November 11, 2014

Wok's Cooking: Eating Your Way Around China

Photo Credits: Taimur Rafiq aka The Husband

What’s not to love about Chinese food, right? The heat, the spice, that divine fragrance of fried garlic and ginger, the chopsticks (which I still frequently stumble and fail to use with any sort of finesse or elegance), those adorable little white cardboard take-away containers; love at first bite, I tell you! But there’s bad news, babies…we’ve all been duped. 

Now why on earth would I say such a horrible thing? 

Well, because Chinese food, at least as most of us know it, is so far from the real deal, it’s hard not to feel a little disillusioned. 

See, believe it or not, trying to order off a typical (read: traditional) menu in China means you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find familiar favorites like Chicken Manchurian, Sweet & Sour Prawns, or even a simple American Chop Suey. That’s because most of these dishes didn’t originate in China at all. Instead, they’re the love-children of local culinary influences on the global Chinese diaspora. 

So what should you know about eating authentic Chinese cuisine? 

Well, first and foremost, it’s all about location, location, location. The kind of food you’ll find varies vastly from region to region in China and it can leave the uninitiated’s head spinning. Sichuan, Hunan, Cantonese; the list goes on and the options are incredible and endless, but they do have one thing in common — while the locavore movement might have only recently started regaining traction in the western world, in China “eating local” is centuries old tradition and plain common sense. That means everything from the climate, to the availability of ingredients, and of course, local preferences determines what could end up on your plate. 

Take Zhejiang cuisine, for example, which is native to sea-facing eastern China, and you’ll find it heavily features both fresh-water and salt-water fish, prawns, crabs, lobster, squid, octopus, and all sorts of other underwater delicacies, often live and on display in large tanks at many restaurants. That’s right! You can pick your prey and request the chef to cook it to order, guaranteeing fabulous custom culinary delights at their absolute freshest and finest.

By the way, while a lot of Chinese food is simple fare — think soft steamed dumplings and plenty of fuss-free stir-fried vegetables and meats — don’t underestimate the amount of care and deftness that goes into prepping and cooking ingredients using authentic Chinese cooking techniques. Seriously, have you ever tried creating those curious little creases that seal wontons shut? How about having a hand at trying to recreate the devastatingly delicate beauty of Dai fruit carvings?

Didn’t think so. 

The point is, don’t be fooled into believing that Chinese food comes without its fair share of flair and drama. In fact, in some cases, the crazy-quotient can be so high, it is definitely not recommended for the squeamish or faint-of-heart. Hairy crabs, anyone? How about some deep-fried duck heads? No? Perhaps some snake soup or a sniff and taste of stinky tofu will do the trick? Jokes aside, though, what’s important to remember before wrinkling your nose or making a beeline in the opposite direction, is that the untrained palate could (and probably would) have the same reaction to a number of our own local delicacies such as brain masala, or curried goat testicles, or barbecued chicken hearts, so it’s mostly a matter of being an acquired taste for the adventurous eater.   

Finally, what’s most important to remember when eating your way around China is this: though the food culture of the country is as wide and varied as it’s regions and it’s people, and what lands on your plate might leave you in shock and awe, no matter where you go, it always entails giant and equal doses of warmth, generosity, and camaraderie, especially if you happen to be a guest of one of the locals.

Much like in Pakistan, a hosts hospitality is directly proportional to their propensity to force feed you and meals tend to be long, loud affairs where everything from the conversation to the food and the drinks flow freely for what seems like forever. No complaints here, though. Only happy campers. A wee word of warning: you’d be wise not expect a stingy sandwich-and-soda scenario at a traditional Chinese table. Portions are likely to be large, plates are usually shared, and yes, double-dipping is absolutely acceptable, so unless you’re a genuine germo-phobe, just keep calm and keep eating ‘cause it’s not common for people to cringe and complain about cooties in China. 

Happy eating, babies!

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