Tucker and I used to order Chinese food fairly often when we lived in Atlanta. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it’s utterly delicious, but as I’m what I like to call a “safe eater” (read: picky), I only ever ordered Sesame Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, or some other entirely Americanized dish. However, now I find myself living in the Chinese food homeland (allegedly), and since I have yet to see anything remotely resembling those two stand-bys, I’m going to share some of my new favorite Chinese dishes. REAL Chinese food!
But First, About Meals: Mealtimes in China are quite similar to what I’m used to from the US – an early, light breakfast before work, lunch around noon, and a larger, warm dinner in the early evening. A little less familiar is the utter lack of liquids. I’ve previously mentioned the Chinese affinity for drinking hot water throughout the day, but what I haven’t yet described is the fact that it’s rare for locals to have a drink (of anything) while eating. Occasionally they’ll have a small bowl of soup or broth, which they use as a drink substitute, but most people eat OR drink rather than what I previously thought was universal, eat AND drink.
Another thing that stands out is the absence of sweet options. I’m used to having the option of a sweet breakfast and almost always being offered dessert after dinner, but these phenomena are rarer in China. Instead of cereal, pop-tarts, waffles, etc. we see people eating noodles and pork buns on their way to work/class. As a fan of leftovers for breakfast and a former noodletarian, I love that there’s no judgment for eating noodles multiple times a day! However, I do miss the occasional dessert. Sometimes in a vain effort to satisfy my sweet tooth, I’ll pick up a dessert-like-thing from Wal-mart or the campus store, and nine times out of ten, I’m disappointed by a bite of red bean instead of chocolate. Our Chinese friends swear red bean is a dessert (and a sweet one at that), but coming from the US, where processed sugar is pretty much its own category in the food pyramid, I haven’t found much that’s up to my “sweet” standard.
What we usually think of as “Family Style” serving/eating is another prominent characteristic of Chinese meals. It’s fairly rare to go out with a group (even a small group) and each order one individual dish. Instead everyone agrees on 8-10 dishes and shares everything, often at a table with a large lazy-susan in the middle for easy reaching. Tucker loves this way of dining out because he gets to try many different dishes all at one meal, and, of course, I don’t like it for the same reason. Have I mentioned it’s really difficult to be a picky eater in a foreign country?
Regional Cuisine: Very early on we were told about the different regional cuisines of China, and have since discovered that many restaurants will choose a specialty and run with it. For that reason, we can find Beijing, Sichuan, or Hong Kong style restaurants in pretty much every Chinese city; just like we can go to any city in the US and find Italian, Mexican, and Chinese places. Also similar to the US, many Chinese cities have special foods that are almost synonymous with that place (think deep-dish pizza and Chicago or cheesesteaks and Philadelphia). Every time we tell friends about our travels plans, they immediately tell us which foods we have to try when we get there. We’ve had the Hot Dry Noodles (Re Gan Mian) of Wuhan, the Sweet and Sour Pork (Gou Bao Rou) of Harbin, the Egg Puffs of Hong Kong, and many others.
My Favorite Dishes: Okay, time to make your mouth water! Here are the Chinese foods I’ve come to love over the last 6 months:
Dumplings (Jiao): Of course! Boiled (shui jiao) or fried (guo tie), filled with meat or vegetables, these are a staple in my life. You can get them in soup or not, with sauce or not, and we’ve even been known to buy them by the dozens in the frozen food section of the grocery store. Everyone loves dumplings, and China has the best I’ve ever had.
Noodles (Mian tiao): Another favorite that has more variations than I could possibly write out are the noodles of China. There are noodle soups (mian tang), mixed sauce noodles (zhajiang mian), cold noodles (liang mian), handmade noodles, and the list goes on. Noodles disheds can run the flavor gamut from spicy Sichuan style to sour, vinegar-forward Anhui varieties. I’m pretty sure my Chinese friends, students, and colleagues think the only thing I eat is noodles…
Ji Pai: Translated as “chicken steak”, it’s basically sliced, fried chicken breast served over steamed rice. The campus restaurants serve it with a white sauce (sha la – like salad, as in salad dressing), and it’s delicious! Crispy and juicy with a delicious cream-based sauced (another rarity in China), it ensures I don’t only eat noodles.
Dry Pot Veggies (Gan guo cai): A little difficult to describe, “dry pot” refers to the way these dishes are served: in a wok placed over a small burner on the table. They bubble and continue to soak up the sauces and spices in the wok as everyone works to mix and eat them up. Our favorites include dry pot cabbage with bacon, cauliflower with peppers, and spicy potatoes and onions.
Sticky Potatoes (Ba Si Hongshu): It is no secret that I love potatoes. In Poland I ate boiled potatoes with dill just about every other day, but in China, this is my go-to potato dish. Fried sweet potatoes with a sweet, sticky glaze on top – what’s not to love?
Hot Pot (Huo guo): I call this Chinese Fondue, but it’s not quite the same. Hot pot (literally translated as “fire pot”) is a sort of soup or broth that’s used to cook meats and vegetables at your table. There are many choices to be made when eating hot pot, like which style of broth (spicy, mushroom, tomato, etc.) and which foods to cook/eat, meats (the most popular being lamb, pork, beef, and shrimp), vegetables (like cabbage, cucumbers, and potatoes), and many other choices (including bamboo shoots, bread, mushrooms, noodles, etc.).
Fast Food: I’m not going to lie. There have been times I’ve craved “familiar” food, broke down, and went to a fast food chain for some nostalgia (and let’s face it, ease). In China we have plenty of McDonalds, KFCs, Subways, Burger Kings, and Pizza Huts. We’ve also seen Dominos, Dunkin’ Donuts, Haagen Dazs, and an Outback. If ever we find ourselves at a place like this, I safely, happily order something that I know and love, and Tucker tries the more adventurous route: like a shrimp burger at McDonald’s and a coffee and mochi blizzard at Dairy Queen. He’s a food gambler, and it has yet to truly pay off – fast food classics are popular for a reason, regardless of country.
To be honest this is just the tip of the Chinese food iceberg. In such a vast, diverse, and old country, there’s bound to be a plethora of culinary options. Maybe in the future I’ll write about Chinese snack foods, holiday foods, crazy menu translations, and/or the dishes that scare the hunger right out of me. Until then, I’m just going to eat some more noodles.