I'm currently in Hong Kong and before we head off to Bangkok on Saturday, I'd thought it would be good to do a report on all of the Chinese food I've been eating. I also thought it would be fun if I uploaded some photos of various dishes we ate.
I'm not really sure where to begin. Well, for starters, Chinese food in China is pretty different from American Chinese food. Sure, in both cuisines most of the sauces are based on some combination of oil, vinegar, soy sauce and chilies. But the American version tends to be much sweeter. For example, in China there is no such thing as ubiquitous General Tso's Chicken (or Tofu). The syrupy sauces that tend to dominate American Chinese food can't really be found in China.
Another difference is the role of tofu. In American, people usually see tofu as a meat substitute. It is very uncommon for a tofu dish to have meat in the United States. In China, tofu is seen as just another awesome thing you can eat in addition to meat. In fact, many traditional tofu dishes actually have meat in them.
Yet another difference is the role of rice. In the United States, rice automatically comes with any main dish and is free of charge. In China, you have to ask for rice if you want it with your meal and you have to pay extra for it as well. Rice is served in a small round bowl, which you then use as a pit stop for each bite as it travels from the original serving dish to your mouth. Mimi also told me that many Chinese people don't like to eat very much rice, because this implies that you are poor and can only afford rice.
And yet even another difference is how people eat the food! In America, it is not uncommon for each person to order their own dish in a Chinese restaurant. This would never, ever happen in China. Even if you are eating with only one other person, food is always communal, and people would look at you like you were crazy if you tried to order your own dish.
And the very last difference that I can think of between American and Chinese Chinese food is that in China, fortune cookies don't exist. This is a purely American creation.
OK. So where does that leave us? Well, for starters, some of the best food I had was in Shanghai right at the beginning of the trip. Perhaps it was that I wasn't sick of Chinese food yet. Or it could have been the variety of restaurants we ate at. There are tons of different styles of Chinese cuisine and Shanghai has them all: hot pot, Schezuan, country style, northern, Buddhist, Xingjian noodles. You name it!
But I think the real reason the Shanghai meals were so good was because Mimi's father, Yuheng, ordered all the food for us. I don't know what it is, but that guy really knows how to order. In China, it is very common for one person to order for the whole table, and this is usually a signal that he or she will pick up the bill. When ordering, it's important to get good representation. For example, a few cold dishes or crunchy snacks are always good at the beginning. And even for meat eaters, a vegetable dish is always essential. In any event, I had a ton of delicious food in Shanghai. For me, the highlights were the savory crepes I had nearly every morning, the spicy fish head I ate at the Schezuan restaurant, and the meal we had at Jade Buddha Temple.
But when we got to Beijing, we were on our own. We were also eating with less people, so there was less variety at each meal. While in Shanghai, Yuheng had often invited friends of his to eat with us, so there was more food to go around. As a side note, Yuheng also invariable introduced every single one of us his friends as an uncle. Uncle Philip. Uncle Gu. Uncle Li. Who knew Mimi had so many uncles back in Shanghai?!
By Beijing, I began to suspect that we weren't as good at ordering food as Yuheng. By Pingyao, it was confirmed. It wasn't that the food that we were eating was bad. It was just that Mimi and I tended to keep coming back to the same dishes. Ma Po Tofu, eggplant dishes, and sauteed greens had become reliable but somewhat predictable staples. It was in Pingyao that I caved in and had a couple of Western-style breakfasts.
As vegetarians, we also had to be vigilant about making sure no meat slipped into our dishes. For Chinese, using meat stocks and meat oils aren't really seen as eating meat, so unfortunately we had to steer clear of many soups. Additionally, some restaurants said they couldn't remove the meat from certain tofu or veggie dishes. So depending on the restaurant, our range of options could be limited. We made the best of it though, and perhaps more often than not, the Chinese food I ate was downright delicious.
At some of the more basic home-style places we ate at, we would often just ask what vegetables they had available, and the chefs would cook it up for us. These restaurant tend to be simple and cheap. Sometimes the result was boring, but sometimes it was delicious. You never knew until you tried it.
In each city, we tried to treat ourselves to at least one meal at a purely vegetarian restaurant. These places tend to be a bit more expensive and they can be hit or miss. Sometimes, mock meats are devastatingly flavorful and perfectly textured. Other times, they aren't much more than a hollow piece of deep fried nothing. Again, you never knew until you tried it, and that's part of the adventure.
Anyways, Chinese food in China is great. I can't think off the top of my head of any more interesting food-related stories, but I'm sure they will come to me at some point. In the mean time, here are some pictures of some crazy stuff we ate.
Street Soy Milk and Long Doughnut, Shanghai.
Jade Buddha Temple, Shanghai.
Lotus Root Stuffed with Rice, Godly Vegetarian Restaurant, Shanghai.
Hot Pot with Yuheng's Friends, Shanghai.
Fresh Mini Watermelon, Water Village near Shanghai.
Tofu Rolls with Dipping Sauce, Veggie Restaurant, Shanghai.
Cold Street Noodles with Tofu Puffs, Back Alley, Shanghai.
Mock Peking Duck, Beijing.
Sweet Potatoes with Mystery Balls, Pingyao.
The Mystery Balls were Weird.
Fresh Whole Roasted Macadamia Nuts, Pingyao.
Passionfruit, Longji Rice Terraces.