Friday, August 13, 2010

Food, part I

There are really two basic and discrete categories of Chinese food. There’s the kind you want to eat,
And the kind you don’t.
(a rack of charred pig face and pickled trotters.)
But since I fear no food, it has been my occasional pleasure to eat selections of both.
IMG_6539        IMG_6415 (Duck tongue in Yangzhou)               (Chicken feet in Beijing)
Eating in China is a non stop adventure, since in a sense every meal is a gamble.
Grocery stores can be off-putting,
Markets can be intimidating,
Restaurants can be downright terrifying.
For the most part, it’s probably far, far better that you never consider where what you are about to eat comes from.
IMG_1246 IMG_1525
The journey of a single grain of rice is probably rife with opportunities for contamination we’ve never even dreamed of, tomatoes are probably exposed to the kinds of diseases most people can only get by living in a sewer. But China does have, in its favor, over 1.3 billion people, and every one of them eats Chinese food every day. And most of them survive. So unless you plan to live off of energy bars and airplane peanuts, roll the dice.
What’s the worst that could happen?
Chinese food can be exceptionally beautiful. This dish is one I love; lightly stir-fried bell peppers and potatoes. Chinese cooks only sauté  potatoes briefly, so they stay a little crunchy and don’t absorb as much oil.


A popular characteristic of Chinese vegetarian cooking is that the product both look and taste like meat.  This is a soy based “shrimp” dish from a temple in Hangzhou.

IMG_1227 IMG_1230
Crystallized fruit from a stand in Nanjing’s Lion Bridge Area
Chinese food can also be remarkably repellent.  Part of this is simply because there are a number of things that we, as Westerners, are not accustomed to relishing. For example, animal fat.
Pure, unadulterated animal fat. None of your damned meat. 
Fat is a delicacy in China, and a highly desirable one. This is Hong Shou (red cooked) Pork (sans Pork) in a beautiful little lakeside restaurant in one of the Beijing Hutongs. This is basically just really nicely presented pig fat.
This, on the other hand, is both visually and gastronomically a contender for the worst meal of the trip: Chunks of Fat.
In Fat Water.
Like, at least add MSG. Isn’t that supposed to improve everything?

A large part of the experience of eating in China is browsing through the extraordinary number of food carts and street stalls.

Street food is abundant, cheap and filling, and encompasses a startling variety of flavors and ingredients.


thes Kabobs are generally chosen by the customer, and then fried in hot oil by the vendor.  Most of these here are fish or fish paste, but there is also mutton, chicken, tofu and pork.
Piles of dates, figs, sweet breads and cookies from a stall in the Muslim district of Hohhot, in Inner Mongolia. This is where we bought one of my favorite snacks, a leaf filled with sticky rice stuffed with dates and honey.

A street stall in a Beijing Hutong sells what pretty much amounts to syrup with dry ice in it. The only good that came of this purchase was the picture, it was that nasty.

Some street stalls combine presentation with palatability.
 IMG_6618   IMG_6620 
This guy in Chengdu creates elaborate flowers and animals with melted sugar.
Guaranteed by this guy.
Food differs widely by region, and there are some specialties which simply cannot be reproduced with any accuracy outside of the area of their inception.

The famed Shanghai Soup dumpling which sort of just looks like you’re consuming a breast implant.

Nanjing dumplings are famous for their originality and succulence. These are pumpkin and ground pork dumplings from a tiny hidden stand in a back alley at Nanjing University.

Suzhou is the home of a large population of the Uyghur (Wee – Gur) people, an ethnic minority of Muslim Chinese from the far western reaches of the Xinjiang region.

We ate a bag of lamb dumplings on the boat, and afterwards sought out the restaurant for a late lunch.


A small bowl of sour yogurt comes before the meal, topped with large crystals of rough sugar.

Peking duck is a prize that you can hardly find outside of Beijing. The crispy skin is widely regarded as the most delicious part. The duck is served with paper thin pancakes spread with hoisin sauce, and sprinkled with razored slices of cucumber and green onion.

Mongolia is not really known for having anything that you want to consume. On the reasonable side of the “things you could eat” spectrum is Mongolian milk tea, often made with sheep’s milk and butter, and extremely salty and rich.
Mongolians LOVE sheep. And they love ALL of the sheep.
IMG_6271 IMG_6272 The above enticements are stomach, intestine, kidney and lung.  IMG_6276         I have to admit to kind of liking the intestine, though.
Yunnan, in Southern China, is famous for one dish, and one dish only.
“Across the Bridge Noodles” consist of an ENORMOUS bowl of broth and a medley of highly varied ingredients.


       Highly. Varied.

                                                  yes it’s a bee.

Tibetan food is delicious.

This is Yak tongue. The flavor is intense and rich.

Tibet makes use of more baked pastries and breads than does China, which mostly relies on fried or steamed buns.
Yak meat is a staple, this pasty is stuffed with yak, onions and leeks.  Tibet also brews a milk tea similar to that of Mongolia, with the exception that Tibetan milk tea is brewed with yak butter. I am just going to repeat the words “Yak Butter.”     
   Yak Butter.
My band already has a name, so if anyone wants to call their band “Yak butter” I am totally not going to sue you or anything. Please feel free. It sort of rolls off the tongue. And I mean that in every literal way.

Sichuan is a Mecca for spicy food lovers.  Everything is spicy, from the soup to the bread.  Heaven forefend that I insinuate that Chinese food is in any way bland (Yak Butter. MSG. Oh, my.) But for those who crave daring amounts of capsaicin, there is yet manna in the wilderness. It is rumored that Chairman Mao loved spice so much, he even used it on his breakfast bao.  Consider yourself in good company, Comrade.
Sichuan has a nice custom of serving meals that consist of numerous small snacks. Above are spicy pork dumplings, duck tongue, duck lung, fried tofu, cucumber in vinegar, spicy noodles with roasted peanuts and hot red pepper.
Another specialty of the Sichuan province is Rabbit Head.
Do not scroll down if you do not want to see a Rabbit Head.
A Rabbit Head looks exactly like you think it does.
If you are lame, or already grossed out, or phobic about Rabbits or Rabbit Heads (P.S. What the fuck?) It is better to just click on this, and not go any further.

Here is a Rabbit Head.


This is definitely a plate of Rabbit Head.

Yep. Rabbit Head.
Since it is Sichuan, the Rabbit Head is really spicy. They leave the eyes and the brain in to enhance your experience.
You just spit the bones on the floor.

As an added bonus, Thailand has its own peculiar brand of delicious.

IMG_2884 a tray of hors d'oeuvres in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Deep fried grasshopper and LEO beer.
In closing,
Yak Butter.


  1. Superb!! Thats what I call proper variety and nutrition!

  2. This post makes me scared to go to go to China. And why were you wearing gloves to hold that rabbit head? If you can't touch it with bare hands, why would you put it in your stomach. Miss you! When will you come home?

  3. Rabbit heads are hell of messy! They don't believe in "wet ones" at Chinese restaurants.
    I'll be home September 6th. I can't wait to see you guys!