What’s very evident is that the Chinese really like to EAT! At any moment of the day you will pass people selecting watermelons or chickens from a market, squatting on the footpath enjoying a bowl of noodles or snacking on packets of seeds or nuts or those other indefinable treats that fill any town’s multitude of grocery stores and stalls. The rest will be seated in groups around steaming hotpots, dipping pieces of meat or vegetables into the bubbling broth, or watching critically as a vendor flips and tosses their order of stir fried rice or noodles in a blackened wok.
Business deals may be done over banquets in secluded restaurants lushly decorated with red and gold drapes and polished wood panelling, while families gather in large restaurants where the laminex tables and plastic chairs may give little hint of the excellent fare awaiting them. Tourists groups inevitably find themselves seated at round tables for ten with a large turntable in the middle on which dish after shared dish is set.
The real thing is, it hardly matters how or where you eat in China. Your fellow diners may often prove to be noisy companions, eating rapidly, enthusiastically slurping their noodles, and messily throwing scraps and bones on the table. It’s all part of the routine. Eating in this country is a happy social activity and the plentiful, freshly prepared and tasty food is meant to be shared and enjoyed.
Over the many centuries that this country has evolved, the various regions have settled into fairly clear schools of cookery. Much has to do with what will grow in each region, but is also affected by the races that inhabit it.
Chinese food has long held a certain mystique for Westerners. And while there are some things we still cannot quite handle – how are you, for instance with chicken’s feet, frogs, or fresh snake’s blood? – hundreds of other dishes have us well and truly hooked.
TEN THINGS YOU HAVE TO TASTE ON A TRIP TO CHINA:
Yum cha (dim sum)
Possibly the world’s best breakfast (or is it brunch?). Enjoy it in a cool teahouse or in a massive room catering for hundreds. It’s all good. Go for prawn or pork-filled dumplings, steamed buns, custard tarts, and anything that catches your eye. Don’t forget the old ‘I’ll have what they’re having….’ mime-and-point routine.
This might include scorpions and slender snakes threaded onto bamboo sticks, or hunks of cake carved from a huge slab (where are the ovens big enough to bake these monsters) and iced on the spot for you to take back to your hotel. Look for steaming hot soups or roasted nuts or raisins or green figs wrapped in newspaper.
Peking Duck in Beijing
Since 1864 Quanjude has been serving delectable bronze-skinned Peking duck in Beijing. Enjoy the slices wrapped in warm pancakes for the ultimate treat. Quanjude is now franchised with several outlets in the capital as well as elsewhere in China and world wide. Find the original at No. 14, Qianmen West Street, Beijing.
Freshly baked breads
In far western China, and many other parts, you will find large round breads as well as little filled pies, cooked at almost cremation heat on the insides of round tandoor-style ovens on the footpath, the magical aromas making them easy to find.
Fresh pomegranate juice
Don’t pass on that blood-red drink you’ll find sometimes in Kashgar in bottles on the footpath. It’s possibly freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, and as delicious as it is healthy.
Chinese markets may be ‘wet’ – selling freshly killed and butchered meats and fish – or they can sell fruit and vegetables, local produce, nuts, confectionery, noodles and all the things needed for a family meal. Or they may sell both. In all cases they are a vibrant, energetic way to see what feeds the locals.
Watch out for chefs practicing the ancient art of noodle-making, flinging a wad of dough back and forth between their hands until it has separated into hundreds of fine strands.
Take part in a tea ceremony in a teahouse. There you will learn from a highly trained young woman the strictly formal way to make a serve green tea in little cups, with your hands held in a variety of positions.
Best of all try them in Macau, where the trend began in 1989 at Lord Stowe’s Bakehouse at 1 Rua da Tassara, Coloane Island, Macau. These are a version of traditional Portuguese tarts which many say are even better that those found in Portugal. Lord Stow also introduced sandwiches to Macau, which were a bit of an eye-opener to the locals.
Some call it ‘steamboat’ – but it always involves a bubbling pot of broth into which you dip meats and vegetables and eat immediately. Often a restaurant provides pots with a division down the centre so you may have ‘spicy’ and plain broths in which to dip wafer-thin pieces of meat, vegetables and noodles. Everything cooks in a moment and it is a wonderful convivial meal.