added and left for a few minutes to cook. Then, the food is skillfully plucked out with chopsticks.
This is most often done with larger groups who want to share a variety of different meats and vegetables. This does take some skill not to spill anything, and spoons with holes are offered for those who are not ready for the challenge. Another traditional food style in China is Malaxiangguo, or dry hotpot. This is similar to hotpot, because you pick a variety of individual meats and vegetables to be cooked together, but there is relatively no liquid. Also, the servings are smaller, meaning this can be eaten with smaller groups. However, eating is often a social activity in China – many people, family and friends, eating together. They do this a few ways, but the Lazy Susan style tables are the easiest way I have seen so far.
China, like America, has many local dishes. While I have not tried them all, I have tried several. I have enjoyed most of them. I still cannot manage to eat fish heads, which are a specialty here in Beijing. China hosts an amazing variety of noodle and rice dishes, vegetable dishes, meat dishes, and desserts and breads. I love the creativity in the presentation, assembly, and seasoning of all the food here. There are many extremely strange foods I have had the opportunity to eat, not pictured here. They include pig brains and donkey penis. Yes, I did try it while I was here. The brains were not as bad as I thought they would be. It was soft and chewy and absorbed the flavors of the hotpot sauce. I decided that I could like them. Penis, however, was terrible. I tried it for the sake of trying it, and I will never eat it again. It as tough, rubbery, bitter and salty. It was altogether an unpleasant experience.
I also had the pleasure of going to Thailand while I am in Asia. Cassey and I were fortunate to try several local foods in Thailand, namely curries and seafood dishes. The food their clashed with Chinese or western food. It was much brighter, with a lot of citrus and cilantro in the cooking. There was a new depth to Asian food that I had not known before in going to Thailand.
I look forward to continue traveling and eating in Asia. I hope to add sequel food posts in the future to share my experiences with you all.