Let’s talk about food some more.
Soup. Many Chinese love soup. It’s an essential part of a meal. Now I like soup when the soup I is something like what we have in the States. Soups with many ingredients: vegetables, rice, potatoes, pasta and meat. And also different consistencies: stew-like, chowder-like, broth-based, etc. Minestrone. Chicken Noodle. Bean and Bacon. Beef Stew. That kind of thing.
However, that is not soup in the Chinese lexicon. Soup here, in my experience, is what we would call broth. Very clear soup with maybe a bone or two at the bottom. It really doesn’t have much flavor and I get very little enjoyment from eating it. My feelings on soup have been made clear to one Chinese teacher with whom I’ve occasionally had lunch. She is aghast that I don’t like soup. I have maintained my position. We’ve agreed to disagree. She can order soup for herself, but knows not to order any for me.
Dim sum. It’s a big deal here, especially as this is Guangdong—the home of dim sum. For the uninitiated, dim sum is like tapas for Chinese, but it’s eaten in the morning or afternoon. It’s many small items, such as dumplings or small buns, that are eaten together with tea. From my experience here, dim sum is ordered off a menu; there are no carts circulating as might be common in America.
Hot Pot. This is an interesting phenomenon whereby you go to a restaurant to have the pleasure of cooking your own food. Genius. In a serious hot pot restaurant every table will have a built-in pot. Other restaurants can offer hot pot, but it will simply be a pan and a hot plate. A specific type of broth is ordered and heated. Raw meat and fresh vegetables will be brought. Then you cook it all in the broth. Hot pot is an art. There are rules about what goes in the pot when and how long it stays in. If you do the wrong order, the flavors will get mixed. Disaster. I’ve honestly had very little hot pot, but it is such a big deal here that I couldn’t not mention it.
Dumplings. Delicious. I’m convinced that I love dumplings almost more for the vinegar than for the actual dumplings. Dumplings here are quite small, bite-sized, though there are of course many varieties throughout China. Usually they have a meat filling, combined with some other ingredients. Submersion/dipping in vinegar is customary, at least for me!
Wontons also fall under the category of dumplings. Wontons are a southern Chinese type of dumpling, usually meatier, using a different type of dough and wrapping. Here is Guangdong if you order wontons that usually means that you are getting wontons in a bowl of broth. This was a source of confusion to me until I figured out that all these terms really do matter. A dumpling is not the same thing as a wonton here. The terms are not interchangeable. You can order fried wontons sometimes, but it is nothing like wontons that we have in America. Aren’t wontons in America just like fried dough? It’s not something I usually order in the States.
In case you were wondering, a potsticker is also a type of dumpling, but it is fried whereas a standard dumpling—jiaozi—is not. Look at how much we are learning!
Chicken Feet. Yes, you read that correctly. Chicken feet are a yummy snack here! (Oo! Oo! Can I have the feet, mum? Can I?) Chicken feet are widely used in Chinese cuisine from what I’ve seen. You can also buy little snacky-type chicken feet in shrink-wrapped packages in the market in case you need something to gnaw on while you’re studying! Yay! No, I have not eaten any chicken feet.
(The Chinese teacher mentioned earlier ordered a special soup that featured black chicken feet. Apparently a real delicacy! They were very black.)
Tofu. I’ve been aware of tofu for a long time, but have never really eaten much of it. It used to occasionally appear in my house when I was a kid. My mom would decide that she wanted to cook with tofu and would buy a box of it, but it would inevitably end up getting thrown out after a week or two. So we never really ate it, just admired its strange consistency. In China there’s plenty of tofu and so many different kinds of it. Not just the box kind, but shredded tofu, fried tofu, strips of tofu, puffy cubes of tofu. I’ve found that I generally like tofu, but find the traditional tofu of my childhood—the jiggly kind—has almost zero flavor and is the very devil to pick up with chopsticks!
Now in the last edition of Food, Glorious Food, I mentioned the obsession with milk. Another use of milk, other than merely drinking it, is yogurt. There’s a yogurt section that’s not quite as extensive as the milk section, but still quite large in any grocery store of note. Overall the yogurt is quite similar to what’s available in America except for one important thing: the consistency. The yogurt in China is incredibly thin. As a result they are usually packaged with straws and not spoons. You puncture your yogurt like a Capri Sun and slurp away. I personally prefer a thicker yogurt and have identified a brand that is to my taste. That’s where my vast collection of collapsible spoons came from.
Having described in some detail Chinese food as I know it, I would now like to tell you a few things that real Chinese cuisine does not have. First off, there is no orange chicken. Really. Props to the people who invented it, but I’ve yet to see it here. In general I’ve seen very little deep-fried meat here. Secondly, egg rolls as they are known in America do not exist. There are spring rolls which are much lighter and less heavily fried. As I’ve mentioned, fried rice and chow mien are available, but they really aren’t the norm. That would be steamed rice. And there is just much less frying of anything in general. Last but not least, there are no fortune cookies here. Not a one. That’s pure America there.
On a related note, the scuttlebutt on the Internet is that Panda Express is considering opening branches in China. There was plenty of mocking in the comments sections of every article I read. (I was trying to verify whether this was actually happening or not.) You may scoff, but to be honest Panda Express would be an improvement on some of the “fast food” Chinese that is available here. Sarah and I have a particular horror of a very popular Chinese fast food chain called Kung Fu. We’ve eaten there only once. “Oh my god” punctuated the entire meal as we, disbelief on our faces, picked through our food for edible bits.
Panda Express, I think you’d be more welcome than you might expect!