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