Continuing on my nascent series on various cuisines discovered over the years while traveling, I am a bit late writing about China having visited there back in September, but the food memories are fresh enough in my mind to share a few things with you. The first thing I want to say is that, like Indian food as well, what passes for Chinese food in the West (moo goo gai pan, chop suey, and egg foo young do not exist in China – at least in 6 visits to that country, I have never come across anything remotely resembling anything that I have eaten in a “Chinese” restaurant in the US or France or wherever. The food over there is served usually in a more family style where everyone at the table samples a little bit of what ever is on the revolving disk in the center of the table or – as shown in the photo – everyone cooks their meat in a common hot pot in the center of the table. Eating is a very communal thing in China (not unlike here in France actually) and usually consists of several courses punctuated with beer or wine. The flavors and textures tend to be very, very different from anything you are used to as a westerner. And while it is true that there are some things eaten in China that we would avoid in the west, I have never really run into that situation either. There are lots of chicken based dishes where the chicken is not de-boned so there is a lot of sucking sounds while eating – and it is not considered rude at all (as shocking as it may be the first time for the non-initiated). The spices are also quite different and nearly impossible to describe. I can say that it ranges from “I don’t really understand quite what I am eating and I don’t know if I like it or not” to “this is delicious” to “holy shit this is spicy!”.
Speaking of spicy, that is one of the items in the subject line of today’s article: “na” means spicy in Chinese. I had loads of na during each of my trips particularly the one to Beijing in September, and I have always enjoyed spicy food. There was something I noticed however this time around: I’d take a bit and suddenly half my mouth would go a weird sort of numb on me. That, my friends is “ma” (pronounced with a diving and rising a maa-ah). The English translation is Sichuan peppercorn and it is a spice very common in Sichuan food (a specialty really) that was in most of the dishes I tasted from hot pots to soups to beef dishes, etc. I have not found it here in Paris or in the US but then, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for before. My impression is that they have some ma so that they can eat loads of na before the anaesthetic effect wears off. It is quite bizarre the first time you try it because you aren’t really sure if your mouth is on fire or if you actually feel nothing at all (probably because you had both ma and na in the same mouthful). I was told that there are restaurants specializing in recipes that stretch the ma sensation to some interesting effects but I’ll need to go back to China again to check that out.
I mentioned hot pots and would STRONGLY suggest that if you are traveling in China sometime, the chain Hai Li Pao Hot Pot (based in Chengdu but located nearly everywhere in China) is reasonably priced with extraordinary service and features delicious hot pot both in a ma-na version and a no-ma/no-na version that they usually serve to westerners. The first photo in this article is from Hai Li Pao. The noodle ninja dude is totally cool to watch as well. A second, more expensive suggestion for another chain (this one based in Shanghai but spread out everywhere) is South Beauty. Chances are that if you are in China on a business trip, you Chinese colleagues will invite you to a meal at South Beauty – for Hai Li Pao, you’ll need to ask them as they would not assume that you’d enjoy that as well.
One thing to watch out for a a sole westerner with a Chinese crowd in a restaurant is an amusing little game that they call one-on-0ne. In a restaurant in China, folks order one of three drinks: beer (almost always some light lager brewed locally – Tsing Tao is NOT one that is really served in China), poor quality red wine, and some really heinous Chinese yellow wine (bitter and heavy in alcohol, I suppose it is popular in China because it is cheap and easy to cop a buzz after a glass or two). Some bottles are shown here – it is used for both cooking and drinking (never a good sign) and runs at just under 20% alcohol content. The game one-on-one basically consists of every member of the dinner party coming over to salute you (thanks for coming to China, etc, etc) and then chugging whatever they are drinking with them. So, you will end up having several beers, several glasses of red wine, and – particularly if you are unlucky – several glasses of yellow wine. I got a little lucky because out of a party of 16, there were three Chinese women that didn’t drink as well as several practicing Hindus (also teetotalers) so I “only” had 11 straight bottoms-up including three particularly difficult-to-keep-down glasses of yellow wine. I never tried the “drink a bottle of olive oil” trick that they used to talk about when going out in Moscow, but this may have been a good occasion to try it.