Tasting new China
Most of my adult life has been governed by food, cooking it taking the preparation of it to new personal levels. Then the eternal quest to learn more about the simplicity of combinations. The exploring of new techniques, flavors and then the use of ingredients in the best possible way to enhance their influence on a dish.
The food in China has such a unique taste, as well as the perfected simplicity; I think that this will play a huge roll in the future of my personal culinary journey. The food in China is so integrated and entwined in daily life it seems to be part of your daily intake of spiritual, family and medicinal well being. I love the way that all the dishes are placed on a large table, a huge choice of vegetable dishes, tofu, meat chicken pork and fish. The simplest meal becomes a feast. Everyone helps themselves and you eat and chat away, sharing the days experience, then personal stories come out and life is just discussed, such a warm experience of friends and unity around the table. I think that this is one of the fundamentals that we so often miss in our life today is that sharing of a meal with family and friends “it’s not always about the food, but the friends that you share it with that makes a meal memorable”.
What really makes Chinese food so different is the rapid cooking method, as well as the specially prepared ingredients. All the ingredients have been cut into a small uniformed size so that they cook together. Then the hot wok to which oil is added, then the condiments, “to arouse the wok” and finally the ingredients are then quickly stir fried and cooked in a short time.
There is pattern around which a Chinese meal is compiled. Your rice/noodles is the base around which the meal is structured. No Chinese meal is complete without the soup. A minimum of three or four dishes then accompany the rice and soup, well thought out with aroma, texture, taste and appearance, as well as taking cooking methods into account. These are not the only taken into account, the chef must also have an understanding of Chinese food and dishes are also chosen for their symbolic and medicinal values and thus creating culinary harmony at the dinner table.
The most incredible thing that I found with my journey through the Northwest of China was how quickly a meal would be put together and how fresh it was always. The secret was explained to me as follows. Even in the most remote and poor farming areas, each home has its basic pantry of soy sauce, home made vinegars, ginger, onions , garlic, toasted sesame oil and dry spices. The rest of the food is purchased on a daily basis, no matter how simple they may be, the home is transformed into a wonderful array of smells within minutes, followed but dishes of sometimes only flavoured tofu and different vegetables.
The old recipes of stock and pickling have been passed down over the centuries and in every home when there are an abundance of vegetable or meat these as well as sausages are made and stored.
I had on a few occasions the pleasure of being invited to a local banquet and what an experience this was (with my journey always keeping me on the hungry side), no matter the size, they are a big affair. These banquets are such and patriarchal part of Chinese culture and the focus is totally on the food and the volume of it, sometimes 10 to 15 different dishes. Each dish is brought to the table, announced and explained with smiles of appreciation glowing all around the table. Unlike the daily meal, the rice is brought out at the end and normally by this time you are unable to eat it. Normally I ended up as one of the guests of honour; this did not always turn out to be the best position as you are then obliged to be given the so called choicest dishes, not what I would normally even consider eating. The other thing is once the sweat dish has been served, you eat up and leave. My favourite dish from these meals still remains the Peking duck.
Fresh produce being the forefront of Chinese Cuisine, the market place is always a busy part of any town or city or even a little village. The markets are in special build massive halls with different sectors. Fresh vegetables, then herbs. The poultry sector will have slaughtered chickens and geese hanging by their necks under this will be cages of the same should the customer like them slaughtered fresh. Rows of fish tanks with pipes of oxygen blowing bubbles into them line the next hall as the shoppers choose their live flapping fish, crabs, lobster or eels. Then the meat section with carcasses hanging in their designated cubical, pork, beef, lamb, goat, and donkey and in some of the areas even more exotic meats. These markets as busy and full of every thing the cook can want are incredibly clean and orderly. Then there are the rows upon rows of dry goods, from mushrooms, spices meats fish, roots and any thing you can dream of you will find in the dry market section, as well as an array of ingredient that I have never heard of, or maybe don’t really want to know about.
Around these markets one can get some of the best street food that you will ever eat, with out ever having to be worried about what you are going to eat. Each vendor has his cart or just cooks on o grill on the pavement. You also will come across the weird dishes.
In the evening the locals flock to these street eateries, sitting along the side walks drinking beer an eating, relaxing after the hard toiling day in the sun.
During my journey, I found out that the Chinese are not massive meat eaters, but meat does play a big part in the Chinese diet. In the day to day diet, vegetables play the biggest part, and I came across some of the most incredible vegetable dishes, steamed, poached, pickled and fried. But the dishes are not totally vegetarian as most of the vegetable is cooked in chicken stock. The fried dishes are normally cooked in animal fat and the steamed dishes are flavoured with fish and oyster sauces. It was incredible how some of the chefs managed to get the vegetable dishes to imitate meat and seafood with texture and taste. The presentation and cooking methods and flavours in these dishes were some of the best that I have ever tasted.