For the past four months, our culinary experiences have often equaled, or sometimes surpassed, the cultural or natural ones . Since, as the saying goes, I often can’t remember what I had for breakfast, I had originally hoped to use this blog to help me remember the best food we’ve eaten along our journey. That hasn’t happened, but it’s never too late to get started. And what better place to begin than with the country that will seemingly eat everything: China.
Elvis Costello is one of two people (I can’t recall who the other is) to whom is attributed the quotation “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” As I sit here and try and describe what dried yak meat tastes like, I realize that food is no different and that I‘ll never write for Gourmet. But as I sit next to CeCe as she eats an odd, green, it looks-and-feels-like-an-apple-but-has-a-pit-so-it’s-not-an-apple Vietnamese fruit, I guess I owe it to you to try.
So what follows is a recap of three or so days of Chinese eating. It doesn’t include the best meal – that would be the home cooked Sichuan feast we had in Shanghai (thanks Ma!) – nor the weirdest item, a three way tie between coagulated duck blood, duck head and some crispy, and maybe fried insect larva. Or at least that‘s what I think it was. Nor does it include the many, many things I was either to timid to try or too linguistically deficient order.
Yet we knew all of the following things were culinarily in play, and some were often on display, usually still breathing, on the front steps of many restaurants: frogs, eels, snails, turtles, sea horses, scorpions, big fish in little buckets, the list goes on. Add in the countless unidentifiable vegetables, mushrooms and herbs, plus the animals that could be purchased at most area markets (rabbit, pigeon, and yes, dog) and it’s clear we just scratched the surface.
A caveat: Menus sometimes provided guidance, but just as often as not, there were mystifying English descriptions that offered nary a clue into what the referenced dish was comprised of. Plus, we ate a good bit of street vendor food as it was cheap and, just as important, immediately classifiable as edible looking or gross. So, fairly often we were flying blind when it came to identifying the ingredients in a given meal.
Day 1: Breakfast was provided by a local street vendor, a husband and wife team, who saw a lot of our breakfast business. Their two specialties were an egg and crepe thingy dusted with hot pepper flakes and a mustard colored sweetish pancake. For lunch we stumbled upon a restaurant featuring Bai minority cuisine. We had boiled chicken with ham and papaya (sort of tart), fried eggs with “balsam” pear, some fiercely spicy chicken dish that had little of the choice parts of the bird and certainly wasn’t what we ordered, and finally the meal’s saving grace, deep fried banana. We self-catered for dinner. A giant, sweet, grapefruit-shaped citrus cost us the equivalent of fifty cents, and a half dozen pastries including one really greasy donut set us back a little over a dollar.
Day 2: Breakfast was more street pancakes. $1.50. For lunch we passed on the bee pupa and fried dragonfly and instead had sautéed bean sprouts and sautéed cauliflower as well as two Yunan specialties: fried goat cheese, and over the bridge noodles. The latter consists of a large bowl of boiling broth, assorted raw meats and vegetables, and a couple of duck eggs if you’re lucky. It’s all dumped in at once, the broth cooks the meat and eggs and you fish the morsels out with your chopsticks. Not a bad way to spend half an hour. Dinner, if we ate it, went unrecorded.
Day 3: Lunch was a home run. We followed a gaggle of hungry school kids for every American’s favorite meal option: an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not only do you see what you’re getting, you can go back for more! I honestly can’t tell you what half of it was, but all of it was good. One twiggy looking thing was particularly strongly flavored and we sampled lotus root for the first time and found it eminently palatable. We ate our fill and then some, although I’m still down two belt loops from the start of the trip. Dinner was almost as good: three steamed veggie dumplings at six cents a pop, and a deep fried banana glazed with sweetened condensed milk.