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Chinese food must be among the most famous in the world. Yet, at the same time, the most misunderstood.
I feel sure (hope) that most people here know that American-Chinese cuisine, British-Chinese cuisine, Indian-Chinese cuisine etc are, in huge ways, very different from Chinese-Chinese cuisine and each other. That's not what I want to discuss.
Yet, every day I still come across utter nonsense on YouTube videos and Facebook about the "real" Chinese cuisine, even from ethnically Chinese people (who have often never been in China). Sorry YouTube "influencers", but sprinkling soy sauce or 5-spice powder on your cornflakes does not make them Chinese!
So what is the "authentic" Chinese food? Well, like any question about China, there are several answers. It is not surprising that a country larger than western Europe should have more than one typical culinary style. Then, we must distinguish between what you may be served in a large hotel dining room, a small local restaurant, a street market stall or in a Chinese family's home.
That said, in this topic, I want to attempt to debunk some of the more prevalent myths. Not trying to start World War III.
When I moved to China from the UK 25 years ago, I had my preconceptions. They were all wrong. Sweet and sour pork with egg fried rice was reported to be the second favourite dish in Britain, and had, of course, to be preceded by a plate of prawn/shrimp crackers. All washed down with a lager or three.
Yet, in that quarter of a century, I've seldom seen a prawn cracker. And egg fried rice is usually eaten as a quick dish on its own, not usually as an accompaniment to main courses. Every menu featured a starter of prawn/shrimp toast which I have never seen in mainland China - just once in Hong Kong.
But first, one myth needs to be dispelled. The starving Chinese! When I was a child I was encouraged to eat the particularly nasty bits on the plate by being told that the starving Chinese would lap them up. My suggestion that we could post it to them never went down too well. At that time (the late fifties) there was indeed a terrible famine in China (almost entirely manmade (Maomade)).
When I first arrived in China, it was after having lived in Soviet Russia and I expected to see the same long lines of people queuing up to buy nothing very much in particular. Instead, on my first visit to a market (in Hunan Province), I was confronted with a wider range of vegetables, seafood, meat and assorted unidentified frying objects than I have ever seen anywhere else. And it was so cheap I couldn't convert to UK pounds or any other useful currency.
I'm going to start with some of the simpler issues - later it may get ugly!
1. Chinese people eat everything with chopsticks.
No, they don't! Most things, yes, but spoons are also commonly used in informal situations. I recently had lunch in a university canteen. It has various stations selling different items. I found myself by the fried rice stall and ordered some Yangzhou fried rice. Nearly all the students and faculty sitting near me were having the same.
I was using my chopsticks to shovel the food in, when I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Everyone else was using spoons. On investigating, I was told that the lunch break is so short at only two-and-a-half hours that everyone wants to eat quickly and rush off for their compulsory siesta.
I've also seen claims that people eat soup with chopsticks. Nonsense. While people use chopsticks to pick out choice morsels from the broth, they will drink the soup by lifting their bowl to their mouths like cups. They ain't dumb!
Anyway, with that very mild beginning, I'll head off and think which on my long list will be next.
Thanks to @KennethT for advice re American-Chinese food.
An eG member recently asked me by private message about mushrooms in China, so I thought I'd share some information here.
This is what available in the markets and supermarkets in the winter months - i.e now. I'll update as the year goes by.
December sees the arrival of what most westerners deem to be the standard mushroom – the button mushroom (小蘑菇 xiǎo mó gū). Unlike in the west where they are available year round, here they only appear when in season, which is now. The season is relatively short, so I get stuck in.
The standard mushroom for the locals is the one known in the west by its Japanese name, shiitake. They are available year round in the dried form, but for much of the year as fresh mushrooms. Known in Chinese as 香菇 (xiāng gū), which literally means “tasty mushroom”, these meaty babies are used in many dishes ranging from stir fries to hot pots.
Second most common are the many varieties of oyster mushroom. The name comes from the majority of the species’ supposed resemblance to oysters, but as we are about to see the resemblance ain’t necessarily so.
The picture above is of the common oyster mushroom, but the local shops aren’t common, so they have a couple of other similar but different varieties.
Pleurotus geesteranus, 秀珍菇 (xiù zhēn gū) (below) are a particularly delicate version of the oyster mushroom family and usually used in soups and hot pots.
凤尾菇 (fèng wěi gū), literally “Phoenix tail mushroom”, is a more robust, meaty variety which is more suitable for stir frying.
Another member of the pleurotus family bears little resemblance to its cousins and even less to an oyster. This is pleurotus eryngii, known variously as king oyster mushroom, king trumpet mushroom or French horn mushroom or, in Chinese 杏鲍菇 (xìng bào gū). It is considerably larger and has little flavour or aroma when raw. When cooked, it develops typical mushroom flavours. This is one for longer cooking in hot pots or stews.
One of my favourites, certainly for appearance are the clusters of shimeji mushrooms. Sometimes known in English as “brown beech mushrooms’ and in Chinese as 真姬菇 zhēn jī gū or 玉皇菇 yù huáng gū, these mushrooms should not be eaten raw as they have an unpleasantly bitter taste. This, however, largely disappears when they are cooked. They are used in stir fries and with seafood. Also, they can be used in soups and stews. When cooked alone, shimeji mushrooms can be sautéed whole, including the stem or stalk. There is also a white variety which is sometimes called 白玉 菇 bái yù gū.
Next up we have the needle mushrooms. Known in Japanese as enoki, these are tiny headed, long stemmed mushrooms which come in two varieties – gold (金針菇 jīn zhēn gū) and silver (银针菇 yín zhēn gū)). They are very delicate, both in appearance and taste, and are usually added to hot pots.
Then we have these fellows – tea tree mushrooms (茶树菇 chá shù gū). These I like. They take a bit of cooking as the stems are quite tough, so they are mainly used in stews and soups. But their meaty texture and distinct taste is excellent. These are also available dried.
Then there are the delightfully named 鸡腿菇 jī tuǐ gū or “chicken leg mushrooms”. These are known in English as "shaggy ink caps". Only the very young, still white mushrooms are eaten, as mature specimens have a tendency to auto-deliquesce very rapidly, turning to black ‘ink’, hence the English name.
Not in season now, but while I’m here, let me mention a couple of other mushrooms often found in the supermarkets. First, straw mushrooms (草菇 cǎo gū). Usually only found canned in western countries, they are available here fresh in the summer months. These are another favourite – usually braised with soy sauce – delicious! When out of season, they are also available canned here.
Then there are the curiously named Pig Stomach Mushrooms (猪肚菇 zhū dù gū, Infundibulicybe gibba. These are another favourite. They make a lovely mushroom omelette. Also, a summer find.
And finally, not a mushroom, but certainly a fungus and available fresh is the wood ear (木耳 mù ěr). It tastes of almost nothing, but is prized in Chinese cuisine for its crunchy texture. More usually sold dried, it is available fresh in the supermarkets now.
Please note that where I have given Chinese names, these are the names most commonly around this part of China, but many variations do exist.
Coming up next - the dried varieties available.
According to the 2010 census, there were officially 1,830,929 ethnic Koreans living in China and recognised as one of China’s 56 ethnic groups. The largest concentration is in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province, in the north-east bordering - guess where – North Korea. They have been there for centuries. The actual number today is widely believed to be higher, with some 4 to 5 thousand recent refugees living there illegally.
Anyway, what I have just taken delivery of is this Korean blood and glutinous rice sausage from Yanbian. I am an inveterate blood sausage fiend and always eager to try new examples from as many places as possible. I'll cook some tomorrow morning for breakfast and report back.
Note: This follows on from the Munching with the Miao topic.
The three-hour journey north from Miao territory ended up taking four, as the driver missed a turning and we had to drive on to the next exit and go back. But our hosts waited for us at the expressway exit and lead us up a winding road to our destination - Buyang 10,000 mu tea plantation (布央万亩茶园 bù yāng wàn mǔ chá yuán) The 'mu' is a Chinese measurement of area equal to 0.07 of a hectare, but the 10,000 figure is just another Chinese way of saying "very large".
We were in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, where 57% of the inhabitants are Dong.
The Dong people (also known as the Kam) are noted for their tea, love of glutinous rice and their carpentry and architecture. And their hospitality. They tend to live at the foot of mountains, unlike the Miao who live in the mid-levels.
By the time we arrived, it was lunch time, but first we had to have a sip of the local tea. This lady did the preparation duty.
This was what we call black tea, but the Chinese more sensibly call 'red tea'. There is something special about drinking tea when you can see the bush it grew on just outside the window!
Then into lunch:
The ubiquitous Egg and Tomato
Dried fish with soy beans and chilli peppers. Delicious.
Stir fried lotus root
Rice Paddy Fish Deep Fried in Camellia Oil - wonderful with a smoky flavour, but they are not smoked.
Out of Focus Corn and mixed vegetable
Beef with Bitter Melon
Glutinous (Sticky) Rice
The juiciest pomelo ever. The area is known for the quality of its pomelos.
After lunch we headed out to explore the tea plantation.
Interspersed with the tea plants are these camellia trees, the seeds of which are used to make the Dong people's preferred cooking oil.
As we climbed the terraces we could hear singing and then came across this group of women. They are the tea pickers. It isn't tea picking time, but they came out in their traditional costumes to welcome us with their call and response music. They do often sing when picking. They were clearly enjoying themselves.
And here they are:
After our serenade we headed off again, this time to the east and the most memorable meal of the trip. Coming soon.
Last week, Liuzhou government invited a number of diplomats from Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar/Burma, Poland, and Germany to visit the city and prefecture. They also invited me along. We spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday introducing the diplomats to the culture of the local ethnic groups and especially to their food culture.
First off, we headed two hours north into the mountains of Rongshui Miao Autonomous County. The Miao people (苗族 miáo zú), who include the the Hmong, live in the mid-levels of mountains and are predominantly subsistence farmers. Our first port of call was the county town, also Rongshui (融水 róng shuǐ, literal meaning: Melt Water) where we were to have lunch. But before lunch we had to go meet some people and see their local crafts. These are people I know well from my frequent work trips to the area, but for the diplomats, it was all new.
So, I had to wait for lunch, and I see no reason why you shouldn't either. Here are some of the people I live and work with.
This lovely young woman is wearing the traditional costume of an unmarried girl. Many young women, including her, wear this every day, but most only on festive occasions.
Her hat is made from silver (and is very heavy). Here is a closer look.
Married women dispense with those gladrags and go for this look:
As you can see she is weaving bamboo into a lantern cover.
The men tend to go for this look, although I'm not sure that the Bluetooth earpiece for his cellphone is strictly traditional.
The children don't get spared either
This little girl is posing with the Malaysian Consul-General.
After meeting these people we went on to visit a 芦笙 (lú shēng) workshop. The lusheng is a reed wind instrument and an important element in the Miao, Dong and Yao peoples' cultures.
Then at last we headed to the restaurant, but as is their custom, in homes and restaurants, guests are barred from entering until they go through the ritual of the welcoming cup of home-brewed rice wine.
The consular staff from Myanmar/Burma and Malaysia "unlock" the door.
Then you have the ritual hand washing part.
Having attended to your personal hygiene, but before entering the dining room, there is one more ritual to go through. You arrive here and sit around this fire and wok full of some mysterious liquid on the boil.
On a nearby table is this
Puffed rice, soy beans, peanuts and scallion. These are ladled into bowls.
with a little salt, and then drowned in the "tea" brewing in the wok.
This is 油茶 (yóu chá) or Oil Tea. The tea is made from Tea Seed Oil which is made from the seeds of the camellia bush. This dish is used as a welcoming offering to guests in homes and restaurants. Proper etiquette suggests that three cups is a minimum, but they will keep refilling your cup until you stop drinking. First time I had it I really didn't like it, but I persevered and now look forward to it.
L-R: Director of the Foreign Affairs Dept of Liuzhou government, consuls-general of Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos.
Having partaken of the oil tea, finally we are allowed to enter the dining room, where two tables have been laid out for our use.
Let the eating, finally, begin.
In no particular order:
Steamed corn, taro and sweet potato
Banana leaf stuffed with sticky rice and mixed vegetables and steamed.
Egg pancake with unidentified greenery
Stir fried pork and beans
Stir fried Chinese banana (Ensete lasiocarpum)
This may not look like much, but was the star of the trip. Rice paddy fish, deep fried in camellia tree seed oil with wild mountain herbs. We ate this at every meal, cooked with slight variations, but never tired of it.
Stir fried Greens
Our meal was accompanied by the wait staff singing to us and serving home-made rice wine (sweetish and made from the local sticky rice).
Everything we ate was grown or reared within half a kilometre of the restaurant and was all free-range, organic. And utterly delicious.
Roll on dinner time.
On the trip I was designated the unofficial official photographer and ended up taking 1227 photographs. I just got back last night and was busy today, so I will try to post the rest of the first day (and dinner) as soon as I can.
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