Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Culture Corner: The Food

If any of you are thinking of visiting China, it's at least worth your while to come here for the food. It's beyond delicious and as I'm still a growing boy, it may be my favorite aspect of China so far. Forget about "Chopsticks", "Wok In", and "Pu Pu Mansion". Food here is nothing like that. Not only is it ten times tastier, I think everything else about it is different than what the restaurants of America would have me believe is Chinese food. That is, except one thing: Guillermito, you can still get your 3 AM cravings for fried rice satisfied, though it’s not a neon pink color.

For starters, most of the ingredients in real Chinese food are nothing you've ever heard of.  They have wonderful names like "green vegetable" and "light green vegetable", and "lotus fruit" and "minced pork”.  There are also many things you are familiar with, like green peppers, tomatoes, beef, and eggs - though you have to ask which bird the egg came from as there is a wider variety to choose from than just chicken. And of course there is rice. Using the most delicious sauces and spices they combine vegetables, meat, and sometimes fruit or eggs to create the best food I’ve ever tasted - that isn’t Western. (That last bit was for you, mom. Don’t want you getting offended. You’re still the best cook in the world.)

The sheer number of dishes to choose from when going to a restaurant is what impresses me the most in China.  Considering they prepare it all in an area the size of a closet, pulling ingredients from places I'd rather not think about, and having it ready in less than ten minutes, I’m even more impressed. There are far more dishes to choose from than ten different ways to cook a steak and potatoes. Due to its size, looking through a menu here is often like reading a phone book. And as I don't understand any of it, my usual ploy is to use my first digit to indicate something whose Chinese characters look particularly enticing. My other ploy is to point at the table next to me and indicate I would like what they’re having. Nine times out of ten I'll get something that is really tasty, though I don't know exactly what it is. (One time I received “preserved eggs” otherwise known as “partially rotten eggs” and had to point again.) Bringing a Chinese person with me to interpret the menu only made eating a scary experience as they can be quoted saying things like: "That is flesh of donkey, brain of pig, and coagulated goose blood.”  What I don’t know doesn’t hurt, and I haven’t died yet. Besides, the other vegetables, fruits, spices, and sauces they combine it with taste so good you never have the chance to stop and think precisely which variety the globules entering your stomach are except to reach for the next chopstickful. Can I say “chopstickful”, like “spoonful”?

Since arriving in China, I've eaten fungus, bean curd (otherwise known as tofu, which if eaten fresh, direct from the pan, does have taste - and it's a good), rabbit, frog bits, goat, scorpion - yes, scorpion, black ones in particular (it was salty and crunchy) - "heart of chicken", black mushrooms, "feet of pig", lamb skin, "intestine of cow", and a variety of others.  After eating the "liver of duck", I'll try anything now.

For those of you wondering about Rottweiler tenderloin, it’s interesting that the stereotypes we have regarding the Chinese, they have regarding specific regions of China, particularly the Cantonese areas which are apparently renowned for eating anything and everything, including newborn mice dipped in vinegar.  But that’s only a rumor.  So, the stereotype about the Chinese eating dog is only partially true.  Funny enough, the places it is eaten it is thought of as a delicacy, and so available as a posh item.  In other words, the average Chinese person isn’t routing through alleys at night with a baseball bat, trying to take bag the next day’s supper.  Where I live they eat the same things we do on a regular basis.  Pig, cow, chicken, etc. form a regular part of their diet, though they don’t waste as much as we do, the result being more of the nutrients we ignore in favor of vitamin French fry health-a-Coke are absorbed by the system. 

The one thing the Chinese need to work on is sweets. Not for lack of offerings, what they do have, however, contains about the same amount of sugar as a radish.  As a result, every once and a while I get a tremendous hankering for a piece of wedding cake, or even just a piece of pie. I suppose that the Chinese people’s general ability to fit through turnstiles at a higher rate than Americans can be attributed to their general lack of Dairy Queens, Twinkies, and the like.

The food so good here, you deserve a much longer culture corner describing it.  However, I hope what little I wrote gives a little better idea of how varied and delicious food is in China.  Until next time…

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