July 4, 2010
It goes without saying that the food in China is different. Yes, many of us have eaten in a Chinese food restaurant and are familiar with favorites like fried rice, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls, etc. Food in China is different. Now one must understand that my eating experiences were also different than those of any average Chinese family. Where normal meals might be much simpler, my eating experience was much more elaborate. Many meals were set up buffet style in the hotels so we saw a multiplicity of possible dishes that may not end up on the table every meal. When I experienced a sit down eating opportunity, the meal was present banquet style where the hosts procured many types of dishes. I was even told several times that, "We ordered a little bit more so you could try everything." Fortunately, I brought my eating "A-game" and tried everything presented to me (thanks Mom and Dad for making be try everything as a kid!). Here are some of my eating experiences on the trip:
Normally I wouldn't talk a lot about airline food, but this fare wasn't bad. Okay, I wasn't sure about the blue stuff in the entrée, but it ended up being eggplant. I like eggplant. Honestly, if the airline food was good (it was) then my eating experience in China was going to be great!
This was meal No.2 on the way over, and appearance aside, the food wasn't bad. Okay the noodles look interesting but they were fine.
Eating in Beijing
When we arrived in Beijing, I was tired and not very hungry, but the hotel would be offering dinner a dinner anyway, and I was eager to see what delicacies might await. I was honestly underwhelmed by the food in Beijing, and I think there are several reasons why. This trip was designed to show us the best of China, and despite this intention, there was probably considerable attention given to the fact that there were a bunch of westerners visiting China for the very first time (see picture
of this website's creator on the homepage). I'm sure that not everyone was nearly as adventurous as me when it comes to eating. So, the food had to be familiar and exotic all in the same package. This said, we saw a lot of chicken, pork, and beef in the Beijing Hotel offerings. There were a few interesting items worthy of note: 1) Squid, I had one dish that seemed to incorporate the entire. whole animal and didn't bother with chopping it up as is familiar with calamari; 2) Dragon Fruit
, we would see this cactus fruit quite a bit during the trip. It looks different but tastes pretty good; 3) Chicken coconut and orange soup, wasn't sure about this when I tried it but what a taste. Think essence of coconut with a hint of orange zest in chicken broth. Yes, it sounds unusual but the flavors worked.
The food in Beijing served two very important purposes in my mind: 1) It slowly broke us in for dining experiences that would be out of this world; 2) Mixing in western style cuisine gave us enough familiarity to choose comfort food when we needed it. This would be really important after traveling for five days and wanting some pancakes for breakfast in the morning when all you could get that was to western food might be bacon. Ultimately, the dishes described above were the standout dishes at the Beijing Hotel.
It wasn't until the last night of the Hanban trip that we had some really flavorful food in Beijing. Hanban set up a final banquet dinner at Quan Ju De
a famous restaurant established in Beijing in 1864 that boasts Beijing's most famous dish, Peking Duck. Although not pictured below, take it from me, it was really, really good. Here are some of the dishes that came with that final meal:
This was a type of mushroom sautéed in a type of sauce. Sorry that's all I've got. Mushroom or "fungus" as it was commonly described by our hosts was served pretty regularly at meals. Sometimes as the featured item in a dish sometimes as a garnish with meat. Most of the mushrooms I tried had the typical chewy texture and were accented with creative, flavorful sauces.
This was beef garnished with...mushroom caps and garlic. Fortunately, everyone tried it so I was not worried about my breath. The amount of garlic I ate may also explain not seeing a single mesquito on the trip.
Eating in Changchun, Jilin Province
It wasn't until we got to Changchun that many of us began to describe the food in Beijing as bland. Our first meal in the hotel blew the lid off of every dinning experience we had up to that point. It would only get better from here. Food in Changchun can best be described as spicy. You know those red peppers
that end up in your General's chicken sometimes? Yeah, they were everywhere. It really upped the ante on food adventurers. Fortunately, for the less adventurous, our accommodations in Changchun offered some familiar favorites like Chow Mein and sweet and sour Pork. They weren't exactly the same as their Americanized counterparts but close enough to offer options.
The best part about the first meal in Changchun was the grill. As we sat with full plates from browsing at the buffet, one of the house chefs who obviously was not afraid to sample his creations began bringing various grilled meats to each table. About every five minutes he would show up with skewers of meat that he would offer and then cut right off the skewer. I have heard that this is what happens at Brazilian steakhouses but have not had the pleasure of that experience. First, we had grilled pork sausage...mmm. Next came grilled beef. It was peppered and on the rare side of medium. It melted in my mouth. Then we had beef sautéed in a brown sauce that wasn't quite as good as the previous dish but that didn't stop me from trying it. Finally, the only non-meat was served. Grilled corn-on-the-cob...this would normally be pretty good by itself but our master chef sprinkled it with some combination of butter and spices that made your lips tingle a bit. It was a perfect way to end the meal. Of course, I was also full and had to refuse any other offerings.
A quick anecdote about the master chef. He was very humbled and giggly when Mitzi told him how good his food was. A really cute moment.
What follows are a selection of favorites from my culinary experiences in Changchun:
By far the most elaborate set up we saw. This was the setting for the first meal we shared with school personnel. I sat next to the principal of Jilin University Middle School at this table. In case you are wondering, yes, there were goldfish in the center bowls, no, we did not eat them.
My place setting at lunch.
My first plate at lunch. The most interesting dish here is in the top middle section of the plate. It is deer but not venison. I am not sure if it was deer skin or part of the antler but our driver Mr. Hu insisted it was good for strength. He ate quite a bit. I followed suit.
Fish was a regular offering. In particular in Changchun we saw flounder, or "flat fish." This dish looked baked with green onions.
It looks like beef, right? Well it wasn't. When asked I got this response, "It is a kind of seafood." I am not sure if this was because there was not a good English translation for the dish, but it was a common response for seafood dishes.
Favorites in Changchun
My second dinner in Changchun included this soup appetizer. I forgot to take a picture of it until it was about half gone, but basically this is the dish: clear broth with seafood and ever so tiny bits of bamboo. The cool part of the dish was the egg white that was cooked and formed at the bottom of the bowl. Also, there were no overpowering flavors. The dish was subtle but flavorful, a great start to the meal.
Eating in Jiamusi, Heilongjiang Province
The meals we experienced in Jiamusi were, in my opinion, tops for the trip. The two meals that were the most memorable included Sichuan
style dishes. Sichuan is synonymous with spicy and these dishes fully complied:
This dish included crab, French fries (yes), and red onions. It was very spicy and remarkably difficult to eat with chop sticks. I observed our driver successfully complete this operation and attempted to duplicate it, but without much success. I ended up resorting to a fork.
This warm soup came at the beginning of the same meal with the crab dish. It consisted of noodles in a red broth garnished with roe and green onions. Heavily seasoned with what ever the equivalent of chili powder might be, the spice made my lips tingle a bit, but this sensation set the tone for the rest of the meal as my palate was bombarded with similar flavors the entire evening.
Not necessarily spicy but a unique dining experience for me. These are pig's feet. Very chewing and the bone-in made for difficult eating without much payoff, but I would do it again. Although not pictured, I also had the opportunity to try pig's ear. It shared a chewy consistency with the dish below, but we only had the firmer edge of the ear.
The dish in the fore front of this image consisted of bamboo shoots and mushrooms. Good but not what I wanted to show. Just above the shoots was a dish I really enjoyed: slices of pear soaked in red wine. Beautifully sweet and no strong wine flavor, wow!
I mentioned above that fish was a consistent offering at most of our meals. Jiamusi was no exception and like the other Sichuan dishes at this meal it was spicy, as evidenced by the Chinese red peppers present. Although not clear in this picture, many fish dishes include the entire fish (bones, heads, eyes, skin).
Think sweet and sour but with fish, mmmm....
No lie, the dishes at the center of the table were called Chinese pancakes. We had several difference versions on the trip. Some were very flaky and light others were more substantial and hardy. These two represent both ends of the spectrum.
A twist on a classic American favorite, bacon and eggs. Spicy and salty but one of my favorites and one I won't soon forget.
The Final Meals
There were lots of final dining experiences in China: last meal in Changchun (it was a lunch...good food and the memorable dish was wood ear mushrooms sautéed in butter); last meal of the Hanban trip (at a famous Peking duck restaurant described above, the duck was good and the night ended with many of us eating whole red peppers); last meal in Jiamusi (something called "hot pot" that was really fun but had me worried about singeing wrist hair); and last meal in China.
On the last meal in China overall, I have to talk a bit about dining in China in general. I caught myself thinking about how well I ate while I was on this trip, but it hit me that I was a special guest on this trip and each time I sat down it was a banquet style occasion. Each host wanted us to see the best that China had to offer, and we did. At the same time it wasn't/isn't how the average person eats. Honestly, this isn't how the average person eats anywhere unless they have the means. It was my final meal in Beijing the morning we left that might have been the most authentic, daily culinary experience. The restaurant in our hotel served breakfast and before we left for the airport we had a breakfast which consisted of porridge, dumplings, a kind of coleslaw, and hot water. It cost about 1 USD and it was filling and satisfying. It was a really basic, authentic eating experience and good way to end the trip.