Whenever I’d asked my friends about their study abroad experience in Shanghai, they’d casually mention the kind locals, vivid nightlife, beautiful countryside, pollution and the lack of toilet paper in public restrooms. What they would never fail to mention is the genuine joy and satisfaction that comes from eating Shanghai–and thus, Chinese–cuisine. “Well, sure. Who doesn’t adore Kung Pao Chicken and egg rolls on a bed fried rice?” True. But to the chagrin of many-including my own-true Chinese cuisine can’t be any more different than that of its Americanized, Panda Express counterpart. “How?” Well, read below about my take:
1. Fresh and (generally) healthy. Now, there are westerners who like to complain about the high amounts of gluten and wheat in the Chinese diet, which originate from the Chinese’ love of dumplings, noodles and rice. That’s fair-we all know too much gluten can be a bad idea. But compared to American food that’s generally filled with cream, sugar, fat and steroids-natural or otherwise-I can’t find a place to protest (There are obvious exceptions to both sides’ stereotypes-I’m just stating my general opinion about average Americans). From what I’ve observed so far, cheese and butter don’t seem to be a staple here in China, unlike in the US. Sugar finds its way into desserts and some drinks but stays out of more main dishes than not. Spices, plants and vegetables are used as flavoring while oil and fat hang out as supporting roles. Chinese emphasize meat-especially pork-and love vegetables, which tend to have high levels of protein and some vitamins. I don’t know much about Chinese food regulations regarding pesticides and steroids but I can undoubtedly taste the purity in the meats and vegetables here. There are people, stands and markets all over the city selling fresh produce and meat. I didn’t realize just how fresh some of the meat was until one afternoon when we were walking on the sidewalk in the college area of town and saw two people slicing the head off of a skinned cow :-l Can’t get much more fresh than that, in my opinion. On that note, many of westerners also speak out against the uncleanliness of Chinese cuisine. It’s true that food on your table tends to be communal, taking vitamins is commonly suggested, we can’t drink the city water here and we always carry around hand sanitizer. But its a shame if you miss out on fresh local street food or a unique dish because you microanalyze and must first stamp out every possible speck of bacteria (<–semi-exaggeration). Our bodies are made to ward off bacteria-we should let it do its job sometimes. Also, China is becoming more consious of food sanitization-evident in the way they vaccuum seal their individual cup/spoon/bowl sets for patrons at restaurants. All that being said, I do still take multivitamins every morning, Mom, so don’t worry.
2. Great presentation. What I appreciate the most about Chinese food is how it looks when it arrives at my table. I wouldn’t call all of them works of art, but Shanghai chefs certainly know what it means to “eat with the eyes” as well as cook quickly. Mixing up the style, color, size and shape of the serving bowls is also common and adds more to ascthetics than you would think. This goes for small noodle shops, large hotels and everywhere inbetween. Even at corner marts food presentation is apparent-the past few days I’ve enjoyed a pretty seaweed-wrapped rice ball for breakfast. Whenever a large group of us go out we sit at a round table that has a rotating glasstop in the middle of it, where all the food is placed and then passed by rotating the glasstop. It adds an element of elegance and fun to the food that can’t be denied, especially the first few times you go. Chopsticks are one of my secret loves <3, so they only make meals more enjoyable for me. Futhermore, a lot of restaurants create a comfortable, traditional atmosphere as well to accompany their food. Now, being an avid photographer I’ve had to resist always taking photos like a tourist (not that I can pass as Chinese anyways), but the few times I couldn’t help but take are added for your perusal.
3. Eastern ingredients. Speaking of presentation, Chinese food presentation doesn’t hide its ingredients. Like many other cultures of the world, the Chinese no qualms with cooking and enjoying most animal parts. If you’re eating a chicken foot, you’ll know it-and I did know it (see photo). If you see that half of a dish is made of peppers its highly likely it will be spicy-but in a flavorful, non-lethal way. Flavored sauces are pretty common but they don’t overpower the flavor of the food itself. The unequivocally best way to discover Chinese cuisine is to eat with locals and native Chinese who can show you traditional foods, encourage you to experiment (and eat what you don’t end up liking), get you into amazing restaurants and help you love eating true Chinese food even more. Thanks to my friends in one week I’ve tried very spicy foods (irregular for me), watermelon juice, porridge, Chinese hamburger, snails, bullfrog, bamboo, milk tea, cold noodles, pork blood and chicken foot!
We start classes tomorrow but I’m sure we’ll still find time to be adventurous and enjoy each others’ company at meals. I’m ready-chopsticks, away!
New Chinese word/phrase:
很好吃！ hen3 hao3chi1 Very delicious!
服务员 fu2wu4yuan2 waiter/waitress