When I was growing up there was this eating joint near my house that made the best chowmein. The cook, who was always dressed in a stained vest with yellow and brown spots all over, would perpetually be sweating, scratching and hurling curses at his co-workers. He would throw in chopped capsicums, onions, green chillies, noodles and vegetable oil in a wok and cook it for a few minutes. Then he would put in a generous amount of soy sauce, to the point that everything in the wok turned dark brown. Few tosses (and curse words) and then he would put in a dose of this watery tomato and chilli sauce in the mix. A couple more tosses and waaalaah… Ready!
It was a miracle how something that was cooked so nastily, tasted so good. It tasted so good in fact that he took a sizeable portion of my pocket money home every month.
Sometimes, I would take my friends to eat with me and some of them, after having the first taste of the magical noodles, would remark “This is not how they have it in China.”
And I would hear this remark, in various forms, over and over again in the years to come.
“Oh, these dumplings are nice, but this not what real Chinese dumplings taste like.”
“Chotu! You call this Chinese food?”
Few months back, I went to this new Chinese place, called Dipti’s Chinese corner, near my apartment in Mumbai and ordered Chicken Manchurian and soup. The soup was a watery version of the manchurian!
And I went, “This is not real Chinese food!”
Interestingly these remarks, mine included, came from people who have never been to China. How they know what real Chinese food tasted like is anybody’s guess.
But the question remained, what did the Chinese people eat and what did real Chinese food taste like?
Recently I traveled through China and this post is aimed at answering these questions… or rather an attempt at answering these questions.
The first thing that you will notice while walking through the streets of any Chinese city, is that the people there love eating. The markets are lined with street food stalls and eateries serving various dishes from different parts of the country. From skewers to soups, from succulent lambs to silk worms. From beautiful aromas to smells that will make you gag. They have it all.
So, let’s start this food post the same way any good meal should start… with the starters.
(A word of disclaimer before we begin: I am no Gordon Ramsey or Anthony Bourdain, so don’t expect me to talk about the nitty-gritties of cooking methods or spices. This is a post by a guy who loves eating and trying out new dishes.
Also, this is not an exhaustive post about all the dishes in the Chinese cuisine. So, excuse me if I do not mention any famous/traditional preparation. Maybe you can educate me by writing about such preparations in the comment section below.
These are just the stuff that I ate or saw people eating during my trip to China.)
To me, starters have always been the best part of a meal. And in China too, it was no different. While in Shanghai and Xi’an, I feasted on skewers. They were these juicy, fatty pieces of lamb or sheep, grilled over fire and then sprinkled with some herbs and spices. The fat just melts in your mouth and blends in beautifully with the tender meat.
If you were to eat heaven, it will probably taste like these skewers.
Not just lamb and sheep, you get different varieties of it, ranging from vegetables (yuck!) to scorpions, chicken, fish, prawns, and crabs to starfishes and snakes. You name it, they got it
My recommendation will be to try the lamb, sheep, octopus and eggplant. All super good.
(Prices can range from 3 RMB to 10 RMB/skewer)
You may also try the dumplings. They come in mainly two types, the fried ones and the steamed ones. I prefer the steamed ones because there are softer, and less oily.
Now if you are in Shanghai and want to try dumplings, you are in luck because they make the best dumplings ever. Shanghai dumplings have this meaty broth inside along with the meat itself. They call it soup dumplings and it comes in various sizes. The big ones require you to use a straw to suck in the soup first. You can have the small ones like the panipuris of Mumbai. Amazingly good!
(Prices for the small ones usually range from 10 RMB to 30 RMB for 10 pieces. Big ones are around 10-15 RMBs each.)
The soups, especially the ones with noodles, are pretty good. Tofu ones suck royally (I am not a big fan of tofu). Yes, you can argue the soups of Hong Kong are better, but the ones in Mainland can hold their own too.
I am not a big fan of soups, in fact I only had soup thrice during the trip, but the one thing you may want to remember, especially if you are a solo traveler, is when you order soup in a restaurant, the quantity can be a little overwhelming. Soup is served family style, enough to feed four hungry Punjabis. The first time I ordered soup, I was served with a bowl that was as big as a kitchen sink!
So, if you are like me and do not like to unnecessarily waste food, try telling the waitress to reduce the quantity (make it for one person) or you may take someone from your hostel with you and share the soup bowl… and the cost.
(Prices vary according to the soup variety and how fancy the restaurant is.)
Main course, desserts and more coming up in Part 2 🙂