02 November 2007

Chinese Food - The Good

My new favorite shellfishSome of you may be wondering how I made it through more than two months in China without telling any stories about food. The problem is that there are so many stories, I hardly know where to start. I suppose I should start with the good stuff…

I never would have imagined how much variety exists in Chinese food. They have more vegetables here than I’ve ever seen anywhere, most of which can’t be directly translated into English because they don’t exist in the Western world. They also have more delicious animals from the sea, some local but many imported from all around this part of the world.

Morning Tea aka Dim SumUnlike American Chinese restaurants which all have the same list of popular Chinese dishes on the menu including Beef with Broccoli, Orange Chicken, Szechwan Beef, Hunan Chicken, and Sweet & Sour Pork, every restaurant here is from a different region of China, specializing in a different kind of food.

Szechwan food is very spicy, and it’s important to watch out for the tiny dried flower spice that completely numbs your tongue when it touches it. At good Szechwan restaurants, the flower spice has been used during cooking, to add a really interesting flavor dimension, but then it’s removed before the food is served so you don’t get a mouthful of tiny flower buds and completely lose your ability to taste.

Team dinner at Cantonese RestaurantHunan food is also quite spicy, but with really great flavors which are generally less painful than Szechwan. Cantonese food from Hong Kong is generally not spicy at all and has some interesting flavors and lots of variety, but tends to have a high degree of difficulty because of all the bones you have to sort through, using only your teeth and a pair of chopsticks (more about that later). It is possible to find low-difficulty Cantonese food if you know what to order, and they have lots of tasty soups. In Beijing, the roasted duck is really delicious—and boneless.

Chinese FoodNorthern China is known for its dumplings, which are sort of like little misshapen raviolis filled with mushrooms, or pork and vegetables, or dozens of other options. Taiwanese food also has dumplings, but they are completely different—very thin skin with soup and other little delicious surprises inside.

Aside from authentic Shanghainese food, which you can't find in Shenzhen, the only major cuisine I haven't tried yet is from Guangzhou, the third largest city in China, which is only an hour from Shenzhen and is reputed to have the best food in all of China. I'm having dinner there tomorrow night.

Seafood RestaurantThe seafood here in Shenzhen is really fresh. Even small seafood restaurants have enough tanks of live fish and other sea creatures that they could be mistaken for pet shops. In the States, you might be able to pick a live lobster from a tank. In China, you can select live fish, shrimp, scallops, and oysters from the tanks, along with dozens of other sea creatures, and have them prepared any way you like. I’ve even discovered a new shellfish that has become my new favorite. It comes in a long narrow shell and tastes a bit like a cross between a clam and a mussel.

Bad attempt at Western spaghettiThe most amazing part is how cheap all of this great food is. You can have a delicious feast with your friends for 20-40 RMB (less than US $5) per person, and if you really want to splurge you could spend up to 80 RMB (less than US $10). For lunch, you can get an individual meal for 10-15 RMB (less than US $2). Of course, you can always find bad western food at significantly higher prices.

Seafood restaurantThe Chinese can appreciate a wider range of subtle flavors than almost any group of people I know. They are obsessed with freshness and are actually quite difficult to impress. I’ve seen them detect stale vegetables in a bowl of soup and send it back to the kitchen, or complain about something that I thought was quite delicious, because it was only 50-75% as delicious as it could have been if it had been prepared properly.

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