Follow the Flavor: The Wonderful World of Food in China

Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich

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This is the fourth article in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich.

I’m not really one to be picky about the authenticity of ethnic food in America. Like all who have experienced its magic, I too was entranced by the bucatini all’amatriciana served up in the street cafes of Rome and Florence, but at the same time I can appreciate Olive Garden for what it is. I can sympathize with the difficulty of re-creating beyond French borders the delicate flakiness of a croissant or the perfect baguette (soft, light interior + crunchy crust), and am equally forgiving of Tex-Mex (my favorite and most dearly missed cuisine when I’m abroad). As a rule, as long as it’s tasty, I will accept it with an open mind and mouth. Until China.

Any prior affection for American Chinese take-out has been utterly obliterated by having now experienced the genuine article. So, not to burst your Panda Express bubble, but you’re seriously missing out.

 

The culinary experience of China and Sichuan in particular is beyond compare in its singularity, complexity and overall delectability, and for this reason I have chosen to dedicate the next two entries to all things food in China- shopping, cooking, dining and the rich culture of food here.

An old saying goes, “Food is in China, flavor is in Sichuan.” And I’m not going to lie, Chengdu’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy was more than a little influential in my decision to move there. The cuisine of Chengdu is incredibly varied and unique, and although my understanding was inhibited by limited language skills, the crucial role of food in Chinese culture is obvious to all who visit.

Eating is central to every important event in family, social and work life. The banquet is the centerpiece of a wedding or birthday and no business deal seemed to be settled without a 6-hour long hot-pot gorging and baijiu drinking session. Eating in China becomes a communal act of friendship and sharing. The Chinese way is to order a wide variety of dishes (usually more than needed) and pass them around on a Lazy Susan for all to share in what they want.  I imagine it’s a little too communal for some- the continual grabbing with ones chopsticks into every dish would be a living nightmare for many of my germ-conscious friends back home. For me, however, it was the perfect solution to my eternal curiosity of trying everyone else’s menu choices at dinner.

The philosophy of balance in all things plays a large part in Chinese cuisine. Each meal is designed to be a balance of Yin and Yang in flavor (bitter, sweet, salty, spicy and sour), cooking method and ingredients. People spend their entire lives perfecting this balance so I don’t understand its intricacies entirely, but I’m told that is why most meals consist of a bowl of rice, vegetables with a little meat and a soothing soup. The Chinese have been proponents of The Balanced Diet for centuries! Chengdu’s cuisine is no exception to the Yin-Yang philosophy, but they are famous for taking the spicy component to new levels.

I’ll tell you, it’s a lot to ask of a digestive system to go from mild Midwestern fare to the mouth-numbingly spicy flavors of ma po dofu and Chengdu hot-pot. Coupled with the tremendous amount of oil used by some restaurants, it was a lot for my delicate stomach to handle (though now I have a stomach of steel!). Everyday foods here at home aren’t even close to the daily snacks you’ll find in China- as a self-professed cheese addict, I struggled to fight off cravings of brie and cheddar in a world void of dairy, and the lack of milk was definitely an adjustment for my American friends used to glugging it by the gallon.

Instead, children in Chengdu drink runny yogurt from cups with straws or walnut and peanut milk (this also works amazingly well for soothing the palate while eating spicy dishes). Bread and cereals are also largely absent in Chengdu. Rice is king and is a component of every meal, including breakfast. (I imagine this lack of dairy, chocolate/sugar and bread is probably part of why my fellow teachers were all about half my weight).

With nothing familiar around me and a frustrating inability to read menus or labels, it was difficult to navigate my culinary options.

My solution in the first months of Chengdu was to stick to what I could see with my own eyes i.e. open markets and Chengdu’s flourishing street food scene.

I didn’t even begin to explore the plethora of markets in Chengdu. Chengdu's open markets take many forms- from large groups of vendors in a single building to individual stalls tucked away in the smallest of storefronts. I miss dreadfully being forced daily to wander through the rows of stalls among piles of raw peanuts and all numbers of unidentifiable, exotic fruits and vegetables.

The smells were often overwhelming, particularly as you approach the meat stalls where you see fully skinned rabbits, cuts of pig and goat hanging from their hooks and fish lined up in buckets against the walls. There are baskets full of chilies, sunflower seeds, nuts, and endless varieties of rice and tofu. The air is full of energy- to sell, to haggle and laugh and argue. It is a place of absolute community that is a fundamental part of Chinese food culture. Supermarkets are slowly catching on in China but for now, open markets are still the best place to get meat, fruit, vegetables and freshly dried spices for as low a price as you can bargain for.

With labor costs so low, I soon discovered that eating out at small local restaurants or street vendors was comparable in cost to buying the ingredients and cooking them myself (but infinitely more tasty).

Here are a few of the highlights of the street food scene:

Shao kao- “Chinese BBQ” These street stands usually only open after 10 p.m. but they are well worth the wait. Choose from a variety of food on a stick and have it doused in a spices and sauces for a great late night snack.

Favorite items on a stick include tofu, dumplings, fried bread and a variety of mushrooms. For the adventurous you can also get baby squid or rabbit!

Jiaozi- Dumplings that can be fried or steamed. I regularly (ok, daily) bought homemade jiaozi as a snack or a meal from a stall outside my apartment run by a lovely couple. They wake up at 5 o’clock every morning to begin making them!

Ji jiao (Chicken feet) - a popular street snack that I’m not particularly fond of…

chòu dòufu (“stinky tofu”)- I made the mistake of accidently trying this specialty tofu one fateful night at my favorite shao kao stand. It smells a lot like my gym shirt after I forget to take it out of my backpack for three days. Turned out it also tastes that way.

Depending on the time of the year, there are always bike-drawn carts selling everything from pineapples, mandarin oranges, roasted chestnuts, fried potatoes in chili pepper or bowls of warm dumpling soup.

 

Next week- The daring adventures of dining out in China...

Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.

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