A scaredy-cat taste of China.

Fish-head soup

I was a tiny bit afraid of eating in China (because I’m a food wimp) but since I was going to Sichuan, China’s spiciest province, I knew at least my vegetables and tofu would be full of flavor and kick. And boy oh boy, was that an understatement. The Sichuanese douse just about everything in a devilish, oily-red brew of onions, garlic, chiles and pepper, and when it comes to eating, they bring the heat.

Pork fat with vegetables

Now, I’m not claiming that I ate everything you’ll see here … not even close. But what I have to say is that despite my deep loathing for most Chinese food in the States (all that greasy, MSG-infused, takeout grossness), the food in China was the most elegant, beautiful, serious, creative, fresh, lovely and inspired cuisine I’ve experienced anywhere.

Duck tongue (no, it’s not a metaphor and yes, I agree — they’re disguising it quite beautifully).

Even when the Chinese were serving alcohol, they managed to offer something I’d never seen or heard of: a big, heaping BOWL of fermented oats (I did try this, but not more than one courageous gulp).In fact, everything was so beautiful and looked so seductively innocent, I had to always ask my Heifer China hosts what the dish was, so I didn’t mistakenly tuck into some brain marrow and beans, or soft intestines and greens.

Intestines (I think)… but aren’t they pretty?

People who eat a lot of tofu are considered a joke in China, so I was happy I could entertain my hosts so easily. I was also complimented on my agile use of chopsticks — and no, I’m not kidding. The only thing I found really hard to pick up were the big wedges of cucumber and the individual roasted nuts.

One nut at a time … but SO worth it!

This tofu was beautiful and boring, but man, that center green salad packed a punch!

My only real challenge was breakfast. And here’s why:

Even at lunch, almost every time we sat down, somebody was offering us a room temperature beer the size of a wine bottle (750 ml) — and even though I like Tsingtao, a little beer goes a long way with me. I found myself longing passionately for a glass of Diet Coke, or more accurately, a gin & tonic, but that was a dim dream. As was any hope of getting a cup of coffee that wasn’t concocted of powdered Nescafe and hot water.

All the effort in China goes into tea – like this chrysanthemum version that was superb (but still not coffee, alas).

Dessert was also not happening — but the Sichuanese served a lot of dishes that were so gorgeous, I couldn’t believe they weren’t sweet — even after I tasted them. What a fake-out!

It’s just plain pumpkin.

Buckwheat “cake” that tasted a lot like sawdust.

The real Chinese idea of dessert … up to $180/pack for the most VIP brands.

In short, eating in China was an adventure — and like any adventure, sometimes you’re totally in, and sometimes you sit on the sidelines– or get dragged, kicking and screaming, into the game.

Blood soup….seriously.

My Chinese hosts were always very sweetly protective of me and my vegetarian habits, although they kept offering me big slabs of meat, so I guess they either knew I wasn’t a true vegetarian (an “opportunistic vegetarian” is how I like to think of myself) or they just couldn’t grasp the concept of not wanting to chow down on a tasty hunk of chicken’s feet. Either way, I made it through and just hope I didn’t insult anybody too badly.

Hmmm … who could resist?

And by the time I got to Nepal, I really did kinda miss having noodles for breakfast. With chile, of course!

Breakfast of champions

Bon appetit!!

Categories: China, Food, Heifer International, Photography, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 45 Comments

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45 thoughts on “A scaredy-cat taste of China.

  1. pattiebaker

    I love these detailed food posts, Betty, from each of the countries you visit. Thank you for being honest and expressive, and saying a thousand additional words through your photos!

    • It would be pretty hard to describe some of these dishes.. because you can’t really do them justice … but I really meant it when I say that even though I wasn’t very global in my tasting … I was blown away by how beautiful and thoughtfully the food was prepared! thanks for the comment, Pattie!!

  2. Wow, Betty, I don’t know if I could do it. Sara says I’m a great traveler–except for my picky eating habits. I’m not brave or daring in the diet department. Sara says, when she was in China, she began asking her hosts not to tell her what she was eating anymore–that she thought she was better off not knowing. She also said it was sometimes worse for her as she was considered a guest of honor and would be given the “best” the host had to offer–often the heads or tail-ends of some hapless creature.

    Great post, Betty!

    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Kathryn — Your comment made me laugh — Sara is SO much a heroine of mine, with all her work for Habitat, but not asking what you’re eating in China? Wow .. what an awesome strategy!! I just did not eat the meat… because I really can’t afford to get sick, and I’m so squeamish about meat in the best of times, I just don’t think I could swallow it! The guest of honor thing makes it really hard, but I always eat whatever vegetable is served… and I’m terribly enthusiastic about that!!!

  3. Sichuan is one of my favorite/most favorite food. But I’d probably have a tough time with a couple of the dishes. My mom used chicken feet to flavor soup and some family members (not me) then ate it. Liver, gizzard, neck, yes. Feet, no.

    • Sichuan food WAS glorious, Renee — even the things I didn’t eat. And it was remarkable that even in the most modest places –like people’s homes — we’d be served a wide, gorgeous variety of dishes .. 9 or 10 .. and each one was complex, original and lovely. I was really impressed! (Plus, I love hot and spicy food, so I was in my element! And tofu is so boring, it really needs that dramatic touch!)

  4. Susan

    I would struggle with this – mightily. Congrats. When we were in Japan, my refuge was being pregnant – got me out of a number of dicey options. There was my friend who was on tour in china and got to a restaurant where there were cages of “undifferentiated mammals” outside – i.e. nothing he’d ever seen before – they went in, and then were told to go back out and pick out their meal. So – could have been worse…

    Always wonderful reading – thanks!

    • OMG — it could have been worse… that’s kinda my mantra!! I love the “undifferentiated” mammals… I would never go near the cage, so that’s why I’m “vegetarian.” Which, by the way, is how I survived a lot of dinners at the Blooms (who of course were huge fans of Chinese food — the real kind — and they were VERY experimental.. I think we were eating goldfish with them at one point) … Unfortunately I can’t use your brilliant pregnancy excuse (that ship sailed a few decades ago, alas) … but LOVE that you’re along for the journey, Susan!

  5. Oh, Betty—you and I have even more in common than I already see we do! I’m a self-admitted “food wimp,” too, and you were far braver than I would have been, that’s for sure! I haven’t eaten red meat in more than twenty years (I do eat fish and chicken), and I’m not very adventurous with food in the first place. Really great post, as usual!

    • Oh, Cindy, I wasn’t brave at all — I just ate AROUND the intestines and congealed blood! Actually, I should be inured to all this because, as I have previously admitted, my favorite food is a grilled hot dog (although I’ve been switched over to turkey, which is no doubt equally revolting) … but it’s the vegetables that keep me up & running in all these countries. And those never disappoint!!

  6. Anonymous

    Oh Betty! I am laughing loudly at the thought of your face confronted by that plate of chicken feet! you are a braver woman than I….love from me, Bevan

    • Bevan — yeah, I think you probably know that face better than almost anybody! Luckily, I had seen people chomping on chicken feet when I was in Belize, and once you get over the shock factor, it’s pretty much like — wow, I hope they’re not going to start in on the NAILS. But overall, I think my horror trigger has definitely decreased dramatically through all these travels. It’s just like — oh, no brain for me, please, but could you pass the pumpkin? Oh, it’s not pumpkin??? tee hee … xoxoox b

  7. I’ve often read (but don’t know if it’s a wives tale or fact) that the Chinese live longer than most BECAUSE of this kind of diet – specifically the spices – the hot peppers and chiles are good for keeping cholesterol low and fight certain cancers. All looks delicious to me.

    • It’s in your history, EOSR — you’re just a citizen of the world and I’m sure the Asian cuisines are like second nature to you!! I think I’ve heard the same thing about spices extending your life — makes sense to me. They’re probably the best antioxidants of ALL !

    • Chinese live longer because of their diet. Vultures are also healthy. NOPE. Don’t want to go there! ! !

  8. Martha Radatz

    Being also vegetarian, this post was a difficult one for me to eat—-and look at! I have to remind myself that being a vegetarian in the US is a choice born of luxury. Much of the rest of the world has learned to be very creative, and gratefully so, in finding their protein in what’s at hand. Truthfully, you didn’t have any Clif Bars in your back pocket??? :o)

    • Oh, honey — I always have protein bars in my suitcase. And a few little baggies of M&Ms for when I just need a tiny hit of chocolate before bed. And if I’m lucky, a small bottle of bourbon or cognac that I sometimes buy at duty-free, so I can have a little nightcap (or sunset cocktail) in my room without having to go out. And I always have gum. And peanut butter crackers — which I can give away to kiddies because who doesn’t love ‘em?? Then it’s always big bottles of water and an emergency piece of fruit, and I’m a happy camper. And that’s probably much more than you wanted to know about the way I roll, Martha!!

  9. Spicy I can do, but I would be forever petrified that I was eating a cat or something crazy like that! :)

    • I realized AFTER I posted that I probably shouldn’t use the word “cat” in the title … must have been a Freudian slip! Thanks for the comment!!

  10. Anonymous

    Betty- Interesting coincidence; last night at a local restaurant one of my dining buddies ran into a friend named Bo who was from Cameroon. As we were all talking, I mentioned you and your great Heifer blog and how I thought you were heading to Cameroon next. Turns out his sister, Elizabeth, is now head of Heifer’s Africa programs !! She sounds amazing, as does his mother who still lives in Cameroon.

    I love your blog and keep passing on to others. This is the Anne from Ga. Shakepspeare event (how fun!) where we visited and sat at the same table, opposite ends.

    p.s. I wrote this once and it disappeared ’cause i wasn’t logged in—so if it happens to appear now, forgive the double posting…

    • Anne!! I love that you met somebody from Cameroon whose sister works for Heifer Africa!! … okay, clearly this is a sign that we have to get together and visit more!!! I’ll send you an email and we’ll make a date! yay!!!

  11. I’m also glad you do a food post from all the countries. I’m with you, I’m sure the tea in China is very tasty, but I cannot imagine breakfast without coffee!
    Oh my god I’m not a vegetarian but I couldn’t eat many of those dishes. I’d love to see a photo of Betty eying the plate of chicken feet :-)

    I found this comment so interesting:

    “But what I have to say is that despite my deep loathing for most Chinese food in the States (all that greasy, MSG-infused, takeout grossness), the food in China was the most elegant, beautiful, serious, creative, fresh, lovely and inspired cuisine I’ve experienced anywhere.”

    Why is American food so awful? Italian food which is so popular here, is a very distant cousin to the food one eats in Italy.

    • Hi Rosie!! Well, to be charitable, let’s assume that a lot of the fresh ingredients in real Chinese food can’t be found here …and the culinary artistry has been lost somewhere along the way .. but I also think that many of the ethnic foods in America have been “dumbed down” to appeal to American tastes. For instance, fortune cookies aren’t even Chinese at all .. and the Chinese never serve rice until the end of the meal, just to sop up the remains of the dishes… and MSG is actually served on the side.. and soy is almost never present as a condiment. I totally agree about Italian food, too — the Italians only eat pasta as a starter in small portions, and the cheese is entirely fresh (omg, the fresh ricotta was like HEAVEN) … and the tastes are so light and marvelous! Okay, I’m getting hungry now (but not for chicken feet) … xooxox b

      • Hang on a minute, the Chinese eat rice at the end of the meal? And they don’t eat soy? And MSG is served on the side? That’s a totally different food than we get over here. I want my money back :-)

      • I want my money back, too!!! All those crap Chinese meals and now this??!! It is so different it shouldn’t even be considered the same cuisine.
        Real Chinese food is FABULOUS … a thousand apologies… xooox b

  12. Lisa

    Betty…You are simply just too awesome for words! So brave…Thank you so much for sharing your travels and wishing for you more delicious foods on your future stops! Hugs to you from SoCal! ;-)

    • Lisa!! So great to hear from you — I was at a wedding on Saturday night and sitting next to somebody from Long Beach and I kept pestering her — have you been to the Depot? Do you know Lisa??!! I’m so happy to hear from you and as always, I’m sending you lots of love & THANKS for your comment!!! (Hope your beautiful daughter is doing great & the shop is thriving!!)

  13. Mary Yee

    Betty, I enjoy all your posts but with this one, I had to laugh. Even Chinese people (like me) won’t eat all of this stuff. The strange thing is, I like braised intestines but find “desserts” like the buckwheat cake completely inedible. Cheers!

    Mary Yee (Edina, MN)

    • Hi Mary!! So happy you are following Heifer 12 x 12 — and I’m really glad that even Chinese people don’t always eat all the crazy food that I was served. That makes me feel SO much better! In fact, the intestines didn’t look half bad, but I was blindsided by the moniker “cake” when applied to the buckwheat concoction — took a big bite and felt like I was chewing on plasterboard. Ha!!

  14. …but what’s the life span of the Szechuan people? Do they die of weird illnesses brought on by eating inedible dishes (I can’t even call them foods.)

    • No! I think they live LONGER than we do … and you know, it’s kinda cool that all those spices seem to pickle your insides .. or just kill off all the antioxidants… the cuisine really IS so sophisticated, no matter what the ingredients! (and gosh knows, they are using ALL the animal!)

  15. Great post but it does make me a little scared for Laos. I’m afraid I will have to force myself to be polite when served pig blood soup, or fresh duck larb (chopped salad) drizzled with fresh duck blood. Not sure how I can get away without at least tasting it, and all the while keeping my face from scrunching up in a big loud impolite “Eeewwwww!!!”.

    • Oh, Wanderlustress — You are in for the BIGGEST treat ever!! Laos is just incredible for so many reasons, but chief among them (besides the fantastic, cheap foot massages and the Mekong River, and the beautiful, super Buddhist lovely people) … is the FOOD! I had the best street food EVER in Laos — the French influence is hard to ignore, and the Laotians just are artists with food — I never once doubted my choices .. you are going to have a blast!! I can’t wait to get back there.. trust me, you’ll be FINE!!!

  16. I enjoy the videos that you include Betty. They really increase the experience.

  17. I’m such a kind of challenged video geek with the editing (I just shoot and post, sorry about that!) … so I’m really happy that you liked the raw stuff!!

  18. I have had both Chinese and Japanese food in their native countries. I prefer Japanese food, hands down. However, you mention two things in China that I enjoyed. One is the bread (steamed, boiled, whatever) and the Chrysanthemum tea which I love and wish I could get more easily. It is a rare occurrence that I enjoy a cup now.

    I, too, am a vegetarian when I travel. You never know what is lurking under the guise of good presentation.

    • Actually, because Japanese food usually consists of either raw fish or deep-fried tempura.. I’m not a big fan but of course, that’s just my impression of American Japanese food so I’m probably dead wrong. However, I’m totally on the same page about Chrysanthemum tea — what a beautiful concoction!!! And yeah, vegetarians with a passport… definitely!!

  19. I meant to mention that chicken feet (which I saw on one of your delicacy plates) are packaged and sold right beside all the other chicken parts here in rural NC.

    • Just goes to show you — no matter how far you go, there you are! And yeah, rural NC & China .. sisters under the skin!

  20. LOL re: chicken feet remark!
    Japanese food in Japan is very different that in the US. There are little noodle shops on the sidewalks, tempura doesn’t exist much except in hotels for visitors, and they do LOTS of vegetables with their rice which is served with the meal. mmmmm wish I had some now!

  21. Wish I had some, too!!!

  22. No Betty it’s not your like local take out food. We Americans don’t get to see the real deal often, but you did. Did you get to try any stinky tofu?

    Of all the place I’ve visited China has been the most fascinating from a food perspective. I was with a local in Shanghai and tried everything that was offered, including live shrimp – which I am allergic to! The spices, the oddities, the way the food is bought and sold, it’s just incredible stuff.

    Thanks again for sharing, makes me want to go back!

    • Chris, WHY am I not surprised that you went with a local in Shanghai and tried everything that was offered?? Of course you did… unlike me! I am so glad I could bring you back to your sensory overload in China … Thanks for the comment!

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