China Report: White fungus soup and Dragon’s Eggs

January 4, 2008 at 12:23 pm (Artist's News, Overseas Tour) (, , , )

When Nigel and I arrived in China just over a month ago, I decided I’d only eat Chinese food so I could savour some of the more exotic tastes and understand a little more about Chinese culture. In the first couple of weeks before the rest of the company arrived, we had the help of our translator, who was always ready to explain the menu. I’ve learned that food is sweeter in Wuxi and Hangzhou because Chinese in these regions have a sweeter tooth than their northern cousins do in Beijing. But each region also has its own special dishes. In Beijing, it’s duck, and Sichuan food, which is pretty hot and spicy. In Hangzhou local dishes included fish, very sweet pork rich in fat, and Beggars Chicken, traditionally a whole chicken encased in mud then cooked in a fire, but now of course wrapped in paper and cooked in the oven. Delicious.

Once I got used to having vegetables for breakfast, the rest was easy. So I started with steamed green vegetable, or sweet potato, or pumpkin – an energy boost in the morning. We don’t eat such a colourful breakfast at home, but I really love having sweet potato and it makes sense to me. I’d then usually have some dumplings and rice or millet congee – Chinese porridge. I love the millet, especially with a little plain yoghurt. There was always fresh fruit on the menu – delicious sweet watermelon was my preference – and eggs which ever way you like them. I don’t like to eat meat or eggs every day, but it seems the Chinese have a delicious full banquet for breakfast, which includes meat and pickles and all sorts of noodle dishes, I have to admit I never tasted. I simply couldn’t eat that much in the morning. My favourite breakfast dishes included what I call dragon eggs – wonderful blue-black speckled steamed dumplings which have a delicious soft centre – of what I’m not sure, but I think it’s red bean paste. It tasted great and was a favourite in Hangzhou. I also enjoyed the white fungus soup with Chinese dates – a sweet, clear, viscous mixture which I’m told is excellent especially for women. For me, food is medicine, so I was going to eat this just on that recommendation. And I have to say I’ll be looking for it in the Chinese supermarket in Leeds when I get home. This was better in Beijing than in Wuxi or Hangzhou where it was too sweet for my taste. When there was no white fungus soup, the red bean one was just as delicious, and probably just as good for women, too. Another treat I enjoyed for breakfast was the black sticky rice with lotus seeds. It’s sweet and delicious. I also will miss jujube steamed bun and green vegetable dumplings – which became favourites.

After such a large breakfast, I’d usually skip lunch, opting instead for an early dinner. Chinese restaurants open early for dinner around five in the evening, and tend to close early too, around nine.

For dinner, we’d go to a local restaurant, first with our translator who would advise about the local dishes and what she thought was good, and then trusting our ability to communicate with the picture menu, miming and pointing. It seemed to work a treat. Of course, the guide book with essential Chinese words is also a big help. We enjoyed the freshest fish – because it’s still swimming in the tank before it comes to your table. I don’t know whether it’s the visits to the Buddhist temples or just the fact that the Chinese kitchen is an open affair where you point to fish in the tank and as you and the fish give each other the knowing stare. But I’ve become rather uncomfortable about having a fish – or any animal really – sacrificed for my table. I expect when I get back to Leeds, where fish comes filleted in the supermarket or lies there already dead so it wasn’t my fault, that I’ll get over it. But in China, the fish is fished out of the tank in a net and taken away to meet its fate. Their supermarkets are full of fish tanks. So they must think we simply don’t know the meaning of fresh.

I also love Sichuan pepper – hot, spicy but wonderfully aromatic. Our Christmas dinner was Beijing Duck in their most famous duck restaurant. And it was a treat. We also had delicious exotic vegetables like willow and preserved walnuts, and I’ve now eaten aubergine cooked in so many different ways and all of them delicious. In the south, I loved the chicken and peanuts with lots of chillies. In the north, the Mongolian hot pot was fabulous and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Chun and Chiaki and Helen in Beijing where the mushrooms, green bean vermicelli and tofu were especially good.

The best thing about five weeks eating Chinese food is that it’s been very good for my health. I haven’t seen many obese Chinese people at all compared to our well advertised problems of diet and obesity at home. Obviously steaming food and not using dairy has a lot to do with it. But also for me, having virtually no alcohol has no doubt improved my health but also my taste for food. I don’t even look for a glass of wine with dinner anymore, as I must admit I haven’t managed to acquire a taste for Chinese wine. Tea has been my drink of choice. I’ve enjoyed lots of different types of green tea, jasmine tea, chrysanthemum, and I now enjoy rose bud tea for breakfast.

Well, it’s my last day, so I’m off to enjoy my final Chinese breakfast, until next time. And tonight, I’m going to try something new. I think I’ll have to order the Buddha Jumping over the Wall soup. And I’m not even going to ask what’s in that.

Diana Solano.

1 Comment

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