As some of you may know, I spent five weeks in the lovely country of China as an English teacher helping my fellow teachers with methodology, pedagogy and lesson plans. One of the highlights of my trip was the food. In this A to Z post, I have decided to list my top ten favorite dishes in no order of importance because food in China is absolutely fresh, without preservatives and tastes like they have had a few thousand years to perfect it…and they have.
1. Sweet and Sour Chicken – I haven’t been able to find its equal as of yet in the States, and it is what every novice who goes to a “Chinese” restaurant orders, but this form of sweet and sour chicken was unbelievable. It was the perfect balance of sweet and sour, in small pieces easy for picking up with chopsticks and melted in your mouth.
2. Sweet and Sour Fish – Yes. You heard it. Sweet and sour fish. Who knew? (On a side note I had sweet and sour french fries while I was there and they were delicious, too.) They brought a live fish in a bucket to our table, showed it to us, we nodded, 20 minutes later it was on the plate as you see here. It had been gutted, deboned, opened up like a blooming onion from Outback Steakhouse, deep fried and plated for our enjoyment… and boy did we enjoy it.
3. Roast Duck – Probably one of my top five if I were to categorize these. I just can’t. They roast the duck until the skin is just perfectly crisp and then carve it right at your table. It is served with raw slivered onions as a garnish. They give you small crepes that you place duck meat and slivers of skin, the onions and duck sauce to make a kind of burrito and then let it take you to some kind of Chinese Nirvana. I cannot describe the taste of it and I have been writing now for over 25 years. I think the Greeks called it ambrosia.
4. Hot Pot – This is not a dish as much as it is an experience. You sit at a round table and each person has their own burner upon which is placed a steaming bowl of broth with a date floating in it. Plates of raw mutton, beef and pork are brought to the table sliced elegantly thin and rolled up in small rolls and then raw veggies and mushrooms are brought out as well. You are instructed to take whatever raw food you like and place it in your boiling pot, cook to your desired completion and then eat. There is also a fantastic garlic sauce to dip everything in. Amazing!
5. Fried Mushrooms With Prickly Ash Seasoning – This is probably one of the most surprising dishes. The mushrooms are flat and leafy and fried in rice batter until golden brown and then sprinkled with prickly ash seed. They are salty and at first you will notice a sort of sour taste along the sides of your tongue. If you eat enough of this spice, however, you will start to notice a tingling sensation on your tongue and lips. Eat enough and your mouth will go numb. We would order these for newcomers to our group and watch their faces tell the story. Find dehydrated prickly ash seed at your local asian market.
6. Fresh Country Veggies – One of the beauties of an agrarian culture slowly mixing with a modern society is that there are many little farms around that offer home cooked foods. We ate at a little farm house restaurant in the mountains and had plate after plate of cold and hot veggie dishes pictured here. They were each filled with wonderful flavor. Some were spicy, some sour, some bitter, some sweet. My taste buds didn’t know what to do. All of these dishes were so simple to prepare but so complex in flavor.
7. Homemade Dumplings – One staple of Chinese cooking in nearly every region in the country are dumplings. These simple pods of flavor are so simple to make. Here we are making tons of them for a feast. What you see in the bowl is simply pork, onions, garlic, ginger and salt. The dough is made from flour and water and is rolled into small discs that are then filled with about a half teaspoon of filling and folded and pinched shut. They are then boiled for 10 minutes and the broth is served as a drink with the dumplings. Dip them in soy sauce and enjoy.
8. Eggs, Wood Ear Fungus and Tomatoes – I’m not sure what the Chinese name for this was, but it was always gone after a few minutes at our table. It is cooked in a broth with soy sauce and stir fried sometimes with Szechwan peppers for heat, but it is just wonderful. If anyone can tell me what this is called, I’d love to know. I make it at home, but it is just not the same.
9. Rao jia mo – I often ate these for lunch. They are stewed mutton meat with your choice of slivered potato, elephant ear fungus, carrots, or any other veggie. If you don’t tell them otherwise, they will put a huge chunk of fat on the burger with the bread (it’s kind of like pita) and since my palate was too western for that I would always tell them to leave it off. It cost a little extra to do that, but man was that sandwich good!
10. Chow Mien – Probably the best street food is this lovely noodle dish with bits of pork and veggies blended in. These noodles are handmade (as is everything in Chinese cooking) but because of my delicate stomach (I have Chrones Disease) I would say “Bu Yao Lah Jiao” which means “No spices”. Otherwise they heap on the hot sauce. These noodles are served with a huge fried egg across the top. For only a buck American, this is a deal and fills you up nicely.
Honorable Mention: 1000 Year Old Eggs – I took a liking to these after being dared to try them. If you want to know how to make them, here is a link, but they simply taste like a boiled egg. No big deal. They can be beautiful, though with amber colored whites and blue-green yolks. The outside of the whites near the shell often have a pine needle pattern on them.