August 20, 2013, by Tony Hong
My experience with food in China
By Andrew Spivey,
Studying History at the University of Nottingham UK.
Before travelling to China my anticipation to experience new culinary experiences was immense, and so it was to my delight that the plethora of new and exciting dishes awaiting me did in no stretch of the imagination disappoint. Since my childhood days I have been infatuated with Chinese food, but in England I only encountered Chinese food in a brief and incomplete manner, such as through a heavily diluted recipe for western audiences, or the odd takeaway. In this blog I will share some of both the delights and the monstrosities that I confronted on my travels to China.
My first introduction to Chinese food came from perhaps an unexpected source, Shanghai Pudong airport. An extended period of travelling had left me peckish, so I ventured into the first airport convenience store I noticed. Bombarded with an imposing array of Chinese characters and bizarre looking products, I headed for the stand situated closest to the door, foolishly believing that its proximity to the entrance reflected its popularity, and thus its scrumptious taste. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and so my initiation to Chinese food came in the form, of what I was later to learn, was vacuum packed dried squid. At the time, I presumed its rubbery texture and foul odour would constitute the worst China would have to offer, but again, I was wrong. The worst offender eluded me for several days, but after we became acquainted, I knew the memory of it would haunt me for a lifetime. The food is known as ‘Sticky Tofu’, and the smell is so abhorrent words cannot convey the stench. All I can offer is this; when you are sitting in a restaurant or passing street food and an offensively bad smell activates you regurgitating reflexes, it is more than likely Sticky Tofu, and you will understand how words will never do the odour justice. Furthermore, Sticky Tofu’s taste in no way compensates for its scent, adding insult to injury.
With these two repulsive foods, the bar for my subsequent meals was set extremely low. Fortunately, every other dish was nothing but a delight. My true introduction to Chinese dinning, with circular tables and a numerous dishes exuberating alluring aromas, came on the first night, when our reps for the visit brought us to a local Chinese restaurant. Having locals who could speak the language was indispensible, as they were able to both communicate effectively with the staff (an issue I faced later on multiple occasions) and utilise their extensive knowledge of local food to select scrumptious dishes. Highlights included fresh squid, deep fried crab, and chicken and water chess nuts in oyster sauce. The meal was also accompanied with some insightful cultural lessons, such as the method for sharing food around a circular, spinning table, and the inadequacy of many English people at using chopsticks. Additionally, I sampled the local beer, Tsingtao, and can confirm it was satisfying, and unexpectedly similar to beer found in the UK.
Throughout the trip I have designated several meals as being of particular greatness. A lobster restaurant located in the centre of Ningbo provided luxurious lobster in a multitude of astonishing sources. A dumpling restaurant in Shanghai served countless varieties of dumplings, a food that is rare in the UK, and thus was a sensational treat. Another joy was the street food, which always vivid in its appearance and enticing in its smell, and invariably tempting, becoming irresistible when coupled with its negligible price.
As I hope to have expressed, despite two mishaps, I thoroughly enjoyed my sojourn in China and familiarisation with true Chinese food, and wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone and everyone.