Published: June 2nd 2008May 29th 2008
I knew practicing eating all those Yangzi River buffet dinners growing up would come back to pay dividends some day. Yet sadly, I’m sorry to report, there’s no General Tsao’ Chicken in China.
Chinese food (or just plain “food” to the Chinese) is quite possibly its greatest global export and is truly in a ballpark of its own. The depth and array of palates and subtle flavoring reflects the incredible diversity of this enormous country and belies the simplicity of its culinary theory. With small restaurants serving up incredibly cheap - even for Chinese standards - helpings of their specialties, I knew I’d get a chance to eat my way right across this country (you hear that JB?). For those keeping score, I personally cooked a total of 3 meals in 9 months, since you can eat out every single meal. But it’s not just rib-stickin #44 Beef & Broccoli Combo Meal with a side of “ah rice again!
” 3 times a day. Simply getting a meal in China can be a scary prospect, which often left me starving, yet walking past scores of restaurants. A restaurant needs the entire package of food and a level of psychological comfort that
gives you the stones to march in and confidently point to a nonsensical menu, while the waitress hovers over your shoulder and everyone wonders just what the hell you are doing here. And that’s even before we get to that incredibly fine line of “hidden gem” vs. “terrifyingly unsanitary.” Plus, this is no Chinatown buffet we’re talking here. With many of the cuisines beyond the palates of us uncultured foreigners, it takes a pretty optimistic approach to appreciate what the cuisine “brings to the table” (ha, get it?). In no particular order I have gulped down duck hearts, pig brain, intestines, tongue, ants, chicken blood, snails, whole pigeon, polluted fish, bees, snake, donkey, dog, fish eye-balls and scorpion, to say nothing of laboring through a mouthful of chicken feet. I guess I’ve come a long way from the doughboy that ate only bread one Thanksgiving. And often it’s the usually boring food, like eggplant, tofu and lima beans that are often the best dishes! The funniest part is the way there is no such thing as an “acquired taste” - kids dive in for the chicken feet like it’s chocolate.
From region to region the food is as diverse
as the people (no, Chinese people are NOT all the exact same). Always been a dumpling man myself, so Shanghai couldn’t have been a better destination, serving up endless varieties for pennies. The phrase Shi zai Zhongguo, wei zai Sichuan
食在中国味在四川, meaning “China for food, Sichuan for flavor” could not be more appropriate and I spent my spring in Chengdu sucking down the hottest chili’s in the country. From Beijing duck, Yunnan rice noodles, Hong Kong dim sum
, and Sichuan hot pot, to Tibetan tsampa
and Xinjiang lamb kabob, you could probably pinpoint your exact location with one look at your dish.
I ate well this year. Damn well. While most foreigners either hit the wall and stick to western restaurants or mix them often, I ate Chinese food at every chance. Only friends appeals brought me to western places. With the Undisputed King of Noodle Houses - Lanzhou La Mian 兰州拉面 - and roughly 50 kinds of dumplings on every corner, it was easy to get a good meal. With the comfort factor, it means you tend to become a regular at your different spots around the neighborhood. In Chengdu, I had on permanent rotation my spicy dumpling
place (which were good enough to justify dealing with the crazy as bat-shit owners), Muslim noodles (which I trained to deliver to my bed in minutes by yelling just one word “HELLO!” into the phone) and my hot pot place - “Add Chicken, Add Fish, Don’t Add Price!” - where adding beer and baijiu
usually lead to adding vomiting and diarrhea.
Confucius said that ‘the way you cut your meat is the way you live your life.’ The Chinese, always the most civilized and enlightened proprietors of their universe, view their cuisine as the height of culture, complete with all the ritual to please the heavens. They would never deign to gnaw on a t-bone like a Mongol barbarian or forgo down their chopsticks for the crudeness of a fork. Meals in China are taken to a ritualistic art form, starting with cold dishes, ending with soup and usually plenty of face-giving toasts in between. But underneath that civility lies a world of ridiculousness and renao
热闹 (“hot and lively”) filled with a bone-spitting, shot-ripping, “I don’t give a flying @#$%” style all out attack on the food. Who cares if I have a fish carcass pouring out of my mouth onto the floor, I’m still gonna give you a piece of my mind. And God help that poor waitress for turning her back on me - she just caused a HUGE loss of face when the 10th bottle of baijiu
didn’t arrive quick enough - and now she must be punished. And your polite declining logic of “no, thank you, I don’t smoke” may as well be gibberish.
All this ritual underscores the role food has played throughout this long history. I’m of the belief that nearly every Chinese eccentricity can be in some way traced to the fact that they simply have an ass-ton of people in China. Food should never be hoarded because there’s no guarantee everyone is going to fill their plates. If it used to be part of an animal, it can probably provide nutrients so better to throw a ton of spices on that cow penis then let it go to waste. And there’s certainly no room to get shy at hockin’ up chicken bones. The meal reinforces the role of the group and it would be ludicrous and offensive to order your own dish, rather than eating family style. Yes, my table manners may be absolutely ruined now, but dinner has never been so fun!