Forget about the westernized versions of Chinese food you might have eaten at home. Real Chinese cooking is as diverse and surprising as the rest of China.
The aroma seduces me every time I leave my hotel in downtown Xi’An, the capital of Shaanxi Province in northcentral China. The tantalizing scent is of lamb and beef kebabs, laced with cumin powder and chili, being flame-grilled on the street.
Known as Chuan (Chuar, Yang Rou Chuan or Chuan’r), these popular snacks are sold for as little as US 45c a piece throughout the city’s large Muslim Quarter. Alongside Xi’an’s iconic Bell Tower, this neighborhood is home to more than 50,000 Hui Muslims. The recipe and preparation of these basic snacks barely has changed since they were introduced to Xi’An more than 400 years ago by the Hui people, who came from the far northwest of China.
The young street vendor smiles when he sees me approach. I ate his kebabs twice the day before and he quickly heats up five lamb skewers and we do a deal. Unlike the beef, which has a chewier texture, this lamb is beautifully tender. It has slightly-gamey taste which is all but overpowered by the mouth-burning chili and the nuttiness of the cumin. Paired with an ice-cold beer – these kebabs make you thirsty – it’s a recipe for satisfaction.
It’s a Friday night in a packed hotpot restaurant in downtown Chongqing, a massive city in central China’s Sichuan Province, and lots of my fellow diners are laughing at me. The only Westerner eating here, I’ve just had a coughing fit after taking my first mouthful of Sichuan hotpot. To say it’s spicy is to say China has a lot of people: redundant.
Chinese hotpot is believed to be more than 1,500 years old and Chongqing is the self-proclaimed hotpot capital of the world, with more than 10,000 hotpot restaurants. Eating hotpot is a very social activity, and I’m here after being invited by two staff members at my hostel. We sit around a large, simmering, communal pot of broth, into which we have dropped a huge variety of raw ingredients, including chicken, bok choi, tofu, shrimp and cheese balls.
As is typical, this broth is heavy with cardamom, MSG, Sichuan chilies and peppercorns, making it eye-wateringly spicy. This heat soaks into every ingredient that is boiled in the broth, ensuring my taste buds swiftly go numb. “That’s the best part,” my new friend tells me of this physical reaction.
Dumplings, soup, duck, noodles – there are many foods I associate with China. Biscuits are not one of them. That’s why I do a double take when I see a street vendor selling baked biscuits near the iconic Chen Clan Ancestral Hall temple in Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) northwest of Hong Kong in Guangdong Province. The elderly vendor tries to sell me a bag of 10 biscuits but first I want to try one.
I expect a sugary taste but instead get a savory punch – this is a ji zai (chicken biscuit). They don’t contain any white meat, but are shaped like a chicken, with their fillings typically a mixture of garlic, salt, sesame, bean curd, ground pepper, and five-spice powder. The outside is crispy, the inside is chewy and the mixture of savory and sweet flavors is addictive.
These biscuits have been popular in Guangzhou since the mid-1800s, and there are numerous styles, some of which feature pork, cabbage, melon or egg.
Guangzhou is renowned for its Cantonese snacks, including Portuguese-style egg tarts, fried shrimp dumplings and steamed porn buns. But I’ll be back for the chicken biscuits.
“This does not taste like beef,” I tell the young waitress. “Not beef – yak,” she replies, contradicting what’s written on the English language menu in her small restaurant in Songpan Ancient Town, Sichuan Province, on the Tibetan Plateau to the north. I soon learn that up here, beef normally means yak rather than cow.
The Tibetan people love yaks because of their ability to produce milk all year round in this rough, cold environment. While yaks are similar in size to a cow, their meat is much leaner and tougher than beef. Even when slow cooked, like in the tsam-thuk Tibetan soup I’m eating, yak is not exactly tender.
This thick, salty soup is Tibetan comfort food, with chunks of both yak meat and yak cheese complemented by radish, onion, spinach and a hearty dose of tsampa, a barley flour which gives the soup a porridge-like consistency. It’s been a Tibetan staple for centuries, and you can find it throughout the Tibetan areas of China.
My labor in the fields has helped me work up a thirst. What better way to quench it than with the tea I’ve just picked myself here in Longjing Tea Village. This cute town, in the hills near Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, has been one of China’s most renowned tea plantations for more than 1,000 years. It is here that the highly prized Dragon Well tea originates.
For as little as US $10, during the harvest season between March and April, visitors can go into Longjing’s majestic, terraced tea fields and copy the actions of the local tea pickers. Then, once I fill my small bag with tea leaves, I head to a neighboring tea house to roast them in an iron pan, as is traditional, before sampling the famously delicate, green tea flavor of Dragon Well.