Ten of Yong Chen's Memorable Food Experiences in China

In Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, Yong Chen explores the rise of Chinese food in America and how it became ubiquitous in the American gastronomic landscape. In today’s post, he gives ten of his most memorable experiences dining in China, from specific restaurants to types of dishes.

Ten of Yong Chen’s Memorable Food Experiences in China

1. Ginkgo Sichuan Restaurant, 12 Linjiang Middle Rd Wuhou, Chengdu, Sichuan, China, 610041; 1+ 86 28 8555 5588
For people looking for great food and legendary restaurants in the United States, there are well-known destinations, such as the Napa Valley region and New Orleans. Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, is such as destination in China. It does not have globally renowned celebrity chefs like Thomas Keller and Emeril Lagasse, but it does boast a world famous cuisine and countless fabulous dining establishments. Ginkgo Sichuan Restaurant is one of the best of these establishments. The duck smoked with tea leaves is one its specialties. The skin is crispy, and the seasoning nicely brings out the delicate flavor. Its dan dan noodle soup and the Sichuan-style dumplings uphold the reputation of such signature traditional Sichuan dishes.

2. Donkey Pie
“There is dragon meat in heaven; and there is donkey meat on earth.” I had never heard of this saying or tasted donkey meat until my first visit to China’s Hebei Province in 2009. Donkey meat is a local favorite. A wide range of donkey meat dishes can be found in restaurants: hot pot donkey meat, clay pot donkey, strewed donkey meat, donkey intestines, and donkey penis. A particularly popular food is the donkey pie. It is similar to a sandwich, consisting ground or finely sliced donkey meat between two buns with green onions and other vegetable. But all of the donkey pie is baked with the stuffing. It tastes better than a typical American beef sandwich. Numerous local people proudly told me that donkey was healthier than beef. (Scientific research actually does show, for example, that the total mineral content is higher in donkey meat than in beef.)

3. Mushrooms in Yunnan
Another great destination for unforgettable food experiences, Yunnan is a southern Chinese province, bordering Tibet and Sichuan provinces and Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Lateral-spatially, it has three climate zones: temperate zone, sub-tropical, and tropical, as well as mountains that are perennially covered by snow. The province’s extraordinary biodiversity has created a rich culinary tradition and a multitude of foodstuffs. One of my memorable experiences in Yunnan comes from savoring a multitude of mushrooms.

One of them is ji cong, or the termite mushroom. When put in a stir fry or soup, it adds a lingering savory taste to the dish. Song rong (matsutake) is a delicacy, used almost solely as a flavor enhancer in upscale Japanese restaurants in California. But in restaurants in Yunnan you can order stir fry dishes, soups, and hot pots that feature this mushroom as the main ingredient. Domestic production of song rong has driven down the price significantly. Another mushroom to taste is the morel mushroom, known locally as yang du jun or sheep belly mushroom because of its shape. Local people told me that it is one of the most expensive mushrooms in Yunnan because its production has not been domesticated. A local friend in the city of Lijiang generously invited me to a hot pot dinner highlighting this delicacy. However, for both economic and gastronomic reasons, it is better used in small quantities in soups or stir fry dishes. Lately, my wife and I have discovered that it is best when made as a morel mushroom risotto.

4. Da Pai Dang in Jiqing Jie Street, Wuhan, Hubei Province
“Da Pai Dang” refers not to a particular restaurant but a series of cooked food stalls lining both sides of the street. Standing in sharp contrast of lavish consumption in China’s urban restaurant markets, this type of street food has become a conspicuous feature in many cities, serving as a vivid reminder that the country’s rapid economic expansion has not significantly improved social equality. It is frequented by local residents and migrant workers. Much like early Chinese restaurants, da pai dang’s business starts late in the evening and lasts well into the night. Established in the 1980s, the dan pai dang in Jiqing Jie is one of the oldest and most famous in China. Over the years, it has evolved into a local attraction. My guide told me that he had taken celebrity singers from Hong Kong there on occasion. The vendors offered a wide range of local dishes, including spare ribs in lotus soup, cool noodles, steamed soupy buns, and dou pi (a mixture of glutinous rice, mushrooms, and port or seafood sandwiched between two tofu skins). Even more memorable than food was the noise coming from customers chatting, vendors aggressively promoting their food, and street artist performing for the diners. The government’s efforts to gentrify the place in recent years have tuned down the chaos as well as the excitement that came along with it.

5. Peking Duck Made in China
Americans Chinese restaurant-goers are no stranger to the famous Peking duck. For decades, the place to go for this internationally renowned dish has been Beijing’s Quanjude. The Peking duck that Premier Zhou Enlai served as the banquet for Kissinger during the 1971 trip to China came from this restaurant. It has since opened multiple branches throughout the city. The Peking duck served at different locations maintains a remarkable level of consistency in both appearance and taste. The evenly roasted skin not only creates a royal purplish red color but also adds a contrasting texture to the tender meat underneath it.

Today, this longstanding establishment has serious competitors. One of them is a restaurant named Made in China, known among the Chinese as Changan Number 1, a cozy dining place on the first floor of Grand Hyatt Beijing on the busy Changan Avenue near Tianmen Square. Compared to a Quanjude store, it is quieter and feels more like a family restaurant. The silently elegant ambiance does not compete with the food for your attention. The open kitchen allows customers to see the ducks hung in the oven. The wood-roasted duck has a subtle fruity aroma. And you can still dip the duck skin in sugar just like people did decades ago. Besides, the restaurant’s beggar’s chicken is well worth another trip.

6. Hot pot
This is something that the great Chinese epicurean Yuan Mei strongly discouraged because, he said, it paid no attention to the timing of cooking. But it has since remained a popular way of cooking, especially in winter time. In my childhood, my family ate together quite often around a hot pot on the stove. My mother used it to take care of the leftovers while keeping everyone warm in winter. In Beijing the popularity of hot pot goes back at least to the late Qing and the Republican period. In the 1980s the city’s indisputably best place for hot pot was Donglaishun’s lamb [the Chinese American cookbook writer Buwei Yang Chao called it “rinsed lamb”]. Like Quanjude’s Peking duck, it was a food to desire and crave. The finely sliced lamb was extremely tender, and the house special sauce blending five different favors was as good and as famous.

In recent decades, the popularity of hot pot has soared, spinning off different varieties across the country, featuring diverse foods like mushrooms, pork, beef, tofu, crow fish, crab, and shrimp. Through the boiling hot pot, we can see the confluence of regional culinary tradition. As a way of cooking, it is found in upscale restaurants as well as in open street dining. In the summer of 2010, the son of a family friend took me to a hot pot place for dinner in Beijing in a Honda Civic that had been transformed to look and drive like a race car. It is a Ding Ding Xiang franchise, one of his favorite restaurants. He liked hot pot, he said, because “you have your own pot and can put in the kinds of ingredients you like. It is just like how you can modify you car to fit your taste and express personality.” This comment shed refreshing insight into the rising popularity of hot pot: perhaps it represents a growing pursuit of individuality in a society that for centuries has valued the interest of the collective far more than that of the individual.

7. Fuzimiao (meaning “Confucian Temple” in Chinese), Nanjing.
I learned during my first visit to Fuzimiao about ten years ago that its history goes back to the eleventh century in the Song Dynasty as a place to worship Confucius. Over the centuries, it existed as a school site. In the late twentieth century, it emerged as a bustling market for local snack foods, such as eggs boiled in tea and soy sauce, sliced dry tofu in sesame oil, spiced lima beans, crispy pies baked with duck oil, and the legendary Nanjing duck. For about one hundred MRB, customers could order a set of all the famous “Qinhuai ba jue” or the eight best of the Qinhuai River and more to enjoy a meal reminiscent of the Cantonese dim sum.

The Fuzimiao food market signifies a national trend. Such markets are also found in many other cities, such as Shanghai’s Chenghuang Miao Temple and Wuhan’s Hubuxiang Alley. The mushrooming of such markets represents a deliberate effort to articulate a local distinctive identity by businesses and governments of major Chinese cities. An effective vehicle in such efforts, vendors of local dishes are clustered together and repackaged. In such markets, out-of-town visitors mingle with local residents. These markets also magnify the tension between a resilient consciousness that attempts to preserve local traditions and modernizing forces that are rapidly advancing the uniforminity among regions.

8. Maotai
More than a decade ago, I strongly recommended maotai to my friend Dave before his first trip to China. Upon his return to California, he remembered the famous Chinese liquor: “it was so strong and so expensive; but it was darn good.” All the adjectives he used were right on the money for describing the drink. The extraordinary growth of consumerism in China has sent the price of maotai through the roof. In 2011 a 500 ml bottle could cost more than two hundred U.S. dollars. The aged ones are far more expensive. Lauren Hilgers of the Daily Beast called it “the world’s only socialist luxury brand.” Undoubtedly a symbol of luxury and status, it is nonetheless far from being merely socialist. It already achieved national and global brand recognition in the Qing and in Republic China. Besides my friend Dave, others Americans, notably Nixon and Kissinger, have also impressed by it. In a conversation with Deng Xiaoping in 1974, Kissinger said: “I think if we drink enough maotai we can solve anything.”

The national drink has acquired a bad rap in recent years because people associate it with corruption. But political complications do not take away its extraordinary quality as an alcoholic beverage. It is made out of sorghum, wheat, and the water from the Chishui River in the town of Maotai in Guizhou Province, and although its alcohol content is often over 50%, the taste is always mild and mellow. It has a distinctively elegant fragrance that lingers in the air and inside the mouth. I am fortunate to be able to have some good maotai during my trips to China because of the generosity of friends–not only is it inhibitively expensive for me but a genuine bottle is extremely difficult to come by. One such friend is Ms. Li. When my family and I were in Fuzhou in 2004, she invited us to the Lakeside Hotel for dinner and brought several bottles of maotai that had been sitting in her closet since the late 1980s. The humble appearance of these bottles has no resemblance to the over-packaged glitzy ones produced in recent years, but that was the best maotai I have ever tasted.

9. Bohea tea
Americans visiting to China to explore history ought to spend some time savoring tea. It was the earliest made-in-China commodity for mass consumption in the modern Western world. And it was such a coveted beverage in 17th-century America that the British Parliament’s attempt to increase the taxes on it turned colonial tea drinkers into revolutionaries.

Some categorize tea into six kinds: 1, green teas, such as the West-Lake dragon well; 2. fermented black (red) teas, such as the congo; 3, semi-fermented oolongs, like the expensive tea that the Chinese call “big red robe”; 4, dark teas, the most famous of which is the pu er in Yunnan; 5, white teas like the white peony; and 6, yellow teas such as the Jun Mountain silver needle. One of the teas that I fell in love with during my 2004 trip to Fujian Province is Bohea, which is used in reference to teas grown in the Wuyi Mountains. It was one of the “principal teas” that British merchants shipped to England. The English poet Lord Byron wrote in his Don Juan:
I feel my heart become so sympathetic,
That I must have recourse to black Bohea;
‘Tis pity wine should be so deleterious,
For tea and coffee leave us much more serious.

Americans have been drinking a great deal of coffee since the nineteenth century, but good tea is more delicate than coffee. Bohea is worth trying as an example of tea’s aromatic and historical richness. The tea water usually has an orange-red color. My favorite Bohea tea is Lapsang Souchong, a black tea which has a very mellow taste sometimes with a subtle cinnamon-like aroma. Good Bohea tea is available in established tea houses in major cities. To make it at home, use hot water (around 80-90℃), but do not let the tea leaves soak the water longer than a minute. As the Qing Chinese cookbook writer Yuan Mei pointed out, Bohea has a soothing and calming effect, with a thicker flavor and fuller body than the famous green tea called “dragon well.”

10. Hometown food under the pagoda of Enshi
Enshi, my native town, is located in the mountainous region of Southwest Hubei Province. I spent most of my childhood there. In the summer of 2011 when my cousin Wen Jing heard that I had not been back there in 27 years, she and her boss put me on a train, and together we arrived in Enshi the next day. The street free market at the center of the town, the little noodle joint at the bridge over a creek, and my childhood playground and my family’s apartments were all long gone. A business partner of my companions took us to lunch at a place located on the slope of on the Wufeng Mountain, a few hundred yards beneath the pagoda. It was inside the residence of a peasant family, which followed a growing national trend known as “nong jia le” (an eating variation of agrientertainment) by opening a small restaurant. We order several local foods. One of them is he zha (soy milk soup with sliced vegetables), a dish rich in protein and vitamin and easier to make than tofu, that has long been a vital element in poor families’ diets. Zha guang jiao (cornmeal mixed with ground red chilli pepper), sour and spicy, has also been a mainstay in that diet. The pine-wood-smoked pork reminded me of the smoke coming out of the stove, as mother made her own ham before the lunar New Year. Here, I finally found the aroma of the China of my childhood that I had been looking for since 1997.

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