Foodwise, China was not at all what I expected.
I'm going to get right into generalising the food of a billion people into a post shorter than a short story, all on the basis of seven days of experience. As is my wont, I ate on the streets and avoided restaurants for the most part. This may have given me a slightly different bias, but it was clearly everyday diet for the ordinary Chinese. The food was (mostly) delicious, varied, challenging and very, very strange.
The thing about China is, their take on food is as far from India as I have gotten. Just a short hop across the Himalayas China nevertheless represents a totally alien experience that Indian Chinese does nothing to ease one into. Singapore and Thailand have distinct Chinese influences, but a visit to the markets there yields the unfamiliar but also plenty of the familiar. In China, its nearly all unfamiliar - the vegetables, the seafood, the sauces, the ways they cook their meats, pretty much everything.
Possibly the biggest eye opener is their lack of focus on what we have always been taught were the staples - soup, chowmein and fried rice. Yes, you can get all three, just not in ways that you expect. Soup in China means a steaming cauldron of stock into which they put baskets filled with your choices from an array of noodles, meats and vegetables, almost all unrecognisable. Soup for them is a meal in a bowl, not really our concept of a soup at all.
Then there's the Chowmein; not hard to find, but its far from being as ubiquitous as menus outside China lead you to believe. The Chinese make lots of different kinds of noodles - with rice, potato starch, pumpkin, tapioca and also, of course, wheat. Only one of these many kinds of mein is chow mein. In a country that loves its rice much more than its wheat, our version of chowmein is usually a small sideshow.
And finally the rice - for all those fattened on a lifetime of triple shechuan or egg fried rice, you'll be happy to know that the Chinese serve lots and lots of rice, but obstinately choose to serve the plain simple unadorned variety. The fried version that we love is, like our chowmein, a sideshow, a side dish or evening snack. On top of that, its usually served very al-dente - my grandmother (god rest her toothless soul) would certainly consider it uncooked.
The tea story is another shock. For all their exalted claims as the centre of the tea world, there are few tea stalls visible. I was told (on my return, alas) that fancy tea is to be had in China in traditional wellness shops that also serve you strange jellies and nearly inedible "healthy" soups meant to make you live for ever and reproduce in viagraless splendour. The Chinese serve you tea everywhere you go, but its an insipid warm pale liquid that tastes of nothing and doubles up as a way to sterilise your chopsticks.
Some things were indeed familiar. Dim sums turned up at regular intervals. every subway station sported a chinese sausage stall, duck was everywhere and everyone insisted you order in Chinese. A lot more was deep fried than we expected, meatballs, various chicken parts, a whole fish and pretty much every kind of meatball and sausage.
The Chinese are spoilt for choice. The average, working class canteen lunch will offer a mind boggling array of food putting even fives-star buffets in Mumbai to shame - I counted over fifty choices in one restaurant, but thirty or more main course options are pretty routine. There are usually a range of huge cauldrons filled with different kinds of stew, lines of metal trays holding prepared dishes and usually a number of ingredient choices for the aforementioned make-it-yourself soup meals. Some places had side dishes - dim sum, fried meats, fried rice, scallion pancakes and the like. Pork was the dominant meat, with the occasional fish, beef or chicken to liven things up. Given the language problem and completely unfamiliar ingredients (even most vegetables are unknown) point, shoot and hope for edibility was usually the only option. Once in a while, you'll end up with things like a large bowl filled mostly with some variant of mooli, but mostly its tasty stuff.
Usually all this is consumed with quantities of white rice (which they insist on calling 'wai lai') - the Chinese diner will put things on the rice rather than mix it into the rice; what goes in is mostly plain rice with a bit of topping. The dishes are eaten separately, on their own, with the occasional mouthful of rice as a break. I never did get a taste for eating rice that way, and stayed away from it after day one.
I can barely remember my own name so I while I pretended seriously to remember all the Chinese food and ingredient names I came across, I knew beforehand that it was a doomed endeavour. I'll stick to themes, and it seems to me that Chinese food seems to revolve around a few central themes. MBA-ishtyle bulleting is called for here:
- The deep fried protein – meat, fish or even tofu in extreme cases.
- The wok - meats and vegetables, rice and noodles all stir-fried with sauces in huge woks over very high heat. May be dry or gravy, depending on what's made.
- The soup bowl theme – chunks of different kinds of meat (and meat parts), vegetables, noodles of various kinds all cooked for a few minutes in boiling stock
- The barbecue theme – meats, seafood and the occasional corn cob on flame grills. The meats are usually marinated and put on sticks.
- The stew theme – slow-cooked stews, usually combining a meat with one or more vegetables in large stew pots (or individual clay pots).
Notice the absence of a sweet theme. There's good reason for that; the land that invented dentistry lacks any kind of sweet tooth. If you wondered why desi-chinese served ice-cream and kulfi instead of anything chinese, restaurants in China are usually at a complete loss for sweet choices too. By far the most common dessert is the egg tart, but these have their origins in Macau's Portuguese roots. Outside that, you're lumped with jellied fruit soups and bean pastes of various colours – very hard for anyone to show more than mild glimmers of excitement. In one place, for instance, they sent us some beautiful looking yam medallions topped with blueberry sauce; that the yam was as tasteless as steamed yams can be seemed not to bother anyone. A midly sweet jelly with sesame was similarly underwhelming but beautiful. They do have wonderful fruits, though, including some great mango - that's pretty much the saving grace for many a dessert soup.
One last lesson – vegetarian. The Chinese know a lot about vegetables, but only when combined with at least some kind of animal protein. If someone offers to take you to one of these pure vegetarian buddhist-monk meals – duck quick and walk rapidly back to Gujarat.
I did visit some restaurants too, some of which make for their own tales. More on individual dining experiences in other posts.