China is a land of many delights both ancient and modern, not the least of which is a truly unique cuisine. When speaking of Chinese cuisine there is a lot to consider. Every region has it’s own special delicacies that are wholly different from one another. While the Chinese food we enjoy in western countries is largely Cantonese which means it comes from the Hong Kong area, there is a whole other world of Mandarin culinary delights to be explored. Since mainland China has experienced a much different cultural growth than Hong Kong who was occupied by the British until a few years ago the food is quite different. Whether you plan to visit mainland China or come across a real Mandarin restaurant at home, here are some Chinese culinary treasures that won’t disappoint.
Hot and Sour Soup (Suan La Tang): This soup’s flavour is just like the name says. Spicy and sour may sound a bit peculiar, but it’s a flavour combination that leaves the taste buds pleasantly surprised. The hot comes from the use of red peppers or white pepper and the sour kick is derived from wine vinegar. Traditionally, broth contained fresh pork or chicken blood, but these days it’s not usually the case. Other items you might find floating around in this scrumptious soup are bamboo shoots, wood ear mushrooms, tofu, day lilies and seaweed. Corn starch is used to thicken the broth and give it a thin stew consistency. Where hot and sour soup came from so long ago is hard to say but both Beijing and Sichuan claim it as their own and have their own ways of concocting it. For those who haven’t tried it, this has got to go on the list of must eats!
1000 Traditions Dumplings (Jaozi): The Chinese are masters of this art and there are no set rules for what goes inside these delicious little delicacies. They can be boiled or fried and stuffed with numerous of things. They will be served all year long but traditionally eaten at the Chinese New Year Spring Festival. A common dumpling contains pork and scallions and various spices though you will also find them filled up with eggs, beef, shrimp, mushrooms, beets, and pretty much any other vegetable you can imagine. In Chinese dumpling restaurants you will find bottles of vinegar and soy sauce along with crushed spicy peppers and garlic on all tables. Mix these ingredients together in the amount you find most pleasing and dunk your dumplings. The only warning is that once you try one you’re hooked! Enjoy your new ‘Jaozi’ addiction.
Chinese Dry Fry Green Beans (Si Ji Dou): This dish is absolutely not to be missed. A Sichuan dish, the technique used to make it involves dry-frying which means the bean is fried until the surface begins to wrinkle and shrink. Though it includes chilies it doesn’t go over board and no steam will be pouring out your ears or any other place. Ginger, garlic, scallions, and dark bean sauce go into this dish to create a salty, tender and crispy flavour adventure.
Rice Congee (Zhou): It’s essentially rice porridge and it comes in as many flavors as you can think of. The basic flavour is plain. It’s a simple, fairly tasteless rice porridge to which you can add pickled cabbage or seaweed. Some of the more flavorful and western palette pleasing varieties include the absolutely delicious red bean, sesame, and pumpkin flavors. Meat, shrimp and fish can also be added. There is no clue as to what part of China this dish first originated in as it is such an ancient staple. It is truly a culinary ancient wonder and is still enjoyed all over China. Word to the wise, in China most Zhou restaurants will feed you until you can’t eat anymore so for the budget traveler this is a healthy choice for both body and budget.
Lion’s Head (Sixi Wanzi): Sixi Wanzi is the Northern Chinese name which means “Four Happy Balls” because this dish of delectable pork meatballs is traditionally served in sets of four. Originally coming from the Eastern part of China these giant meatballs come in two varieties: white and red. The white are unadorned while the red are cooked in a soy sauce mixture. Both are stewed or steamed with cabbage and sometimes tofu and bamboo shoots. The name Lion’s head comes from the idea that the meatballs which are as large as a fist, resemble a lions head and the cabbage forms the mane. It’s interesting and delicious!
Chinese Bread (Mantou): Basically a Chinese bread. More accurately a steamed bun. A staple in the Northern part of China this bread is made using wheat flour and has the appearance of big, white, marshmallows. The taste is a little sweet, but when roasted on a bbq they are slathered in a spicy red sauce and eaten along side lamb and beef skewers. While mantou is now cheap and plentiful, previously it was enjoyed by only royalty and those above the working class. It can also be enjoyed in a deep-fried version that gets dipped in condensed milk.
Stinky Tofu (Chou Doufu): Despite the unappetizing name this dish which is often enjoyed as a snack will surprise you with its innate tastiness. It can be steamed, stewed or fried. A blue sauce which smells a million times worse than any blue cheese, is made from fermented milk, vegetables and meat. The tofu is prepared and the sauce poured over it to give you one of the most stinky and amazingly tasty experiences of your life. Don’t smell it, eat it!
On to Dessert: Chinese desserts do not have the wondrous nature of many other countries after meal delights. Chinese sweets are often very sweet maybe one could say sickly sweet and desserts are more often enjoyed as in between meal snacks. Some of the better ones include the following.
Egg Tart (Dan Tat): Probably the most western seeming of the Chinese desserts, it is a custard filled tartlet originating from the Hong Kong area. Though now popular in all parts of China (Even KFC) it doesn’t seem overly Chinese. This sweet little tart is probably the best to be had in Chinese dessert exploration.
Moon Cake (Yue Bing): A traditional treat during the Mid-Autumn festival, it is a round pastry that can be filled with numerous sweet pastes. Fillings can include red bean, lotus seed or a combination of nuts and fruits quite similar to fruit cake. The basic rule of moon cake is the more expensive the tastier and the high quality ones are pretty good. The most interesting part about moon cakes are the characters stamped on each one. Prices at Mid-Autumn festival range into the thousands of RMB (local currency). Families present them to each other and businessmen give them to employees and clients as gifts. It’s definitely worth a taste.
The Chinese have many drinks they enjoy and of course the most well know is tea. The tea tradition is nearly as old as China itself and whole tomes have been written about its history, production, preparation and culture. Less well known but widely consumed in China is the premier alcohol known as baijiu. Various flavored sodas and juices are also popular. Here are the most commonly enjoyed Chinese drinks.
Tea (Cha): If you want to know the history of tea there are numerous books and documentaries you could learn from. If you want to drink it however, you would find this short list interesting and health beneficial.
Long Jing (Dragons Well): Originating in Zhe Jiang.
Tie Guan Yin (Iron Goddess): Originating in Jiang Su.
Mao Feng (Fur Peak): Originating in An Hui
Baijiu: The name means white liquor and it by no means tastes pleasant, unless you like the flavour of a rancid postage stamp. It does however do the job if what you want is to get anywhere from tipsy to black out dancing on a table drunk. Distilled from rice grains, wheat and millet it has a distinct and unforgettable flavour, vicious aroma and significantly higher alcohol content than Russian vodka, Korean soju or Japanese sake. It is worth trying for the experience and there is a chance you could even enjoy it. Prices for baijiu range from 2.5 RMB up into the thousands. The most popular brand in Beijing is Red Star (Hong Xin). Warning, the flavour has been described variously as rubbing alcohol or a worse tasting gasoline. Still, it’s worth a try if you want to be authentic.
The Baijiu Legend:The legend of baijiu says that a farmer stored some cooked sorghum beans in the hollow of a tree in winter. When spring arrived the farmer smelled a strong aroma coming from the tree and so baijiu was first discovered. Others say there was a monkey that was drinking from the hollow and was behaving oddly so upon inspection the farmer discovered baijiu and the cause of a drunken monkey.
Beer: Beer has been consumed in china for around nine thousand years. The most popular beer in China is Tsingtao brewed in Qingdao city. Other popular beers are Harbin, Yanjing, Zhujiang and Snow Beer. Most beers are pale lagers but there are a few dark beers available. The bottles are usually 450ml, larger than home and the percentages often start at 3 % alcohol.
A traditional mainland Chinese meal is delicious, different and accompanied with lots of rice. All these reasons should make you want to pick up your chopsticks and chow down. An ancient Chinese Proverb says “To the ruler people are heaven; to the people food is heaven.” There is no such simple pleasure as that of enjoying a satisfying meal. Share some ancient Chinese traditions in these delicious foods and expand your palette and your mind!