I know that so far, my site has dealt with art and nature in China. Recently, I’ve discovered that on other sites about this vast country, food is of great prominence, but I’ve been missing several aspects. We’d like to cover this missing area using our earlier experience.
We’ve intentionally avoided the title ‘Chinese food‘ for various reasons. For one, this is a continent-size country with 50% larger population than Europe (as to comparison of the area, look at the map, flip it in your mind and imagine the top to correspond to Scandinavia, the right side, XinJiand ant Tibet, to be European Russia etc.), so when they asked me (regularly) if I liked Chinese food, I asked back which Chinese food they meant. Because they left their mouths agape after that, I always added that there was some that I loved (highly-ranked among all the kinds of food I love), and some that I don’t. I didn’t add that I actually avoided the second type at all cost. But the point is, we don’t speak about European food, do we, so why ask about Chinese food.
Another reason is that for most people in Europe and perhaps also in the Americas and Australia, Chinese food means the sticky kinds of single dishes covered in shiny jelly they make for the palate of ‘Westerners’. They rarely eat those dishes themselves either in China, or in Europe – after the restaurant closes, they make their own, separate kind of food.
I don’t mind popularizing the Chinese language blog on the Transparent language site, where several articles have already been published about food. They are very good, and they give a wide overview of street food and restaurant food. There’s also an entry about 20 common Chinese dishes. I’d like to add a few remarks though.
As I’ve pointed out, China is so vast that choosing any dish as common, popular, or anything like that is futile. Hundreds of millions of people consider rice as staple food, but further North, pasta and dumplings are more usual, though they still eat rice, and pasta is still very popular in various areas of the South. Then there are the coastal regions, where fish is a lot more prevalent than inside the country, and muslim people of the North and North-West eat differently from those in Tibet or Sichuan, where extremely hot dishes are the order of the day. These, however, may be equally popular elsewhere too, as I got used to it in Zhejiang province, which is famous for its simple, plain vegetable dishes. The most important rule is that there are few patterns in China, but this is a country where you can never be left hungry on the roadside.
Further, the Western concept of dishes is almost useless about food in China. As is also pointed out elsewhere, people eat in larger groups, either in restaurants or at home, than in Europe, or the US, and in restaurants that means the use of “lazy Susan“, possibly an English concoction of a phrase itself. Here, the members of the company are free to choose whatever they wish from the rotating middle section of the table, which is usually packed with different bowls and plates of food in the course of the event, as can be seen from these two photos on the right, taken during the same dinner.
Most homes have no rotating table, though, so when there’re guests, tables are just lain heavily with bowls of various, variously prepared food that we wouldn’t call dishes in English. These are simple, boiled vegetables of all manner, or raw fruits. The point is that everybody is free to pick whatever and however much they want from each bowl.
What strikes me most is that after a lot of discussions on food, what hundreds of millions of people eat at their work-places, or tens of millions of students and their teachers eat at school and at university canteens is still shrouded in mist. I think that’s the most genuine reality, especially come exam-time, and with the teachers having no time to go out with the thousands of tests to be corrected. And factory workers also have precious little time to go out for a leisurely lunch, however popular the jiaozi-places are in the inner-cities.
Chinese people, often quite justifiably, have a very bad reputation of getting drunk. They love their terrible, or sometimes less terrible, rice wines, and love to toast on each other at meetings and in restaurants. Let me counteract this image with a photo taken at a year-end university dinner. No, no mistake: what you see is people toasting with milk!
What I noticed around a decade ago was that as to private schools, teachers and students almost never left the campus, and were confined to eating canteen food, which was edible at best. Most people slurped up glutinous rice soup from a small metal bowl for breakfast, and often for lunch and dinner as well, in the latter cases supplemented with something like xī hóng shì chǎo jī dàn (scrambled eggs and tomatoes), or baozi. Scrambled eggs become terribly soggy as they add the raw tomatoes for a few seconds – I soon learned to avoid this dish.
Out of the 20 common dishes mentioned above, I’d never seen jianbing (egg pancake made in the street) before I travelled to Beijing. In Zhejiang, Shanghai, Chongqing, Nanjing and the like in the South-East or middle-China, they simply don’t exist. In Beijing, they were a popular beginning to any day. I still miss them.
Baozi, jiaozi, longbao, shaomei, and other items readily translated to mean “dumplings” by the locals are made of the same pasta, the name depending on the form. Each kind taste very differently, depending not on the form after which they are calles, but on what’s stuffed inside and how well they are steamed, so, at least for me, a Hungarian, they were nothing like dumplings at all. However, these are among the best and most usual kinds of every-day food, especially when they are also fried a bit at the bottom (I’ve forgotten the name).
As to what’s most prevalent, besides these ‘dumpling’ kind of things, I’d say danchaofan can also be found easily wherever I went, be it the South, East, North, or the middle of the country. This is a simple dish where any kind of fast fried vegetables, mostly peas, corn, thin slices of carrots, cabbages, meat and the like are scrambled with rice and pieces of omelette. You can find this everywhere in the streets, around railway- and bus stations or at the depths of any inner- and outer city. In my days there, this was really a dish only, and it cost almost nothing, as around 2 yuan had no meaning expressed in $. But it was generous enough to see me through the day.
Another favourite of mine in Zhejiang was qiezi, the Chinese variety of the egg-fruit, which is thin and long, cut up diagonally into smaller pieces and cooked in soy sauce with garlic (also a staple to Chinese food) and some other stuff. It’s wonderful with rice or pasta, almost impossible to make from European egg-fruits. This dish is also generous in small street-side restaurants in various cities, where simple people dine. Unfortunately, these restaurants often fall prey to building developments, along with charming old districts in most cities.
As to canteen food, people can find these dishes, and a lot of others to get stuffed with, during the day too, or after classes at universities. They were cheap, but absolutely not high quality. The safe bet was to get sorts of dumplings for breakfast, and something like the above for lunch and dinner. At places, though, I was fortunate enough to get plates of the famous gongbao jiding, chicken mingled with pieces of pepper, potatoes and cooked peanuts with a generous amount of diced chicken meat. Whether this is made hot with chilies or not, depends on the region of course. In this photo, you can see it to the right of the hot egg-plant dish I got at a small family ‘hotel’ in Yunan province. The canteen variation in Zhejiang was drier, but equally tasty. The dish at the top is unknown for outsiders, but is equally tasty, made of very thin shredded and fried potatoes with a lot of hot chilies and a little something else. But German palate, beware!
To add just a few more aspects, let me add that, as a lover of chicken meat, I quickly learned to avoid any chicken dish (other than the gongbao jiding), as they are always made of chopped-up chicken pieces: a whole chicken is probably taken by the scruff after being gutted, and is chopped up carelessly with a big kitchen-axe, so my dish contains all manners of pieces of sinews, bones and joints intermingled with the meat. Besides, this all was then simply boiled, so there’s little taste to the little meat left. Nothing to be enjoyed together with pieces of tasteless boiled potatoes – or pieces of lotus stems.
Similarly, the dish famous in Europe as sweet-and-sour was a similarly huge let-down. I had it at the canteens where I worked a couple of times and quickly gave up: this is a dish made of pieces of pig bones, and though I could say they remind one of the taste of what we in Europe are used to under the name, they contain practically no meat at all. Suffice it to say, they were one of the cheapest kinds of food in the canteen, but I was left with hunger afterwards. Try at your own peril.
On the other hand, I’ve had some of the most delicious kinds of food at various places around China simply by chance. To the North of Beijing, actually North of the Wall as well, I and my son stumbled upon the most wonderful dishes we’ve ever eaten, simply by sheer luck – we pointed at this and that, and one, for example, turned out to be pieces of eel fried and then cooked in some heavenly sauce I can’t describe. The other dish, the extremely hot ‘suancai yu’, the Sichuan fish soup with a kind of sour cabbage, is still our favourite with my friend, and we make it whenever the occasion arises. My all-time favourite.
Enjoy your meal!
by P.S. and Z.J.S.