Of all the places I have been to and of all the food I have tasted, Chinese food felt like a whole new experiment in gastronomy – a bit – no, a lot out of the ordinary. It also shook my faith in the culinary expertise of the food-stall vendors in India who enthusiastically sold Chinese food under exotic names to unsuspecting customers, giving them a completely false and non-exiting idea and taste of Chinese food. As someone who never lived in China, my opinion of Chinese food was based on all that I had ever eaten at Chinese restaurants manned by north-east Indians and was limited to Chinese Fried Rice (of varying mixes), Schezuan Chicken, Chicken Shangri-La and noodles to name a few.
But when I finally reached China, I learnt the following –
1. Chinese food taste great outside China. Period.
2. There is no such thing as “Chinese Fried Rice” that has onions, chilies, chopped spring onions, beans… that, is something devised by enterprising Indians as a way to charge an arm and then some for something ‘exotic.’
3. There is no Chicken Shangri-La or Schezwan to be found in China. Shangri La and Schezwan are places and not in any way connected to the greasy and spicy chicken cooked in soy sauce and gooey corn flour that passes for a dish on the menus.
4. Noodles you have eaten outside of China is nothing like you will ever find in China – in China noodles are a whole different story. You will need patience to find the right thickness or colour, the stuff that goes on it and a picture book to guide you through the process of eating it correctly.
5. With chopsticks, you can pretty much eat anything in China – often it is the only way.
6. Cuisine in southern China is a sight better than that in the north of China.
7. Peking duck is a ‘must-try’ but think twice before you apply yourself to eating it.
8. Never underestimate the ‘chili’ you find in the Sichuan region – it can beat any Indian -chili in fieriness and the damage it can cause to your insides if you aren’t careful.
9. If you aren’t particularly good at picking out food (also because the menus are always in Chinese), look into your neighbour’s plate and ask for that. Often it is the best and very sensible thing to do.
10. It’s okay to bring your own spoon into a restaurant. Your choices of cutlery are often limited to chopsticks/soup spoons/ tooth picks (for picking snails out of their shell).
11. Creepy crawlies that are common enough on the food scene include scorpions, worms, dog, snake, century eggs, stinky tofu to name a few. Try not to gawk, stare, throw up or make faces at the display of these food specialties.
12. You can make a meal of a chicken leg, chicken skin, chicken toes, pig liver, pig eyes, tails – and worry not – you will find them neatly sold in packets and often confuse yourself with the pictures – so learning a bit of Chinese letters is a good idea.