For those of you who have ben religiously following my Armchair Traveler series, I’ve been focusing on my trip to China. I started by giving you the tourist’s point of view. It’s the land of the have and have-nots. Then I took you behind the scenes to see what Chinese life is really like. But you haven’t experienced China until you’ve experienced… the food.
Now, I have to admit that the title of my post is a bit of a misnomer. My mother never really liked Chinese food. But what you eat in China (or what I ate, anyway) is not what you would expect.
I love exotic foods. I love flavors and spices and trying new things. I was actually pretty excited about eating my way through China. I love most Asian foods and thought eating would be a breeze. I knew they ate a lot of rice and vegetables so i even expected I would come back thinner.
I could not have been more wrong on so many levels.
We started our very first dinner at a farmer’s restaurant. It was supposed to be very good and very fresh local food. We quickly learned several things:
- Every meal is an event (note the large round table and lazy susan).
- Every meal is served with beer or Coke. You must ask if you want it served cold.
- Most items are served with the head still on.
We also learned one other very important lesson. Don’t eat to be polite. We kept trying to eat more so it looked like we liked it more than we did. That prompted my sister-in-law to keep ordering more food to make sure we had been properly served.
We visited nicer restaurants. This one happened to overlook West Lake and the lotus flowers. All was serene and peaceful until my sister-in-law’s father (seen on the right) headed toward the chicken. The chicken dish (in the lower left) was a whole chicken, and I mean whole, that had been sliced into horizontal pieces.
I braced myself as he reached his chopsticks across the table to the chicken dish, where he proceeded to pick up the chicken head. And you know where I’m going with this. He put the entire thing in his mouth, beak and all. I just looked away. It was all I could do.
I will admit, though, the presentation in this restaurant was beautiful. Even the flavorless, slimy fish bites in the lower right still looked good.
And finally. I could throw caution to the wind and finally chow down on dessert. And it was presented as if dessert was a delicate little egg in a nest. Too bad it tasted like a marshmallow without the sugar. Desserts are not a strong suit of the Chinese.
And I could I forget the thrill my sister-in-law took in taking us to a restaurant in the mountains. She wanted us to try an entirely different cuisine. You can see the difference, right? I know my husband could. He noticed right away when, in an effort to please my husband’s palate for spicy foods, she ordered him an entire bucket (see the black pail?) of spicy frogs legs. Yeah.
And then came my very favorite moment of the trip. The moment when my brother was delayed in joining is for lunch. So again, my sister-in-law had the pleasure of ordering our food. Except my brother wasn’t there to translate. The dishes looked safe enough so we dug in.
See that blue dish? That looked pretty good. It looked like exotic mushrooms, so I dug in. I even encouraged my younger vegetarian brother to try the dish because it was only, after all, mushrooms. Then my older brother joined us. I suggested that he, too, try the mushrooms. That’s when he said “um, I don’t think those are mushrooms.” Of course they were. He was wrong.
I think he was wrong. But just to be sure, I asked my sister-in-law what exactly that dish was. Her reply was…
“Come from inside pig.”
Now I still don’t know exactly what it was but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to eat anything that came from inside a pig. Nor did my vegetarian brother, pictured at left. My husband captured our reaction so well, didn’t he?
And then it got worse. We went to the countryside to have a real old-fashioned Chinese meal. We were in the middle of a little tiny town and stopped at a place that you would have never thought was a restaurant. We walked from the the front of the restaurant to the back of the restaurant and passed through this courtyard.
This is where you can pick out your meal. Fish, frogs, shrimp. Whatever you want, it’s alive and right there waiting to be prepared.
I lost it when my sister-in-law decided to order pigeon soup. I won’t go into detail but they killed the pigeon while we waited. I turned away, ran into the restaurant and started crying my eyes out. I had been polite, I had been pleasant. But I just couldn’t take it anymore.
We walked inside and while everyone ate an entire meal I just asked for a simple bowl of rice (which oddly enough is not generally served with the meals).
Not every meal was a production though. You could get snack, especially in the open air markets.
Scorpion on a stick, anyone?
Grasshoppers to go?
No, I didn’t try either. After a week of more Chinese food than I could handle, I finally asked my brother if we could go out for non-Chinese food. We went downtown and had pizza and it never tasted so good. The only thing that made it better was dessert.
We stopped by a Haagen-Dazs shop and ordered their Asian ice cream dessert. That was the first and maybe the last time I truly enjoyed Chinese food in China.
What about you? How exotic are your tastes? Could you have held up?