We've been back from China for five days now, and it seems that everyone we've talked to since we got home has asked the same two questions, in the same order: Did you have a good time? and What did you eat?!
To answer the first question, yes, we had an amazing two weeks! You might be wondering: why China? Well, we have friends stationed in the Foreign Service who have been in Shanghai for nearly two years now. That entire time we've been saying that we'll visit. And since their time in Asia is nearly up, we decided this fall that it was now or never, and plotted a Thanksgiving trip with plans to visit two major cities -- Shanghai and Beijing -- and then flee to the mountains of the South, to a place called Yangshuo.
We had some awesome adventures, and we saw some crazy interesting stuff. (Wanna know three things that are totally hot in China right now? Eyeglasses without lenses, corn on the cob on a stick, and Angry Birds paraphernalia. Seriously. These three items were everywhere we went in the country.)
So what about the food?
For the most part, we loved it! Which is why we want to share with you our favorite meals of the two weeks away. We think these dishes give a good overview of the kinds of food we encountered through the lens of three distinct regional cuisines. The breadth of food we saw and experienced is far greater than these dishes -- just wait for our roundup of the more off-beat food we encountered -- but they were definitely our favorites.
Spoiler alert: there is no General Tso's on this list. We will say, though, that on the whole the Chinese food that we encountered was very reminiscent of American Chinese. There was definitely less fried meat, like the General, sesame chicken, and the like. But eating food in China, you can definitely and easily see how American Chinese food got to where it is today.
We'll start with something definitely unique, the first dinner we had in Shanghai.
1. Uyghur Food
Our friends took us to a Uyghur restaurant on the first night of our trip. Uyghurs (pronounced "WEE-gurs") are Muslim Chinese, an ethnic group with Turkish ancestry. Their culture -- and cuisine -- may not be what you immediately think of as Chinese. Geographically, they're closer to Baghdad than Beijing.
The Uyghur restaurant we went to reminded us a lot of Middle Eastern restaurants we've visited here in the U.S., with tapestries and Islamic flourishes in the decor. There was lots of lamb and lots of cumin, and the dishes that were more traditionally Chinese (like dumplings) incorporated Middle Eastern flavors. There were potatoes in a thin meat sauce, folded buns with grilled lamb and vegetables (pictured above), and a steamed cabbage. To accompany it, we had a traditional Uyghur "black beer," which we thought tasted similar to a cross between a dark beer and a cola.
We loved this meal because it defied our expectations of Chinese cuisine. It was unlike any Chinese we had ever eaten, and really demonstrated that just like cuisine at home, the food in China has its own distinct and regional variations. Also, the menu offered an entire deep fried lamb -- served, you know, whole -- which we thought was a wonderfully crazy idea for a dish.
2. Shanghai Soup Dumplings, "Xiaolongbao"
One of the dishes that we'll remember most from this trip was soup dumplings we ordered in Shanghai. "Xiaolongbao" are a local specialty, and while in Shanghai we ordered them in a bunch of different places. Picture a great dumpling, filled with meat or vegetables, but inside the dough is contained a wonderfully rich and warm soup. It was like eating a meat dumpling and chicken soup at the same time. We were obsessed, and could make an entire meal just out of this dish. If you want to make them at home, Epicurious has a recipe.
3. Vegetarian Lifestyle
It may not have the most imaginative name in the world, but Vegetarian Lifestyle, a restaurant in Shanghai, served us a meal we loved. There are a number of similar restaurants in the city, but the shtick is that they serve vegetarian dishes that appear to be meat. Literally, they were items on the menu such as "vegetarian goose" or "vegetarian beef."
We're not typically interested in veggies masquerading as meat, but we loved this restaurant because it was unlike any vegetarian food we've ever had, partly because it was, well, bizarre. But also because the food was shockingly tasty. We had a kung pao "chicken" (pictured), a sweet ground "pork" and dumplings filled with another meat substitute. But we also had delicious straight-up vegetables, like fried slices of lotus root and a supremely tasty eggplant dish that was somehow reminiscent of a Chinese Parmigiana.
4. Black Pepper Udon with Beef
We'd always thought udon noodles were Japanese, but it turns out they're originally from China! They've apparently "only" been in Japan since the 9th century A.D. Pfft!
We took a day-trip out of Shanghai to the lake town of Hangzhou. (Only in China, by the way, can you refer to a city of 8 million people as a "lake town.") We spent a lovely day walking around the big West Lake in the center of the city, taking a boat out to a serene little island, and enjoying the trees.
And we had a fantastic plate of udon at a restaurant called Grandma's Kitchen. It's actually an insanely popular, fast-growing little chain of restaurants in Hangzhou, and there's apparently always a line out the door. The line was worth it. We had a number of delicious items there, but this Black Pepper Udon was the best.
Hangzhou is an ancient Chinese capital, actually, and people have been coming to stroll along West Lake for millennia. Marco Polo called Hangzhou "the finest and most splendid city in the world." And this udon was a nice reminder that Italian pasta originated in China. The fat wheat noodles, doused in a peppery sauce, were one of our favorite dishes of the trip.
5. Sichuan Green Beans
The single most interesting ingredient we sampled on the trip was definitely Sichuan peppercorns. We had them a few times, always with green beans.
They are crazy! They're not spicy, really, but they have this incredibly odd numbing effect on the mouth. We'd heard about them before, but we'd never actually eaten them. The peppercorns don't impart a ton of flavor, exactly. Sort of a sour, lemony, peppery kick. But the numbing effect is really out-there. It makes your mouth all tingly. If we had to compare it to something, we'd say Pop Rocks, although that's not really a great comparison.
Zach, especially, liked the sensation of the peppercorns (or, we suppose, the lack of sensation). There was something about them that added a whole different dimension to the flavor of the food. Really wild!
6. Beer Fish
We took a cooking class in Yangshuo! It was so much fun!
We spent several hours touring a food market and cooking several different dishes. We learned a lot about wok techniques and Chinese flavorings (watch for us to start putting oyster sauce in everything). Our favorite dish from the day, though, was "beer fish," a regionally popular preparation.
In this case, we used catfish, but our teacher, an awesome local woman whose English name is Jennifer, said she prefers carp when she can get it. The prep is pretty simple, and all in a wok: sear the fish, sear some peppers and tomatoes, cook the fish briefly on top of a bed of the veggies, then braise the whole thing in light beer for a little bit. It was spicy, warm and incredibly tasty.
7. "Mi Fun" Noodles at Breakfast
While we were in Yangshuo, we stayed at an amazing place called the Li River Retreat, and each morning we ate breakfast there. We fell into a serious rut, ordering these noodles for breakfast every day. They were a version of a local favorite dish called "mi fun." It's stir-fried rice noodles doused in an addictive beef oil/soy sauce. Sometimes the mi fun had meat, sometimes just vegetables, but every day they were absolutely delicious. It was definitely not typical breakfast fare for us. (Steel cut oats haven't looked quite the same since we got home.)
So those are the food highlights from our trip! Soon, we'll share some of the wackier food items we encountered, and also take you inside a Chinese market.
Let us know what questions you might have about the food or traveling in China, and we'll address them in the comments or in upcoming posts!