Our recent trip to China involved many discoveries and rediscoveries, not the least of which included foods from our childhood.
There were special nostalgic moments, but also moments reshaped by our new understanding of the world and American viewpoints.
First, we have to start at the hotel. Shangri-la is a five star hotel chain that is well known and popular in Asia. You might choose it for its locations, service, or excellent rooms, but by God, you have to consider their breakfasts. The breakfasts were the fanciest that we have ever seen.
There were fresh fruits, deli meats, freshly cut meat, all your usual made to order omelet, egg, meat dishes, pastries galore, and that’s just the Western dishes. We came for the Chinese food!
We ate like kings every morning. I remember eating congee with you tiao (which are puffy fried dough sticks) and tea eggs regularly in the morning. The Shangri-la had 3 kinds of congee and soymilk. They had tea eggs and salt duck eggs. Wow!
They had a made to order dan dan mian stand with 2 kinds of noodles, dumplings, and 20 condiments. Amazing every day. Who doesn’t want to make their own spicy noodles to start the day?
The dim sum section had the fluffiest, whitest meat buns and red bean paste buns, steamed taro, and shu mai.
The buns were so perfect, that its become my personal mission to figure out this recipe.
The fried section had fried yam balls. They were amazing. It was my one request when I turned 10. I wanted my mom to make fried yam balls. Here, I had a handful every morning.
Tea eggs were perfect every time with the beautiful patterns permeating through the egg. How do they do it?
And at the end of the meal, you can have your fill of fresh fruits. Yes! fresh asian pears and dates!
Best breakfast ever.
Another highlight at the Shangri-la was the bird’s nest soup at dinner. It’s swallow spit and is supposed to be really good for you, and therefore it’s really expensive. People climb into caves in the dark and cheat death to peel these off its dark rocky walls. Let’s pause and think about that for a moment.
It’s so expensive that it’s served in a gold bowl with a gold spoon on its own separate gold tray.
I’m glad that I got to try it, but it tasted like white wood-ear mushroom with the gooeyness washed away. We won’t be splurging on this one ever again (I hope)!
While in Chengdu, we had to try another food that’s so famous that it’s well known in the USA: hot pot. I’ve never had a pot so hot. I accidentally ate two fresh peppercorns and it ended my day. I had to switch to the wimpy chicken stock on the left of the yin/yang bowl. The assortment of meat were fun – we had good old sliced meat, meatballs, and an assortment of innards and gizzards. The pork belly was the best. It’s not the fatty stuff you see here, but just the skin. There were also mountain mushrooms that were double mushrooms. When you cut them in half, it looked like a mushroom hat growing inside a mushroom hat.
We ate a lot of food here, but since we were with family that I was meeting for the first time, I couldn’t easily explaining taking photos of everything. But i had to take a photo of this. It’s called guo se tian xiang, which translates to national beauty heavenly fragrance. Yeah. Baidu translate tells me that it’s peony, but it’s clearly not the flower. This is the only vegetable that I have never had before. I couldn’t even guess what it was. It tastes like a jicama with the slipperiness of lotus root or okra where it has been sliced. The flavor is light and fragrant, but fresh and not overpowering. Perhaps it’s a peony root? I don’t know why it’s so big!
While viewing pandas, there were lots of these! Have some pork jerky while walking around the panda park! I couldn’t get too close or they were going to haggle us.
Other fun foods in Sichuan:
Roasted rabbit – flavorful and chewy. I went with auntie to buy them at the market, and I had to ask what animal it was because the head looked like a giant rodent! I was used to only looking at roast birds.
Peaches – the white peaches here were nothing like the ones here. They were bigger, juicier, and white-peachier. Given it was my favorite fruit, I ate about five in 3 days.
Pomegranate – the seeds were yellow-orange, and they tasted less acidic.
Seitan – The blocky seitan were bouncy. The layers were thin and distinct.
Tea – The tea here were so much better. Flower teas, herbal teas, everything was better. We did not even start to scratch the surface of this one!
Next, we went to Wuhan, where we had ou jia, or stuffed lotus roots. They carefully cut a slit in a slice of lotus root and stuff it with meat, and then fry it. It tastes as good as it sounds! We make this at home sometimes, but somehow it tastes so much better when the lotus is extremely crunchy and fresh.
Mi jui, or fermented rice. This is a throwback to my very first post! It’s the most delicious thing ever, sweet and warm, and this soup came with mini tang yuan dumplings filled with black sesame paste. Wuhan is very close to the birthplace of this dish, and I have never had it better.
This was my favorite dish of the whole trip. It’s soft-shelled turtle that’s been chopped up and braised. The skirts of the shells are made of mostly cartilage and not bone, so like tendon, they become soft and oogey-gooey and pick up the flavors of the stock. The little bits of turtle meat were not the star of the dish and seemed to have wandered into the dish by accident. They tasted like plain old chicken. 50% of the dish was for the stock. There was maybe half of cup of liquid at the bottom that everyone quickly scooped up at the end of the meal and mixed into their rice.
Other foods we encountered in Wuhan:
Yam leaves – really great vegetable. My mom grows it in her garden. It’s like hollow heart vegetable, but tastes greener.
Fresh bean skin – At one of the restaurants, a lady sat at a stand outside with rectangular pots of soy. About an hour before our meal, she pulled up thin sheets of bean skin and hung them to dry over the pots. Then when it was our turn to eat, she pulled off a sheet and cut it up for us and sent it to our table!
Fish noodles – The noodles were like squiggly angel hair, but they were made from a mixture of grain and fish. They were usually cooked with some form of preserved vegetables.
ba jiao – It looks like a little pink round mustache shaped root. You peel it open to get the chestnut-y white root inside. This was eaten unpeeled, or when it was peeled, it was sauteed with fresh lotus root and seeds.
Fish head – Lots of spicy steamed fish head. I don’t know what fish they used, but the head meat was extra tender. My family seem to have remembered that I like going after the extra tender cheek meat. All you people who think this is disgusting is missing out. Fish cheeks are tomorrow’s foie gras.
I had one more thing to bring home. Ma tang! Sesame brittle! It tastes like childhood. I ate a whole pack right after coming back, munching and thinking about what Chinese dishes I should try to make home and bring to my blog.