Chopsuey, sauces and fried rice
Simmered, steamed, stewed and fried ... and hot, sour and sweet ... . Eating food in Dragonland was no disappointment.
PIPING HOT: A traditional delicacy called "yuanxiao", which is an assortment of rice dumplings. PHOTO: REUTERS
ON a recent visit to the People's Republic of China, there was much speculation about the food we would have. After all, Chinese food is perhaps the most popular throughout the world. So, to eat it, in China, was something we had listed as a priority. And we were not disappointed. Our experiences opened up a whole new world about Chinese food.
Food is central in the Chinese culture, and, as we found out, in/to their medicine also. Chinese medicine, they say, is an extension of their food. Such is the confidence the Chinese have in their food habits and their herbal medicines, that western medicine finds the going tough. When we visited the Institute for Research for Chinese Medicine in Beijing, they proudly, and convincingly, impress upon you the effectiveness of the Chinese medicine, with its lack of side-effects. In the modern pace and style of life, this medicinal system is seen as a way to prevent the breaking down of the body's natural defences and to maintain its balance.
In China's towns and cities, wayside food-stalls are a great attraction, especially on weekends. You can buy anything, from steamed dumplings to grilled meats, to hot soups to pancakes or candied fresh fruit. Steaming, boiling, stir-frying, deep-frying, grilling or pickling seem to be the most common ways of food preparation. We watched throngs of people nonchalant about the giant advertisements for Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonalds in town-squares. What attracted them were the appetising aromas of traditional Chinese food in the evening air .
Yet western fast-food giants are doing good business, especially in the Chinese cities, where there is plenty of disposable income. Even Starbucks Coffee is sold in posh malls and food-courts frequented by affluent Chinese. The young are willing to experiment. One can only hope that once the novelty is over, they will return to their traditional, more healthy food habits. The results of changing eating habits include an increasing number of obese youngsters in urban China.
The Chinese breakfast
The Chinese breakfast buffet in hotels is educative. To the stranger, it seems odd to be drinking hot soups and porridges alongside steaming dumplings with different fillings, so early in the morning. Boiled egg is a popular side-dish. With such a substantial breakfast, one is ready to face anything the day may bring! But, lunch is substantial too, with rice and different vegetables. Meat is almost always mixed with vegetables, which is a healthy way to consume animal protein. Chinese cuisine is almost as full of variety as the Indian cuisine, and with huge regional differences.
Both at informal and formal meals, food is served on big platters and bowls and kept on a lazy susan (a revolving inner circle on a table). Each guest gets a small porcelain plate and a small bowl to eat from. A cup for tea and a glass for water or a drink are placed on the side. Solids are eaten with chopsticks, and liquids are either drunk straight from the bowl often with a slurp or from a porcelain spoon used for the purpose. Serving spoons are scant. Guests serve themselves, and replenish their servings with their own chopsticks. Somehow, this sharing from common bowls does not seem to bother the Chinese!
Tea-drinking in China is very different from the way we, Indians, are used to it. We were curious about the bottles carried around constantly. These are taken to work, on train or bus-journeys, and even on walks. We found out that each individual carries his/her favourite "tea" wherever he/she may go, and drinks it throughout the day. The solids at the bottom of the bottle are dried leaves or flowers, which steep in hot water, as it is replenished all day long. This refreshment is obviously the healthy alternative to the western preference for daily doses of diet-sodas. Different teas have different medicinal or soothing effects, which each individual can choose from. One unfortunate, long-term side-effect may be the discolouring of teeth. This concern however, we were told by our young guide, is overridden by the health benefits attributed by the Chinese to their teas.
The "Hotpot" beat everything we had ever tasted before. We had the opportunity to enjoy it in a group, and later, on a smaller scale for two. A large tureen of mutton-stock, spiced with herbs, is placed in the centre of the table. Its temperature is kept constant using live, smokeless coal. Each guest at the table gets a platter full of raw food, paper-thin slices of beef, lamb, pork or fowl, different types of green leaves plucked fresh, and sea-food. Several little bowls of special sauces are kept in front of each guest, along with a quarter-plate and chopsticks. Each guest picks up the raw food with chopsticks, dips it in the bowl of simmering stock to cook very quickly, and eats it on the quarter-plate accompanied by a sauce of choice. This heavenly dish originated in Mongolia, we were told, and has become one of the most popular dishes in China.
We ate at the railway canteen, inside the train, and also watched stall-owners in open markets eat their home-cooked lunch at mid-day. It was never boring. Like in India, the smells and colours never failed to excite, and our mouths were forever watering! Not once were we sick from food either. We ate in five-star to three-star restaurants. Only on one occasion did we have the feeling that the food was not fresh, and that was outside the Beijing railway station, where they probably did not have the same guests twice! Cleanliness was comparable to standards in India, although there was evidence of attempts to make Beijing fulfil western standards before the Olympics.
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