I haven’t really talked about food at all since I’ve been here other than maybe things I’ve cooked for myself. But I haven’t really talked about local cuisine and what I do when I am not eating my own cooking. I was jotting down notes to myself about things that are blog-worthy and found that I apparently have a lot I would like to share with you about food here!
Before diving in, as it were, I must provide a disclaimer. I feel it is my duty to remind you that I am talking about food in my city, which is in one province, and at my university, as universities can be not entirely representative of the true local culture and customs. I don’t want you to think of this as CHINA: THE COMPLETE GASTRONIMICAL EXPERIENCE. China is huge, in case that fact hasn’t quite truly registered. I am constantly astounded at how little I knew about China before coming here. And how little I still know. Again, China is huge and the food can vary a great deal depending on where you are. My experiences are very limited. So take it all with a grain of salt. Okay? Okay. Mostly I don’t want some outraged local coming down on me for misrepresenting their cuisine. Food is very important here. It’s traditional; it’s mythic. Don’t mess with the food. And don’t challenge the sanctity of each province’s food fame.
Where to begin? I will start off by declaring simply that I really like the food. I am completely satisfied at a gastronomical level, generally speaking.
What I most enjoy is the vegetables. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. Especially eggplant. Eggplant is a staple here. It is generally either stewed or stir-fried and it is delicious either way. I eat eggplant as often as I can. I frequent a school cafeteria just because I can generally depend on them for eggplant.
Eggplant is new in my life. Prior to Georgia eggplant was only ever seen on menus, followed immediately after by ‘parmigiana’ or possibly in combination with lasagna. A mysterious vegetable with a luridly purple pelt, it rarely impinged on my consciousness. Now it is on the forefront of my mind. At all times. Eggplant, eggplant, aubergine.
The other strangely marvelous thing in China is the deliciousness of cabbage and lettuce. Raw vegetables are a no-no in China, or at least that is what everyone tells us. I’ve eaten plenty of raw vegetables here and not had any problems, but to the Chinese the only safe way to eat vegetables is to cook them. So green salads are non-existent here, except in places that cater to foreigners. Instead, anything you think should be eaten raw is cooked. Lettuce, tomato, carrots, celery, even cucumber. And it’s really good. The cooked lettuce and cabbage doesn’t really have a strong flavor. It’s cooked simply with some oil and salt, I believe, and it’s amazing. Thinking about cooked lettuce is one of those “why don’t we do this?” moments. I’ve never even conceived of cooking lettuce. We cook spinach. We cook cabbage. But we don’t cook lettuce.
On cabbage, it is equally delicious as cooked lettuce. The Chinese ask about cabbage in America and I sort confusedly through my memories. We use red cabbage in salads as an essentially edible decoration. There’s cabbage in Chinese chicken salad. There’s cabbage and corned beef if you’re Irish. But at least in my family it is not a widely used vegetable. It’s so interesting to me to think about the different ways that different cultures use the same ingredients and have never even conceived of using them any differently.
Rice is, of course, a very important part of Chinese food and I am learning to be a rice connoisseur. I have rice preferences. Shocking. And of course this is steamed rice, not fried rice. Yes, you can order fried rice off menus, but it’s not like Panda Express where your side entrée items are fried rice or chow mien. The Chinese are very curious about whether Westerners eat rice. Do you eat rice every day? Do you have a rice cooker? Do you eat rice in America? No, no, sometimes.
As you might expect, there are also a lot of noodles in China, land of the Cup-o-Noodles. The on campus market features like 3-4 aisles of different varieties and brands of instant noodles. Of course, the average student does not have a kitchen so instant noodles are a cornerstone of their diet. In the canteen you can get noodles in broth with your choice of sauces and added veggies or dumplings. I personally despise noodles. They are very difficult and messy to eat with chopsticks and generally it’s hot enough without leaning over a bowl of steaming noodles. The steam inevitably makes my nose run and then I’m just a soggy, sniffly mess. And of course if you didn’t bring your own pocket tissues you are S.O.L., my friend. Plus they just don’t have that much flavor in my opinion. End of story.
Let’s talk breakfast. I’m not an expert here as I’ve never entered the canteen in the morning, but I’ll tell you what I do know. Milk is big here. Very big. And milk is an essential part of breakfast. There are all kinds of milk: red bean milk, strawberry milk, green tea milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, sweet milk, etc. And all this milk is in little juice box-type containers with straws. Students buy big sets of milk and haul them away to their dormitories. And this is the milk that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, like I encountered in the Dominican Republic. So mysterious. I had to go research that when I got here as I cannot wrap my mind around unrefrigerated milk products. It’s like that synthetic dairy creamer used in diners. So, so wrong!
And with that milk goes bread. Western civilization has seemingly infected the Chinese with a lust for sweet bread products. All manner of sweetened rolls, buns and little loaves of bread are stacked in the market and in the evening the students come and buy milk and bread for their breakfast the next morning. They also will buy sliced bread and eat it just as it is, sitting in class, eating a plain slice of bread or maybe one with raisins. And to be clear it is not good bread. It’s not even like bad American breakfast pastries, like Swiss Danishes, it is far inferior. I’m mystified.
Of course there are traditional Chinese breakfast foods. One thing that can be eaten for breakfast, though it is not eaten exclusively at breakfast, is a rice porridge called either congee or zhou, pronounced “joe”. It is rice cooked for a long time in broth until it turns soft and soupy. Things can be added to the zhou, mostly meat or veggies. So in that way it’s not like oatmeal which we usually sweeten. I personally don’t care for zhou, to the distress of a Chinese teacher I know. “It’s not delicious for you? Oh no!” No “oh no” needed. I’m fine without it.
As I’m writing this post I’m noticing that I am frequently complaining about food being bland. In some ways that is very characteristic of the food in my region. Cantonese food is considered to be one of the blandest cuisines in China. Although bland is not really a good thing, I might be safer off here than in Sichuan province which has the hottest food in China. It’s not unknown for long-term visitors like Peace Corps volunteers to develop stomach ulcers from the food. Yikes.
I’m over 2 pages now, so I think I’m going to have to make my thoughts on food a multiple-parter. But I will leave you with one more thing I love in China to balance out some of the things I’ve said I don’t like.
Another highly delicious cuisine in China is the street barbeque. Before coming to China I had never heard of Chinese barbeque. Korean barbeque, yes. Chinese barbeque no. Well. In China there is fabulous street barbeque. This is how it works. There is a big stand with loads of veggies and meats on skewers. You walk up and they give you a basket. You load up the basket with everything you want. We’re talking squid, fish, beef, pork, chicken, sausage, onions, potatoes, greens of all varieties, eggplant, tomato, peppers, bean sprouts, I can’t think of what else. They take it away and tally up your order. They cook it and bring things to you as they finish. And it’s delicious. It’s coated in some sort of special spicy sauce and grilled. Did I say it’s delicious? It’s delicious. And it’s cheap. And it’s fun. You sit at crappy little plastic and/or cardboard tables. There will probably be a roll of toilet paper on the table for hand and face wiping. You drink beer out of the thinnest plastic cups known to mankind, cups that require constant refilling as the slightest breeze will blow them away. The barbeque stands are very territorial; you must patronize whichever stand you sit in front of. Not that there are any major differences between stands as far as I can tell. They all generally are selling much the same things.
Of course street food is not technically legal. There are no permits of licenses. So one day when we’d gone to have barbeque we found the area mysteriously empty and quiet. Our students informed us that the police shut it down as they do every so often. We bemoaned the absence of our street barbeque and went elsewhere. Fortunately the barbeque returned within a few weeks. Business as usual.
Stay tuned for more food, glorious food!