At a round table, on a covered terrace above Linkeng, one of China’s ancient mountain villages, I faced a food challenge. In front of me was a massive bowl of chicken soup, with several kinds of vegetables and a whole chicken floating in steaming broth. It smelled delicious, but when I say a whole chicken, I mean whole. Sticking up from the broth was a black gnarly foot, complete with claws.
It was just one of many culinary challenges I encountered in a three-week visit to China.
Formal and Ceremonial Dining
As part of a business delegation for the first few days of my visit, I had been treated with great indulgence. It was thrilling to be served the elegant dishes of formal Chinese cuisine. Each course arrived with celebratory dignity, each morsel carved, arranged, decorated, wrapped in gold, or sitting elegantly in the centre of an orchid. I loved every bite, especially the caramelized custard served in a bowl surrounded with dry ice, so that mist escaped around the edges as it sat on the plate.
But, lovely though these tidbits were, I did not feel I was experiencing authentic food until I travelled independently to the smaller cities and villages, away from the more westernized centres. That was where my food adventures began.
Country Dining in China
As the chicken soup made its third pass by me on the revolving platform in the middle of the table, I decided to engage. Copying the other diners, I scooped the broth into my bowl and plucked up bits of chicken with my chopsticks. It was heavenly good – infused with a deep flavour of chicken, ginger, and scallions, including squares of the special Nanxi tofu and Chinese greens. I enjoyed every drop, even though the chickens scrabbling about next door may have been the siblings of the one in the bowl.
Later, we walked along the ancient laneways of Lishui Street, and I saw row upon row of hand stretched noodles drying on racks. This is the historic comfort food of China – inexpensive, easy to make and showing up in every second dish across China. In fact, remnants of noodles found in an archeological site recently were dated back 4000 years. On these narrow laneways, women stood with wooden rods, separating the noodles as they dried.
Food Court Dining
I discovered that dining in China is often accompanied by much noise and activity. It is seldom the somber dignity found in European dining rooms and is usually communal, convivial and boisterous. In the city of Wenzhou, on the coast of the East China Sea, I took part in what felt like a food circus, at Tian Yi Jiao, the oriental equivalent of a food court. Along the outer edges of the space were food stalls, one after the other, each displaying its specialty with great artistry. There were trays of fish, glistening plates of octopus, bowls of shrimp, quivery platters of noodles of every shape, colourful vegetables and steaming pots of broth, curries, stews and sauces. Diners chose their menu, then sat at one of the many tables in the centre where, in addition to throngs of other customers, there were puppet shows, singers, dancers and costumed musicians. It was noisy, sweaty and full of energy, and the food was all fresh, locally sourced and dominated by regional specialties. I had two bowls of Wenzhou wontons, stuffed with savoury pork, seaweed, and shredded egg, accompanied by Yongjia wheat cakes. Addictive.
A Celebration of Celadon
In a complete about face, I dined in the spare simplicity of Opal, in the heart of Wenzhou, the studio of artist and designer Zhou Xiao Jie, where each course was served in a glazed celadon bowl. The first course arrived in the largest bowl, in the bottom of which were four perfect spears of asparagus drizzled with lemon and butter. Each subsequent course arrived in a slightly smaller bowl which was placed inside the larger, until the last course, a dessert of mango and cream.
Dumplings and Squashes
In a tour of Wenzhou’s forward-looking agricultural and industrial park, I walked under arbors of squashes and zucchinis – a new trellising method for growing hydroponic vegetables in greenhouses. Here, we were also given a lesson in dumpling-making.
We folded and pinched circles of dough around spoonfuls of minced pork and then steamed and grilled the results. Sitting around a table later, the communal spirit created by cooking and eating together led to a frank conversation with two Chinese university students, Chelsea and Susan, about why and how they chose their Westernized names. The choice, I was told, is not made lightly.
Crossing the Bridge Noodles
In Kunming, I found the perfect meeting of food and history. I had spent a drizzly afternoon in the Stone Forest outside of the city, climbing through the towering limestone monoliths. Even in the chill, this UNESCO World Heritage site was awesome. Once back in the city, I was tired and considering an early night, but my guide, Mike, convinced me that dinner would be special and it was.
Consuming Crossing the Bridge Noodles is a rite of passage in Kunming. The dish is an area specialty. It comes with a story, as so many things in China seem to do. When a scholar withdrew across a bridge to a lonely island to live and study (so the story goes), his wife would come each day with food. But as he found the food was always cold, his appetite waned, and he began to waste away. His clever wife came up with a solution – she cut the ingredients for a meal into small slices, carried a hot bowl of boiling broth, and then put the ingredients and the noodles into the broth once she was on the island. The heat of the broth cooked the ingredients. The scholar regained his appetite and flourished in his studies, going on to become an important Imperial scholar.
My modern Kunming version began with a large bowl of steaming broth and platters of artfully arranged ingredients – a quail’s egg, shrimp, chicken, edible flowers, lemongrass, scallions, and noodles, to be added to the broth. It was a memorable meal, satisfying both to the eye and the appetite.
World Famous Pu’er Tea and Street Stall Food
The next day, in the very old and beautiful city of Lijiang, once a major stop on the ancient trading route into Tibet, I learned about the exquisite and rare Pu’er teas, said by some to be the best in the world.
I spent my evenings in busy food stalls in the heart of the old city, trying things I fancied, and just looking at those I didn’t quite understand. It was exhilarating. I did not try the grilled insects, though they looked tempting, almost like shiny jewels.
YI Village Cuisine
Local women in a small Yi village showed me how they made tsampa.
It is a staple, portable food, carried by shepherds for hundreds of years into the high mountains. With a cup of hot yak butter tea, it kept them fed and warm. It is a mixture of yak butter tea, yak milk cheese, barley and a sprinkle of sugar, mashed by hand into a smooth ball. It made a long lasting, portable and filling diet for the cold weather work. It tasted pleasant and bland, yet fatty and cheesy, but I couldn’t imagine it as a daily meal. In the room nearby, the women’s husbands were having their tea and tsampa by the fire, seemingly quite content with the menu.
At Tiger Leaping Gorge, I dined on fabulous Kung Pao chicken, sitting under an old but well-preserved photograph of Chairman Mao and discovered the tongue-numbing charms of fresh Sichuan peppercorns.
In the storied city of Shanghai-la, I tried yak stew, chewy but remarkably similar to traditional beef stew.
And in a quiet moment in the Buddhist lamasery of Songzanlin, above Shanghai-La, I watched as the monks paused in their prayers while acolytes served them simple bowls of rice with vegetables, a lesson in austerity.
What I found in the areas outside the more westernized cities was a cuisine that was decidedly local, fresh, imaginative, and almost always very personal in its preparation and service.
China, for me, became a banquet of endless variety and complexity, with surprises and challenges and pleasures along every path.
I am now in Kung Pao Chicken withdrawal.