Hey you! Put. Down. The. General Gao's Chicken. Lemme lay some real Chinese cuisine on you. My China trip was an eye-opening experience on all levels. Especially the food part. I really thought I knew Chinese food. Sadly, even the authentic restaurants here give you but a watered-down version of what's available in the motherland. You know how after a while all Chinese food tastes the same? Should we go to Golden Jade Dragon Palace, Jade Palace Dragon Garden, Golden Dragon Garden Palace or Garden Palace of Gold Dragons? Well in China it would take a lifetime of eating to reach that point, due to the sheer number of regions, indigenous cultures and ethnic groups you've got there.
I'm posting today to give you a fresh perspective. Chinese food isn't all batter-dipped deep fried hunks of meat covered in day-glo sweet and sour sauce (as much as I admittedly love that). It is complex beyond comprehension. I have never experienced as intense an interplay of flavors and spices as I did when I was eating in China. These pictures and descriptions do not do any of these dishes justice, but it's the best I can do from here.
Please note: I do not know the actual names of these dishes. I'm making the names up based on what I know about them.
Braised Fish with Wok Bread
Yes, those are gaping fish mouths. But really, I think as Americans we're too removed from our food. Chicken breasts are trimmed, boned and skinned, our fish comes in innocuous triangular fillets -- we've taken all the personality out of our food. Sometimes you can't even tell you're eating an animal. If we're going to kill and consume another life form, why not embrace that fact? I feel it is insulting to the animal to simply process the life out of it. Anyway... onto the dish.
Talk about the ultimate "one-pot" dish. Never thought you could cook a stew and bake bread in a single vessel now did you? The stew itself is made up of small smelt-like fish, un-cured bacon, garlic cloves and a whole bunch of Chinese spices. As the mixture cooks slowly in the wok, you stick globs of dough on the side. Once covered, the wok acts as an oven and steamer. As it bakes, the bread absorbs the flavor of the bacon and spices, and the surface that contacts the wok forms a nice crispy crust.
There are few things more satisfying than dipping this bread into this thick garlicky, bacony, smelty (sounds better than fishy) sauce. Screw no double-dipping.
Braised Pork "Tacos"
Have you ever eaten meat that literally melts upon contact with your tongue? That's why you need the steamed buns. To enjoy this, you take a bun, unfold it, then add some meat (which houses a hefty layer of flavorful fat and buttery skin) and some pickled kale (at least it looks like kale) which has been cooked tender under the meat, thus absorbing the flavors and oils. The bun, being steamed and therefore very porous, absorbs the intense sauce and mellows everything out. I'd eat this even if it had lead paint in it.
Spareribs in Sticky Rice
You've probably had spareibs before. Maybe you've had sticky rice too (sticky rice is not simply normal rice that's been overcooked - it's an entirely different shorter-grained, more glutenous rice variety that's nuttier in flavor and very very sticky). But the sum of their parts is a whole 'nother thing entirely. In this dish, sticky rice is formed into a ball around short pieces of sparerib. It's not heavily spiced, instead relying on the natural flavor of the pork, sticky rice and added sesame oil to carry it. The whole thing is steamed in bamboo steamers (the standard steaming vessel in Chinese cooking) and topped with chopped scallion upon serving. Though tempting, do not use your hands to eat this. Ultra sticky rice fingers and 1-ply tissues do not get along (remember about the napkins from my last post?). Unless you don't mind having access to your fingertips for a couple of days.
Hellishly Hot Fish Soup
Folks from Northern China are known for their affinity for freakishly spicy food. They don't just have mild, medium and hot. There's a degree of hotness that translates literally to "numb hot." As in it is so hot, the nerves in your mouth overload and simply go numb (and take the nerves in your lower face down with them). Take one look at this soup and tell me your mouth isn't a wee bit frightened. Those red floating things are dried chilis. Those small balls are white peppercorns. The interesting thing about this soup is that you don't actually drink it (if you care at all about your stomach lining). You just eat the fish out of it. By having been boiled in this concoction, it picks up some very intense flavor and heat. More than your daily recommended allowance.
Lamb and Chicken Steamed Rice Pots
Mmm... this is comfort food at its finest. Nothing complicated at all. Chicken and rice (left) and lamb and rice (right) mixed with some simple spices (I don't know which), piled into individual-sized bamboo steamers and steamed to the right consistency. Stick to your ribs, Chinese style.
Sorry, I felt really stupid pulling my camera out in the middle of a banquet with dignitaries and officials around, just so I could shoot "food porn" pics for y'all. So this picture of a typical banquet room will have to suffice. All I have to say is that the dishes presented during a banquet are elegant and exquisite like no other. And there's no rice served. You're probably saying "whaaa?" But it's true. Rice fills you up, so to serve it is kind of like a cop-out. A good host fills his guests up with meat and expensive delicacies, not with rice! What are we... peasants?? (Jeez, just two weeks of banquets and the royalty in me is already showing.)
OK, OK, Time to Keeps it Real. This is the Street Food Segment of my Post.
Hands down. My favorite culinary experience in China was the street food. The stuff that you eat at 3:30am after bar hopping and/or entertaining clients. Fine, maybe I was "beer goggling" the array of local eats available at the break of dawn, but MAN, WAS THIS STUFF GOOD!! The video I'm posting soon has a lot of street food footage, and I think it does a better job capturing the real essence of this stuff, but I had to include it here too. Eating street food is like partaking in a massive BBQ orgy. You have a regular "Noah's Ark" of animal meats and parts on skewers to choose from, which the peddlers expertly grill with a garlic butter sauce over hot coals and serve to you with more beer (no license required to sell booze, which means anyone selling anything from skewers to toys can also offer you beer - what a wonderful place). My favorites were grilled oysters, lamb skewers and chicken hearts.
More Street Eats
The dish on the left is beef heart, green chili and garlic stir fry. I could not get enough of it! If you're going to try entrails, hearts are probably a good gateway gut. They aren't squishy and "gross" like tripe or intestine (though I personally do love both). They have a fairly firm consistency and taste much like normal beef. Just a bit springier. The middle skewer is cilantro wrapped in tofu skins. I'm not a huge fan of cilantro or tofu, so I didn't like that one. But the one on the right is lamb skewers. Not guts. Just plain old lamb. Delicious. That thing on the right of it that looks like a thumb? Pig tail. If you like tendons and pork rinds, you will love pig tails. The reason you don't see more of the tail on that plate is because I ate it.
Ok, I really do not have to keep using the word "street." I think you get the point. These are just sausages. Harbin is famous for sausages. These taste just like anything Hickory Farms would churn out around the holidays. I was surprised that two cultures so different would produce such similar products. I was told that this is because Harbiners learned the art of sausage-making from the Russians (just a hop, skip and a jump over the edge of town), who learned it from the Polish. Makes total sense now. Those globs in the middle. Deep-fried meatballs. Yes, they taste as good as they sound.
And This is Just Plain Funny...
This is a slice of pizza from Pizza Hut. Yes, the actual American chain. Why do I find this so funny? Well, for those of you who have been reading my blog for a while, you might remember my post where Fury played Iron Chef and just made up a bunch of dishes, including his own pizza? Do you remember what this made-up pizza consisted of? Bacon (pancetta), mushrooms and corn. Take a close look at the picture above. Yes, that's bacon, mushroom and corn! My kid may have never set foot in China, but the genetic inclinations run strong.
I hope you enjoyed this post! Stay tuned for my epic China movie. It's been two weeks in the making, and I'm going on day 3 editing it. You just have to watch it. Please?