Chinese cuisine is considered one of the best in the world. Like Mexican cuisine, Chinese cuisine is not really one cuisine, but several. Each region of this country, the most populated in the world, has very specific ways of cooking and flavors that predominate in its dishes.
In general, salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and bitter flavors are the most representative in Chinese cuisine. In particular, spicy predominates in the center and south of the country; salty in the north and coastal areas; sweet in the east; sour in the south and bitter throughout the country.
Moreover, this cuisine is based on the principle of traditional medicine: all dishes are created with the aim of being beneficial to health.
The spicy taste, for example, is related to promote blood circulation; the salty, to improve digestion; the sweet to tone the body and improve mood (serotonin!); the sour to soothe diarrhea and thirst, and the bitter to strengthen the stomach and promote salivation.
How do you learn to eat the most impossible things with chopsticks in a short time? That’s right, you travel to China. Preferably in a group. There you have no choice but to learn quickly how to get the most impossible things from the constantly turning table onto your own plate as quickly as possible. Sometimes the dishes are slippery, sometimes they are big and crispy, and sometimes they are frighteningly small or even half liquid.
A small insight into the diversity of China. Today, I have made massive progress in the matter of chopsticks and have also learned a lot in other respects. What all came between my chopsticks, I would like to tell you today and give you 6 tips for epicures in China.
1. Experience the Chinese food culture
Almost the only thing that Chinese restaurants outside of China and actual food in China have in common is the round tables. Usually, you sit with about 10 people at a table and share all the food, which is served on the round turntable (called lazy susan) in the middle of the table. To do this, you simply take down what you want with your chopsticks and store it on your plate or in a small bowl.
The typical dinner service consists of a small plate, an even smaller bowl, chopsticks, and a cup for tea. Often the dinnerware is rinsed with hot water to clean it before eating.
All food is placed on the table when it is ready to be served. There is no menu sequence of appetizer, main course, and dessert. Thus, the different tastes from salty to sweet mix on the plate and make for exciting combinations.
Eating in China is a very communicative affair, which differs from the typical restaurant visit. Instead of everyone eating their own dish, people swap, mix and share. It is most interesting to observe what effect this has in a group.
Not every food cutter can wait for a dish to arrive at his place and would prefer to turn the dial steadily. There is more talk about the food, everyone can try many things.
In addition, it may noisy in Chinese restaurants. This is also due to the dimensions, which can be compared to an average food court in a shopping mall. There are simply a lot of people in China and accordingly, most restaurants are huge.
Visiting a restaurant and getting to know Chinese food culture is, of course, unavoidable for you as a foodie, but in my opinion, it’s a real aha experience.
2. Order without the help of a Chinese in a restaurant.
Sounds simple, but it’s not. Because most likely you not only don’t speak Chinese, you can’t even read it!
So with hands and feet? Here’s a question: Did you know that showing two fingers (thumb and index finger) in China doesn’t mean two, but eight? You can imagine what I’m getting at. China will put your usual communication patterns to the test, showing you how accustomed you are to Western ways of behaving.
For me, the language barrier has led to no small amount of fun with translations from Google Translator, which is nevertheless (mostly) a great help when trying to read a menu. You can find some examples in my “China highlight” on Instagram.
The fact that menus in China are often provided with pictures is not a trick for tourists, by the way, but standard. So you often still don’t know what exactly you’re ordering, but at least you can roughly guess whether it will be vegetables or fish head soup.
Chinese cuisine is usually divided into four to eight regional cuisines: the Canton cuisine in southeast China, which is considered relatively sweet and has a particularly good reputation. Here, cooking is less spicy and many fresh ingredients, rice, and fish are used. Beijing-Shantung cuisine (northeast), which tends to use wheat, millet, and corn instead of rice, and where lamb and beef are often eaten. Stuffed dumplings and the famous Peking duck are found here. Henan cuisine (center) and Sichuan-Hunan cuisine (west), which is particularly spicy and where Sichuan pepper is used, leaving a numb feeling in the mouth.
Outlining Chinese cuisine in its diversity is difficult and can only be incomplete. I had most of the experience with Cantonese and Hunan cuisine and could already see great differences in preparations and tastes as I traveled. For example, the further west I moved, the spicier it got. So you should not miss broadening your culinary horizon also within China.
3. Drink tea
Many people think of Japan first when they think of tea ceremonies, but Japanese tea culture has its roots in China. Chinese tea culture is an important part of Chinese culture, so you shouldn’t miss out on experiencing it first hand.
In the Chinese tea ceremony, the tea bowls and the pot are first cleaned with hot water and preheated. The water that is not needed is poured away, for which there is a drain in the traditional tea tables. Then the tea is brewed. The first infusion is immediately discarded and only the second is drunk. Depending on the quality of the tea, the infusion is repeated and you will notice that each one tastes a little different.
Which tea is prepared differs from region to region, especially common are oolong tea, Pu’er tea, and green tea. I had my experience at the tea market in Guangzhou, where Pu’er tea is mostly drunk. By the way, I can only recommend a trip to the huge tea market, which is a string of tea parlors.
4. Experience eating animals
Let’s say you are a vegetarian? Then you will quickly find out that the Chinese understanding of meatless food will be very different from yours. After all, the fact that your vegetables were generously sautéed in animal fat hardly counts, does it? Even the few pieces of bacon or meat are negligible. Going completely without animal products will be more of a challenge than you might think right now.
But even if you like to eat meat, the preparation may surprise you a bit. The composition of meat, vegetable side dish, and filling side dish does not exist in this form in China. All dishes represent one unit and meat is clearly recognizable as such. It is usually prepared and only then cut into bite-sized pieces. This means that you will find all kinds of bones and bone splinters in your food. Not to mention bones, and the head of the animal is proudly displayed.
Not choking on bones and removing them from your mouth in a reasonably elegant way requires some practice. But it also makes you unmistakably aware of what you are eating: an animal.
5. Try it out
You’ve identified a few dishes you like? Now don’t fall into the trap of just ordering the same thing.
There’s so much to discover! Here are a few things I think you shouldn’t miss:
1. Tofu in all its varieties: Deep fried in breading, fermented as Stinky Tofu, tasting slightly like Gorgonzola and smelling horrible, as tofu skin in thin sheets or reasonably classic in white cubes. While tofu is often too boring for me, the variety in China is totally exciting and diverse.
2. Hot pot: the Chinese version of fondue is a communicative and delicious affair. You can order vegetables and meat to your heart’s content, which you then cook in your hot pot. You can usually mix your own sauces for dipping and customize them according to your preferences.
3. Pork Belly: the Chinese are not afraid of fat, and not afraid of a whole lot of flavor. If that appeals to you, you should definitely try pork belly. Crispy yet meltingly soft, full of salt, and often in a sweet sauce. Delicious!
4. Dumplings: there are masses of different kinds of stuffed dumplings in China. Whether vegetarian or filled with pork or duck, they are a traditional temptation in a class of their own.
5. Eggplant: even if you are not a big fan of the purple vegetable, in China eggplants taste different. They are usually stewed and prepared in a strong spicy sauce in a clay pot. My favorite vegetable in China!
6. Eat your greens: the flavor variety of cabbage can be well experienced in China, pak choi, Chinese broccoli, long thin Chinese cauliflower, or water spinach. Everything is green, crunchy, and very tasty and was missing on my table almost every evening.
Fancy a taste of China? I’m excited about Chinese cuisine and would have loved to try so much more.
Have you had any experiences that are missing from this article or have any questions? Write them in the comments.
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