FOOD IN CHINA
Harbin fruit seller
FOOD in China varies a great deal from region to region, with rice being the staple in the south and noodles the staple in north, although both rice and noodles are generally offered everywhere. In the towns and cities on the well-beaten tourist routes there a lot restaurants that cater to tourist and offer backpacker fare omelets, pancakes, sandwiches and muesli as well as Chinese food.
Chinese cooks believe that color and aroma of the food is almost as important as the taste. They also say that medicinal and nutritional value of the food is tied to its origin. Cooking techniques include braising, mixed boiling, stir-frying, deep-frying and frying. Sauces are often made from soy sauce, chili sauce, bean sauce, oyster sauce, or plum sauce. The ingredients can be fresh, cured, dried, steamed, stewed, smoked or roasted. A lot of dishes have the flavor enhancer MSG.
Chinese dishes made with pork and freshwater fish such as carp, catfish, and bass are common. Other dishes are made from chicken, duck, pigeon, goose, eggs (from chicken, ducks and pigeons). Beef is considered an expensive luxury. Seafood such shrimp, prawns, crab, lobster, clams, dried fish, squid, flounder, eels, dried jellyfish, preserved shark fins, seaweed, and sea cucumber are most widely available in the coastal areas such as Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Common vegetables include spinach, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, squash, white radish, green beans, snow peas, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, ginger, onions, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beets, mushrooms, potatoes and a wide variety of Chinese vegetables.
Among the locally consumed fruits are plums, grapes, apples. limes, pineapples, oranges, bananas, tangerines, coconuts, mangos, papaya, watermelons, cantaloupes and wide variety of local fruits. In southern China you can find things like guavas, rambutans (lychee-like fruit) lychees, custard apple (zurzat), bread fruit, passion fruit, jerek (pomelo), starfruit, and durians (smelly but delicious).
Dinner is usually the main meal during the week. Lunch used to be and still in some rural areas and places where people take a long early afternoon break. On the weekend a large meal is eaten in the early afternoon. Many urban Chinese have adopted the American way of eating---a big breakfast, light lunch, and a big dinner.
Rice and noodles are the dietary base, often eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Noodles are sometimes made from rice, but usually they made from wheat or buckwheat. A traditional meal in northern China is consists of rice or noodles, vegetables, soup and dumplings. A typical meal in rural southern China consists of soup, lotus root, Chinese radish, fish, cooked celery, beans, hot sauce and rice. The soup is made from cabbage and tofu stirred fried in a wok. A typical meal in rural villages is some steamed bread and a spicy soupy made with cabbage and potatoes. A peasant lunch consists of sugar cane, oranges, peanuts and salted duck eggs.
Dumplings (jiaozi) are popular throughout China and they can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are usually made with ground pork, mixed with salt, sugar, sesame oil and other spices and wrapped in a flour skin and steamed to a gooey softness. They are often dipped in a sauce made with vinegar, soy sauce, hot chillies and ginger.
Breakfast is generally eaten between 6:30am and 8:30am and consists of zhou (rice gruel), congee (a rice porridge), a deep-fried cruller, rice, pickled fish, “bacorn” and steamed celery, soybean milk, soup and tea and and perhaps a basket of steamed pork buns, dumplings, and 1000-year-old eggs. The average Chinese breakfast might consist of congee, or rice porridge, maybe some soybean milk, sometimes fried noodle, or perhaps a dry roll or bun. Congee , also known as jook , is a popular breakfast and hangover remedy. It is made with rice, chicken stock, and us usually season ginger, scallions, peanuts and bacon. Most people eat breakfast at home. It's hard to find a restaurant that serves breakfast. In Beijing street venders serve up vegetables, wrapped in an omelette, which in turn is wrapped in a pancake. Some coffee shops have a set breakfast with a drink, toast, boiled egg and light food.
Lunch is generally eaten between 12:00noon and 1:30pm. Many people eat out, grabbing a quick meal or snack such as a bowl or soup or a stir-fried dish. People often eat noodles or noodle soup with vegetables for lunch. In some places in the south dim sum (an assortment of snack-sized delicacies) is popular. Dim sum is usually served between 11:00am and 2:00pm. By 2:00pm many restaurant workers are anxious to start their afternoon break and become impatient with afternoon diners.
Dinner is generally eaten between 6:00pm and 8:00pm. It generally an informal meal with meat or fish, rice. Main dishes made at home, include a variety of stir fried and wok dishes that vary from region to region but typically include a couple of meat or fish dishes, a couple of vegetable dishes, soup and rice. Fancier dinners include some of the items listed below.
Chinese often have tea before and after their meals but drink nothing with their meals, Soup often serves the purpose of a drink. An evening snack of fruit is commonly eaten around 10:00pm.
Snacks and Fast Food: Popular snacks sold on the streets and at sidewalk food stalls include fish balls, barbecued meats, noodle soups, dumplings in all shapes and sizes, and steamed bun with different fillings. Street and stall food is tasty but travelers run the risk of getting sick by eating it.
Food stalls on the east coast in the summer offer braised eels and crayfish, roast duck, fried dumplings, pineapple on a stick, and bowls of snails and chili peppers. Street food in Shanghai includes scallion pancakes and eggs and chive “burrito.” During the winter, vendors in Beijing sell hot noodle soup, eight-treasure porridge, roasted meats, sweet potatoes, roast mutton fried doughsticks, steamed breads, baozi (steamed buns with a variety of vegetables and meats), and candied haw (small apple-like fruit that are covered with sticky candy and skewered on a stick). The Chinese also like to suck on chicken skin and eat chips.
See Markets Below
Desserts and Sweets are sometimes made with sweet bean paste. Jello-like jellies are sometimes served as toping on ice cream. Fruit such as watermelon, melon, apples or pears are often eaten as desert. Among the goodies found on the streets are tanghuku (sugar-coated or syrup-covered fruit on a stick). Chinese-style restaurants generally don’t offer desserts, although Western-style restaurants do.
Regional Chinese Food
Regional Chinese Food varies from province to province in China. The four main styles of Chinese cooking are Beijing, Cantonese, Sichuan, and Shanghai. Other well-known regional Chinese cuisines include Chaochou, Fujian, Mongolian, and Hunan cuisine.
Chinese cuisine is generally categorized as either "northern" or "southern." Northern dishes found north of the Yangtze are typically oily, flavored strongly with vinegar and garlic, and often feature noodles, pancakes or dumplings. Peking, Tientsin and Shantung are the best known northern styles. The food eaten home uses a lot of cabbage and potatoes. Noodles are more commonly featured in the north than rice because wheat grows better in northern China than rice.
Southern Chinese cuisine often features stir-fried dishes and rice. Spicy Szechuan and Hunan cooking, Chekiang cuisine, with its emphasis on fresh and tender ingredients, and Cantonese food are all examples of southern styles.
Mongolian Hot Pot is a traditional winter dish consisting of frozen bean curd, bean flour noodles, beef and mutton cooked with other ingredients and spices in a hot pot in boiling oil and broth. In hot pot restaurants, customers often cook the ingredients in their own individual pots or a pot eaten collectively by a group that is heated by a burner under the table. When the ingredients are ready you pluck them out of the pot with your chopsticks and dip them in a tasty sauce and pop them into your mouth. Hot pot was created by nomads on the steppes of Mongolia. A Mongolian barbecue consists of meat, poultry and vegetables picked by the customer and then cooked on a big grill. It is more of an American invention.
Fujian Cuisine (Taiwanese Cuisine) is dominated by seafood and noted for its large variety of soups. Influenced by cooking-styles from Japan, it is often served at restaurants with large tanks containing live shrimps, lobsters, crabs and fish, with customers sometimes choosing the sea animal they want.
Picking your own fresh seafood
Fujian cooking is also known as “Min food” and the most common type of cuisine found in Taiwan. It is generally light, simple, easy-to-prepare and liberally spiced with ginger and frequently cooked in pork fat. Taiwanese soups are usually made with seafood, turtle, shark's fin or clams. The seasonings are sweet and mild. One flavoring unique to the region is the so-called “red distillers grain”---glutinous rice fermented for more than a year with red yeast in special container. It has a sharp sweet and sour flavor.
Favorite dishes include steamed rice with crab, raw fish and shellfish wrapped around pickles,, crispy pork in the shape of lychee balls, flash-boiled squid in chicken soup, yeast cakes preserved in jelly, and Buddha Jumps Over a Wall. The latter is a rich soup that gets its name form an old saying: “It was so tasty that a monk learned to jump over a wall to get his share.” . [Source: Taiwan Guide, International Travel Press]
Shandong Cuisine is salty and uses a lot of spring onions and garlic and soy cause. Seafood dishes, clear soups, offal dishes and sweet and sour flavorings are common. Common dishes include stir-fried clams and braised abalone, bird’s nest soup, shredded chicken and sea cucumber with meatballs The dish associated most with Shandong is Yellow River carp in sweet and sour sauce with carp from the Zhengzhou region of the Yellow River.
Jiangsu Cuisine is known for its oily, sweet, vinegar-laced lake and river fish, shellfish and rice dishes. Famous dishes include West Lake fish in vinegar (where the fish has to be alive when it is thrown in the stewing pot), a soft shell turtle stew known as The King Bid Farewell to his Consort,” Nanjing pressed-salted duck and Squirrel-shaped mandarin Fish.”
Zhejiang Cuisine is known for its light-tasting, delicately-season seafood and vegetable soups and dishes. Among the important ingredients are sugar, rice wine, bamboo shoots and distiller’s grain and vinegars. Zhenjiang favorites include Sour West Lake fish, steam-fried yellow croaker and wild mushroom casserole in a fragrant broth, Longjing shelled shrimps, spring bamboo shoots braised in oil, Yangzhou fried rice, glutinous rice balls.
Anhui Cuisine is known for mixing the cuisines of the regions that surround it: hot and spicy from Sichuan, oily and sweet from Jiangsu and salty from Shandong. Small pieces of sugared candy and salted small goods are often used as a spice. Many famous dishes are made with stone frogs and soft-shelled turtles. Famous dishes include Huangshan Fragrant Fish, Bagong Mountain tofu rolls, Three Rivers gumbo, stewed soft-shell turtle with sweet ham and steamed Huangshan Stone Frog.
Yunnan Dishes include spring rolls, crispy beef rolls, baked mushrooms and dishes caterpillar fungus chicken soup in a steam pot made with four different kinds of Yunnan mushrooms. Yunnan province is famous for the wide variety of dishes and delicacies it offers. Perhaps the fact that it is home to more than two dozen ethnic groups has something to do with it. The variety and taste of and the ingredients used in dishes can differ from town to town and even village to village, except erkuai, a culinary specialty made of rice, which is omnipresent in the entire province.
Chaochou Cuisine is food from Chachou, a district within Canton province known for its own unique style. Chaochou food has been described as gutsy and hearty, and chefs from the region pride themselves on their vegetable-carving skills. Designs of flowers, birds and dragon are featured at many Chaochou-style banquets. Favorite Chaochou dishes include shark fin soup, steamed goose in soy sauce and various seafood dishes. Chaochou restaurants usually stay open late.
Western Chinese Dishes include jiaozi (stuffed pancakes), lamb kebabs, nang (flat loaves of bread), spicy Xinjiang chicken, lamb, cucumbers with red peppers, mushrooms and white fungus, zhang cha yazi (excellent chili duck smoked in jasmine tea, rubbed with rice wine, air dried). Among the typical Muslim dishes are mutton, eggplant, mixed vegetables, steamed bread and rice. Grapes and variety of melons are consumed.
Northwest Chinese Dishes include frozen melons, bread, vanilla ice cream, grilled bear paw, stewed moose nose with mushroom, Mongolian hot pot, "yellow flower" (chopped lily stalks), white fungus soup, monkey-leg mushrooms, pheasant shashlik. Near Russia dishes made with fatty meat, potatoes, rice gruel, stuffed cabbage, green and peppers covered in gravy are available.
Tibetan Food eaten by ordinary Tibetans consists primarily of barley gruel, Tibetan dumplings and yak butter tea. Dishes featured at Tibetan restaurants are often made with grilled yak meat, melon, squash, wood-ear fungus, noodles, steamed buns, pig fat, eggs cooked in yak fat. A typical meal is comprised of seaweed soup, french fries and buns stuffed with yak meat. Chinese style dishes are often made from ingredients that originated outside of Tibet.
Peking Cuisine is famous for its freshness, tenderness, mild seasoning and use of many ingredients. Typical dishes include celestial beef, noodles, steamed dumplings, various kinds of steamed buns and baked bean curd.
Peking duck is one of the best known Chinese dishes. The duck is marinated many hours, skin-roasted in a special oven, carved up into pieces that are rolled up in paper-thin pancakes with spring onions or leeks and hoisin sauce or plum sauce. Sometimes the meat is wrapped in doughy sesame buns rather than pancakes. The meat is very rich.
Peking duck was reportedly invented 1,200 years ago in the Tang capital of Chang'an when two nobleman put live ducks in an iron cage that was placed over a charcoal fire. As the temperature rose the thirsty ducks drank from a bowl, accidently placed before them, filled with a mixture of vinegar, salt, honey, malt and ginger, and kept drinking the mixture until they died. The noblemen ate the ducks and were delighted with the taste. The flavor of the meat was delicious because the duck had been poached their own sweat and the ingredients in the mixture.
The ducks used to make Peking Duck are 35 days old and have been fattened for the last 10 days when they are slaughtered. Properly prepared Peking duck is roasted in an apricot-wood-fired oven for one hour and 15 minutes and cut up with a giant clever at the diner's table. Diners are first presented with a plate of crispy skin and meat then a platter of moist duck meat. Sometimes the pancakes arrive in a bamboo steamer. Usually they arrive piled on a plate. Diners place some meat on the pancake along with hoisin sauce, salt and scallions or cucumbers and roll it up and pop it in their mouthes.
Other popular duck dishes include wind duck, made by air curing ducks outside in the winter for several months; juicy pepper-and-salt roast duck; duck and chestnut soup; and duck wings in sweet and sour barbecue sauce
Shanghai Cuisine is famous for its seafood dishes. Shanghai people, however, love fish and crabs from rivers not the sea, plus they like to cook fish when it is alive. Incorporating cooking styles from other provinces, Shanghai dishes are made from steamed or stewed meat or seafood with heavy seasonings, often cooked with a brown sauce that is slightly oily, lightly spiced and slightly sweet.
Favorite Shanghai specialties include fried freshwater crab with red beans, braised carp in sweet brown sauce, braised abalone, beggar's chicken, paper wrapped chicken, sweet and sour spare ribs, West Lake fish, prawns in tomato sauce, eight treasure duck, and salted fish with bamboo shoots and mushrooms, bamboo shoots, dancing crab (marinated an sautéed crab in pepper sauce), bullfrog, braised beefs. Popular Shanghai snacks include steam rice stuffed in a lotus leaf, pot stickers (pan fried buns, steamed dumplings filled with pork, mushroom and scallions, and crab and pork dumplings. Hongshaorou is a sweet and fatty braised-pork dish that is a Shanghainese favorite
Shanghai is famous for its freshwater crabs. Regarded as an autumn, winter and cold weather delicacy, the crabs are indigenous to rivers and lakes in the Shanghai and Kuangchou regions and is raised in fish farm ponds, often filled with Yangtze River water. In markets the crabs are sold live with their legs bound together with rubber bands. Smaller crabs are said to be tastier than large ones. Freshwater crabs are said to be tastiest in October or November.
Offering a guest some fresh crab is regarded as the best possible form of hospitality in Shanghai. Chinese not only eat the meat the also enjoy consuming the crab innards (known as kanimiso), which is found under the carapace. The eggs in females is also eaten. Much of the time the crab is prepared in a bamboo steamer. The carapace is opened by hand and the meat and kanimiso is plucked out with chopsticks and dipped in soy sauce with vinegar and ginger.
Drunken crabs is a specialty that needs to be ordered in advance. The crabmeat and roe is soaked in Chinese wine-based marinade for at least four days. The marinade includes crushed garlic, ginger, leeks, pepper, sugar and star anise. After several days of soaking the meat and roe take on a gelatinous texture and have a rich, sweet, peppery taste. A banquet featuring Shanghai fresh water "hairy crab" from the Yangtze River can set one back US$1,000 or more.
Bird's nest soup
Cantonese Cuisine is known for its subtle flavors, fresh ingredients and lightness and variety of lightly spiced but colorful dishes, which are often stir-fried to preserve the texture and flavor. Cantonese dim sum (pastry) and seafood are popular throughout the world. A Cantonese meal can range from a quick snack from a food stall to an elaborate 12-course banquet, featuring delicacies such as shark fin soup, abalone, bird's nest soup, roast suckling pig, and deep-fried prawn paupiette.
Cantonese cooking features a lot of rice and fresh vegetables. Food is parboiled, steamed, and quickly stir fried. The Cantonese love seafood, and freshness is of the utmost importance. According to a popular Cantonese saying "if it doesn't move, we don't eat it." Most seafood restaurants have tanks filled with fish and other sea creatures; with patrons picking out what they want and telling the waiters how they want it prepared. Cantonese prefer their fish steamed, which they say brings out freshness. Fish is also grilled, poached, fried and broiled.
In many ways what the world knows as Chinese food is Cantonese cuisine. Popular Cantonese dishes include Cantonese stuffed bean curd, sweet and sour pork, shark fin soup, bird nest soup, diced chicken with walnuts, slow-cooked soup, roast goose in pickled plums, prawns in chili sauce, roast pork in ribs, barbecued pork, steamed chicken in peanut oil, fried prawns with salt, and diced beef with garlic.
Popular seafood are prawns, garoupa (a white, meaty, slightly sweet fish), squid, octopus, fried octopus, steamed prawns in garlic sauce, steam garoupa with ginger and scallions, fried shrimp balls, baked lobster with cheese sauce, and prawns, three-colored lobster and dragon and tiger fight. Abalone, crab and lobster are popular but also extremely expensive. Favorite deserts include fresh melon and rice flour coconut balls.
People from Guangzhou and Guangdong are also famous for having a fondness for eating wild animals, which they like to eat fresh. Markets are filled with See Food.
Dim Sum restaurants in southern China feature goodies wheeled around on carts from table to table by a dim sum maids. Dim sum chefs often prepare 40 to 70 different items such Western favorites such as shrimp dumplings (hargau),open faced pork dumplings, sui mai (steamed spare ribs in black bean sauce), char siu bau (sweet barbecued pork). steamed spare ribs, meat dumplings, steamed shrimp dumplings, rice and chicken in a lotus leaf, spare ribs with a special sauce, steamed rolls with chicken, and chicken legs steamed with black beans. Many are served in small bamboo steamers
Also worth trying are fresh rice-flour crepes filled with minced meat and steamed vegetables; football-shaped dumplings made with rice-flour dough stuffed with minced pork, shrimp and vegetables; steamed shrimp dumpling with shrimp and minced bamboo enclosed on a wheat-starch wrapper, roast pork buns made with sweet bread filled with sliced roast pork; assorted meats such as Chinese sausage, roast pork, and diced shrimp wrapped and steamed in lotus leaves with and sticky rice
Among those favored by Chinese are fish balls, jellyfish skins, sea snails, beef tendons, duck tongues, chicken feet, chewy beef tripe, turnip cakes, steamed chicken feet with black bean sauce; green tea balls with black sesame paste and pigs intestines. Foremost among DIM sum sweets IS daan-taat (a tart filled with baked egg custard)
Dim sum means “heart’s delight” in Cantonese. It is often eaten with tea and is known in southern Chinese as yum cha (meaning tea time). Aficionados are put care into selecting the right tea; with many selecting a pu-he, chrysanthemum or oolong variety.
It is a good idea to get to a dim sum restaurant early---between noon and 1:00pm---while the selection is good and the items are fresh and steaming, but that is also when lines can be the longest. Some diners get a table near the kitchen so they get dishes right after they have been prepared.
First timers tend to select too many items form the first cart that passes by. More experienced dim sum eaters are patient and carefully select a variety of small plates from as many as six carts, generally starting with steamed dumplings and baked meat-filled buns and saving the heavier pan-fried and deep-fried dishes for last, remembering to set aside some space for a tart from the sweets cart at the end. After selections are made the server checks off the dish on a menu whose choices are divided into different price ranges that have no relation to portion size.
Skilled dim sum chefs like to experiment, dream up new dishes and give them color ful names like “Blooming Flower for Good Luck.” Sometimes they flip through nature magazines for inspiration. Describing a dim sum chef from Taishan in Guangdong, Walter Nichols wrote in the Washington Post, “Working quickly, using the side of a Chinese cleaver, he flattens one ball of each color of dough into a three-inch disk. The disks are then layered together, and a glob of sticky lotus paste is centered on the top of the disk. Tucking and trimming the dough into a ball that encloses the paste. Ruan uses a razor blade to secure the dough, then gently pulls back layers to form the lotus flowers.”
Sichuan (Szechuan) Cuisine
Sichuan (Szechuan) Cuisine is famous for its spicy, oily, hot and richly-flavored dishes, made from chicken, pork, shellfish and river fishes and featuring sauces with star anise, garlic, scallions, fennel seed, hot chilies, rice wine, soy, ginger, garlic, vinegar, soy bean pastes and Sichuan Well Salt (a salt that has a distinct flavor mined in Sichuan in places such as Ziyong) Sichuan dishes are often are quite salty and are spiced with tongue-numbing Sichuan pepper (derived from peppercorns from a prickly ash tree); and are known for their multiple rather than singular flavors. It is said that within Sichuan cooking there are 23 flavors and 56 cooking methods.
Sichuan cooking has been famous in China for centuries. One ancient document traces the its origin back to the 7th century B.C.. A multi-volume Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) record catalogues 1,328 Sichuan dishes. The liberal use of spices dates back to a time when the poor consumed things like chicken feet, fish heads and intestines and used hot peppercorns and other seasonings to mask the taste. A good book on authentic Sichuan cooking is Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking by Fushsia Dunlop (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003).
Sichuan dishes are difficult to prepare at home because they often employ numerous steps. Smoked duck, for example, is flavored with pepper-corns, ginger, cinnamon, orange peel and coriander, marinated for 24 hours, steamed for two hours, and finally smoked over a fire made with charcoal, camphor wood and tea leaves.
Among the popular spicy Szechuan dishes are chicken with peanuts, stir-fried chicken and hot sauce, sizzling rice and chicken, eggplant Szechuan style, squid rolls with dried pepper, chicken baked in salt and served with peanut oil sauce, salt-baked chicken livers, stir-fried pork and hot sauce, dan dan noodles (noodles, pork cooked in a hot sauce), ma po dofu (a famous Chengdu dish made with dried tofu, and hot sauce made with chilies and Sichuan pepper), hot and sour soup (filled with Sichuan pickles and strips of pork), spicy tea mushrooms pork pot, red hot sesame noodles, duck smoked in camphor and tea, man and wife meat slices, pockmarked lady’s bean curd, crispy roast duck, and husband and wife pork lung slices.
Hunan Cuisine is considered to be the best and spiciest in China. Similar to Szechuan cuisine but oilier and richer, Hunan dishes are often spiced with garlic and scallions, and have a hot and sour, or sweet and sour taste. The original sweet and sour sauce is said to have come from Hunan. The Hunan region has traditionally been known for bountiful harvests and large numbers of wild animals.
Common spices include fresh star anise, fennel seed, coriander, chili bean paste, garlic and a wide variety of chilies and peppers that are used to enliven mundane things like mashed eggplant and smoked and cured meat. Many dishes have distinctive “two-layer” sauces and are prepared through steaming, pot roasting or “slow” cooking Watch out for the “strange flavor” sauce.. It can be quite intense.
Popular Hunan dishes include minced pork in cantaloupe (pork and scallions steamed in a half cantaloupe), honey ham (sliced raw ham steamed with honey and black dates, and steamed again with sugar and served with bread). Exotic Hunan dishes are made from frog's legs, turtle, duck, tripe, and sea cucumbers. One dish that doesn’t sound very good but is said to be quite tasty is steamed fish heads in chili sauce. Soup and vegetables are usually served with meals, and often there is no rice or noodles.
China has many restaurants. One reason is that people have so little room in their homes and go out when they entertain and socialize. Another reason is that restaurants are small so there are a lot of them.
Good food can be found at expensive hotel restaurants, working class noodle houses, one-room family-owned restaurants, dumpling houses and sidewalk dumpling stalls. Some restaurants have over 400 items on the menu, including things like fried rice cakes with peanut butter sauce, crab with ginger and hoisin sauce, spicy Hunan squash, Sichuan pepper pork, lotus seed soup served in a melon shell, shark fin soup, bird nest soup, dragon-shrimp lobster, Chenchiang-style spiced pork, unicorn sea peach, and golden coin chicken pagodas with lotus-leaf bread.
More mundane Chinese dishes include fried noodles, fried rice, fried rice with chicken, fried rice with pork, fried rice with prawns, stir fried vegetables, fresh boiled shrimp, crispy fried noodles, sweet and sour vegetables, beef in oyster sauce, chicken with ginger and coconut milk, fried rice with ginger, grilled fish, chicken or prawn soup, sweet and sour pork, sweet and sour chicken, and a choice of soups. Restaurants along the ocean are famous for fish, prawns and other kinds of seafood.
The large cities have restaurants serving Italian, French, Thai, Indian Japanese, Korean and other ethnic cuisines as well as American-style fast food restaurants such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Off the beaten path the choice is usually more limited: mostly small local restaurants and noodle and dumpling shops. The most basic restaurants are often nothing more than a cook with a pot of soup and some benches and a table set up on the side of the street. Restaurants in the Communist were often seedy places that offered dumplings and noodles and little else.
Restaurant Customs: Some restaurants have menus written English but most don't. And even if know the name of a dish, you will often find that is prepared very differently from region to region and often from restaurant to restaurant.
The easiest way to get a good meal is find a restaurant with a lot of customers, look around at what people are eating and point out to the waitress a dish that looks good. Sometimes the dishes don't taste like you think they will and sometimes other restaurant customers don't appreciate having their food stared at and pointed out, but all in all it is the best method for sampling a variety of good dishes. In small restaurants sometimes you often get a ticket and pay before eating.
Customers in restaurants in China are usually given chopsticks only but knives, spoons and forks are generally available if you ask for them. Servings are often very large and customers rarely eat everything. The soups in particular are often very big and large enough for two or three people to eat.
Smoking in restaurants is common. Many Chinese like to smoke when they eat. Some restaurant that have put up no smoking signs and tried to enforce it have lost lots of businesses There have been reports of some restaurants spiking their dishes with opium powder to get customers to come back. At crowded, busy restaurants, sharing tables with strangers is common. Restaurants generally serve water or tea for free. Sometimes no napkins are available.
Hygiene-wise and selection-wise the best palaces to eat are the restaurants at upscale hotels and good restaurants frequented by tourists. Many people worried about hygiene bring their own chopsticks or carry swabs and packets of alcohol to wipe off chopsticks and rims of glasses in restaurant.
Prices and Paying at Restaurants: Tipping is not necessary. Tax and service charges are usually not added to bills, except at some hotel restaurants and fancy restaurants, where 10 to 15 percent is surcharge is added. It is a good idea to bring cash. Many restaurants accept credits cards but many don't.
Restaurant Hours: see Hours.
Shanghai fish market
Markets and Grocery Stores: Cities and some other large towns have relatively well-stocked Western-style supermarkets, convenience stores and Mom-and-Pop corner stores where you can buy soft drinks, beer, chocolate, cup of noodles and snacks such as Chinese-style crackers and bean paste cakes. Some chain supermarkets stay open late.
In rural areas the selection is more limited. Stores generally have cookies, packages of noodles and soup, potatoes, cabbage, rice, vegetables, powdered and condensed milk and hard candy. Fruits and vegetables are usually in ample supply in season. Many people grow food for themselves and shop at local markets, buying things like potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, pumpkins. squash, dried fruit, nuts, vegetables, sausages, local honey, yoghurt, bread, and melons. Weekly markets are a good place sample street food and shop for fruit and vegetables.
Alcoholic Drinks: Beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage in China, and Tiangsao is the most popular brew. Beer is generally pretty cheap, especially the local brands, which vary from region to region. A large bottle of beer can cost as little as 25 cents. Locally-made foreign brands such as Pabst Blue Label, Carlsberg and San Miguel are also fairly cheap. Beer is often served warm. Many American order beer with ice, the only way the know to get a cold beer.
Imported wine and whiskey are expensive. Locally produced wines aren't very good. Tonghua in Northeast China is known for sweet grape wines. There are a number of wineries in the Beijing area and in Shandong. Some decent wines are produced in Xinjiang. The Chinese are fond of drinking white wine mixed with Coke and red wine mixed with Sprite. They even mix good wine with soft drinks.
Sorghum-based hard liquors and spirits are known as baiju. They are particularly associated with Beijing. Sichuan is the home of two famous spirit brands: Wuliangye and Luzhous Laojiao. In Inner Mongolian, fermented mare’s milk is called manaijiu or naijiu (“mare’s milk wine”).
The most potent form of hard alcohol is maotai (kaoliang), a 130-proof sorghum-based liquor that tastes likes rubbing alcohol. Maotai is honored as the official “national wine” of China. It is commonly used in toast. Nixon and Zhou En lai downed several glasses on Nixon’s trip to China in 1970. Most mao tai it is produced in Guizhou Province
Shaoxing in Zhejian Province is famous for rice wine. The Chinese usually drink the rice wine made there, shaohsing, when making toasts at banquets and drink beer between toasts. Shaohsing us usually not consumed at bars but it is used in cooking.
Tea house in Shanghai
Non-Alcoholic Drinks:Tea is very popular and high in caffeine. Many people drink tea in a bowl without a handle. Throughout China you will see people on the go with thermoses and water bottles with leafy, unstrained tea, which is consumed all day long.
Among the popular teas in southern China are jasmine heung pin, slightly bitter sau mei, earthy black bo lei and chrysanthemum tea. Many people recommend the pu-er, oolong and green teas. Shanghai gok fa cha ice tea is served with sugar. Hot tea is usually served plain, or with sugar or milk. Coffee is relatively uncommon---usually instant coffee made from a package mix with sugar and creamer---but is becoming increasingly popular. A number of Starbuck’s and Starbucks imitations have appeared on recent years.
Dou jiang is soy drink purchased by the cup in local markets. Dou zhir is a tofu-based drink known for its peculiar odor. Fruit drinks made with mango, pineapple, watermelon, and various tropical fruits are available in some parts of southern China. Ones made with unboiled water sometimes give traveler’s health problems. Soft drinks such as Coke, Pepsi, Orange Crush and Fanta are also widely available and cheap. The tap water is unsafe to drink. Bottled water is widely available but usually found in small liter bottles.
Nightclubs are generally very expensive and not very common outside of Beijing and Shanghai. They often have a floor show and are located at major hotels. Discos are generally expensive and frequented by affluent, fashion-conscious types. Casinos, legal ones anyway, are found im Macao but not on the mainland. Illegal gambling halls are common throughout China. Hostess Bars are where men pay extra for their drinks so that they can be flattered and served by young hostesses, who may or may not be prostitutes.
Hotel Bars are lounges or bars found in first class hotels. The atmosphere is cozy, and many of them are located on the top floors of hotels, where there are wonderful views of the city. Beer Halls are beer-halls pubs that vary a great deal in atmosphere and price. Most serve pitchers of beer and customers are usually required to buy a food dish.
Karaokes and karaoke-style singing rooms are very popular in China. They can either be a place where people sing in front of the whole bar or more often are places where people rent a room by the hour that is large enough for a group of friends. There is generally a karaoke machine with a television that displays images and lyrics and a book with the songs with mostly Chinese but usually some English songs. You can bring own food and drinks.
Coffee Shops are different from their counterparts in the West. Customers come her to relax over a cup of coffee and many coffee shops specialize in a certain kind of music such as classical music, hard rock or jazz. They serve deserts but not meals. Tea Houses have traditionally been places where people hang out and socialize and have relaxed conversations. Chinese teahouses vary quite a bit from place to place. Neighborhood- and village-based one charge the equivalent of a few cents for a bowl of tea. Trendy urban ones charge around US$4 ot US$5 dollars for tea and rice sweets and offer black tea, 10-herb mixture (“good for a lift”), ginseng tea, quince tea. ginger tea and plum (“for relief from fatigue”).
THINGS TO BUY
Bargaining and haggling is the norm except at the malls and upscale shops. Reductions of 70 percent to 80 percent are common. Merchants quote over-the-top prices that are sometimes 20 times higher than the price paid by locals. Generally, offer about 10 percent of the asking price and expect to pay 20 percent or 30 percent. Inflation is problem in China so tourists should be prepared to pay double or triple the prices that were offered a decade ago. In the past Friendship stores were only places you could buy foreign items and quality Chinese goods, but now almost every large city or town has a half dozen department stores and shopping malls with a variety of foreign and local goods.
China is famous for its jade items and oriental art. Among the interesting items you can buy are cheap toys, antique curios, hand-painted scrolls, jade seals, chopsticks, paper lanterns, umbrellas, folk medicines, blue and white ceramics, brassware, antique furniture, silk embroideries, folk crafts, jade and soapstone carvings, watercolor paintings, calligraphy, calligraphy sets, silk carpets, silk cushion covers, terra-cotta pots, herbs, spices, tea, bamboo bird cages, and porcelain cricket cages.
You can also get embroidered hill tribe handbags, baskets, belts, caged birds and turtles, kites, pot holders, aprons, napkins, fans, puppets, masks, T-shirts, illustrated art books, jewelry and ornaments made from silver and bronze, lacquered boxes, handmade dolls, cork sculptures, stuffed pandas, turquoise jewelry, carved salad bowls, handmade glasses, bone bracelets, socket wrenches, screwdrivers, plumber's tools, wicker baskets, cashmere sweaters and thermos jugs.
Antique items which can be picked at markets include incense burners, hammered silver tobacco boxes, old embroidered silk clothes, bonnets, jade wine cups, old brass padlocks, wooden images of gods and goddesses, silver fingernails, decorated hairpins, perfume jars, snuff containers, pewter jars, teapots, dishes, ivory chopsticks and vases. Some are in quite good condition, some are damaged and many are fakes.Anything more than a 100 year sold is marked with a red seal and can not be taken out f the country without an export license.
Items found at Central-Asian-style bazaars in Western China included embroidered handbags, leather holsters, handmade knives, baskets, belts, shish kebabs, watermelons, melons, about twenty kinds of dried fruit, almonds, walnuts, mutton, but no pork. Markets in Tibet sell grey otter pelts, bead, silver, chunks of amber, ornaments. Good bargains can be had on carpets.
Image Sources: 1) CNTO (China National Tourist Organization; 2) Nolls China Web site; 3) Perrochon photo site; 4) Beifan.com; 5) tourist and government offices linked with the place shown; 6) Mongabey.com; 7) University of Washington, Purdue University, Ohio State University; 8) UNESCO; 9) Wikipedia; 10) Julie Chao photo site; 11) Poco pico blog; 12) Tropical Island blog
Text Sources: CNTO, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays