Food. Live to eat or eat to live. No matter what your disposition food plays a crucial role in our day to day lives. When travelling abroad how you are going to eat and maintain a comfortable and familiar diet is a primary concern. At least it was for me. I consider myself fairly open to different foods, happy to try new things and always searching for new restaurants to try out. In London I have had the privilege of great food. Venturing to China I knew that food was going to be vastly different. We have our anglicised version of Chinese food in the UK, though its not exactly surprising this is not reflective of true Chinese food.
The first thing to know about food in China is that it is resourceful. China hasn’t always been the forefront of the economic market and the food reflects this. If an animal can be caught, the whole animal will be used. When venturing into your local supermarket it will not be unusual to see intestines on sale. They are in fact considered a delicacy and priced accordingly. Feet and knuckles are also frequently used – chicken and pigs’ feet particularly. Hotpot, a Chinese shared meal where those dining cook their food in a hot soup favours pigs’ brain as a particular delicacy. In China using the entirety of animal is normal. It may cause my stomach to squirm but here it is the reality, and I respect the resourcefulness. This does not however mean I am going to willingly ingest feet or brains.
The second thing to know about Chinese food is that animals we may in the west consider inedible are made edible in China. I have never looked longingly at a jellyfish for its edible qualities but in China this is perfectly normal. It comes in sachets, fresh or tins in fact. Fish counters hold frogs, snakes, sea cucumbers, turtles and a whole host of animals I do not recognise or could not name. The same is true for fruit and vegetables. There are three different types of aubergine in my local supermarket. This may not seem particularly remarkable, but it causes me some degree of confusion as to which is the most appropriate for my lunch the next day. These new products have had some benefits, including an extensive array of fresh exotic fruit and an unlimited supply of new potential recipes. As someone who loves cooking this is incredibly exciting for me.
The third thing to know about Chinese food is that street food is a way of life. China is divided into nine different regions regarding cuisine. Each region is famous for a particular type of food. Sichuan is famous for its hot and spicy food, particularly hotpot and the fervent use of Sichuan peppercorns. It is possible to eat street food for breakfast, lunch and dinner in china and for as little as ¥30 which is roughly equivalent to £4. A typical day menu for the day in China may include; Jianbing – a Chinese breakfast pancake. Jianbing is sold on every street corner in Shanghai between the hours of 6:30 and 8:30, for as little as ¥4. These pancakes are filled with chillies, pickles, red bean paste [sweet], salad, scrambled eggs and crackers. Made fresh to order and customisable with extra ingredients such as chicken, these breakfast pancakes are the perfect way to start the day. For lunch noodles are fairly popular. In Chengdu, sweet water noodles are popular. Glutinous rice noodles with chilli paste, plum preserve and soy sauce. A cold sweet and savoury treat. In Shanghai you may go for Sesame butter noodles with spicy pork. Noodles drenched in rich sesame sauce with pork marinated in spicy chilli oil for twelve hours. These dishes will set you back ¥15. Finally, for dinner, dumplings. In Shanghai, Xiao Long Bao are on the menu. Pork soup dumplings perfected over the years to perfectly in case the meat and soup without the encasing being too thick. Apparently eighteen pleats are the perfect amount for Xiao Long Bao. The most I’ve seen a basket of six dumplings sold for it ¥12. Street food is a perfect way to immerse yourself into Chinese culture and converse with locals. I have relied heavily on the YouTube channel ‘Food Ranger’ by Trevor Noah for finding street food, but even without this resource there are treats on every street corner.
Although I have not been as adventurous as others, food in China has been an enlightening experience. My comfort food has switched from a big bowl of pasta to a homemade wonton and noodle soup. When I leave China there will be a gulf in my heart for the numerous dumplings I have consumed here.