Sunday, 10 December 2006

A food connoisseur’s Chinese experience - part 1

My recent trip to China was definitely very much about eating. In fact, we joked that the fortnight was pretty much focused on dining experiences separated by the odd site or two. Much of what we ate was authentic Chinese, but we also ate Japanese a few times, Thai, Indian, and sometimes ‘western’, although this was most often for breakfast/brunch.

This came in many different varieties. My favourite were definitely dumplings, which we had in all sorts of places: food courts, dumpling houses, restaurants, airport restaurant . . . Dumplings are the traditional Chinese ‘snack’ and are much like those we have here for Yum Cha: steamed or fried ‘dim sum’ things with pork, shrimp, vegetables etc inside. All yummy.

I also learned some of the differences between northern Chinese food, and southern foods. In the north, they eat cold dishes of pickled vegetables etc, which look as though they ought to be hot. They are very nice, though. This is then followed by hot stir fried dishes. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms and various other fungi are very popular. Rice is generally served at the end of the meal on its own, or not at all! Better also say that we ate ‘peking duck’ at a Cantonese restaurant in Beijing. We also experienced a ‘Shanghainese’ restaurant and a typical Suzhou meal (which is itself another story!).

I must say that many of my Chinese eating experiences were ‘hit and miss’. This was partially because I didn’t have much say in what we ordered! My hosts generally took control, and although this was good in extending my range of experiences, it meant I had to put up with items I would not usually order. There wasn’t much that I actually detested, but the experience has made me realize that maybe Chinese cuisine as a rule is not really my thing! [The same could be said for Japanese food, which my hosts simply adore. I just don’t get the attraction. The only Japanese food I really get is sushi.]

Non-Chinese food
The funny thing is that all ‘non-Chinese’ food is still a Chinese interpretation of whatever it’s supposed to be. Particularly the so-called ‘western’ foods. For example, I had a ‘tuna melt baguette’, which in a Melbourne café conjures up a certain image that was simply not met in a Chinese café, no matter how western it claimed to be. Literally, it comprised canned tuna smeared thinly on the baguette halves, drizzled with a thin layer of melted cheese. For all that, it was surprisingly tasty!

For western style breakfasts, we went to an American café called Element Fresh a few times. Here the menu was familiar, but different. We went there four times, and this is what I ate:
1) the 'big American' breakfast, which came with FOUR eggs no less, breakfast potatoes (tex mex potato salad, warm - disgusting), sausages, bacon, french toast (with maple syrup on the side), plus some slices of watermelon. Too much, but the coffee was good (latte).
2) blueberry pancakes, declined breakfast potatoes (I mean, really!) with yoghurt on the side.
3) smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, which was very yummy indeed and came with a MOUNTAIN of smoked salmon.
4) ‘healthy start’ breakfast set, which included an egg white omelette - also yummy.

No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the hang of chopsticks. Nevertheless I persisted, despite the fact they 1) slowed me down (perhaps a good thing!), 2) made me look like an idiot. So great is my frustration with them that not even the tourist chopsticks with my name on them could tempt me. I have never been able to fathom why many of my friends and family feel the need to eat with chopsticks at home, just because they happen to be eating Chinese (or Asian) food. What’s with that?

I must make mention of desserts separately, for they are simply unbelievable (and I don’t mean that in a good way). Two ‘stand-outs’ were the ‘Ice Kechang’ (below), a mountain of shaved ice drizzled in sweetened milk, herbal jelly, mung beans, canned corn (OMG); and ‘Japanese ice cream’, which was chocolate ice cream served on a bed of corn flakes, adorned with glutinous rice balls and red bean sauce. Give me chocolate pudding or tira misu any day!

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