We recently returned from a two week, organized tour of China. The cultural icons, Bejing, Xian (the terra cotta army), Guilin, Chongqin, a short cruise on the Li river and a longer cruise on the Yang-tse river and lastly, Shanghai. Before, during and after our trip, friends, knowing our interest in food, asked about what exotic, luxurious or funky foods we would/are/had eaten. The truth be told, most of the food on the trip was OK but not exotic, not luxurious and mostly not funky.
What dictated most of our food experiences was the necessity of feeding 27 people in short order and on a budget. Imagine that you were responsible for feeding 27 mostly retired people, from widely different backgrounds, three times a day, on a budget. Where would you take them? Not some cute little bistro. Not some funky roadside eatery. Not some haute cuisine, white table cloth restaurant. You’d probably end up in a place equipped and practiced at feeding people en masse.
Without fail, when we arrived wherever we’d be having lunch or dinner (breakfast was always a buffet at the hotel we were staying at – more about breakfast in another post) we’d be ushered to three large round tables each with seating for 9.
In the center would be a large (3-4 feet in diameter) glass Lazy Susan.
The places would be set with a small plate (what we’d probably call a side plate in the US), a small bowl (think of something suitable for ice cream or fruit salad), a porcelain Chinese-style spoon, a china tea-cup, a small (6 to 8 oz. or so) glass and a pair of chop sticks. There might be a fork in deference to our assumed Western clumsiness with chop sticks, or not. Napkins would be in a single package similar to those packages of Kleenex you might carry in a purse. The napkins were small and thin.
One of the wait staff would appear and ask if you wanted water, soda (usually Sprite but sometimes cola) or beer. You would only get one glass of beer with the meal – additional beer would cost 21 yuan (about $3.50) for a 600 ml bottle.
Then the food would start to appear. The waitress would deliver a plate of something and place it on the Lazy Susan. Shortly another dish or maybe two would appear. There would be little ceremony or announcement – the plates would just be placed on the turn table.
There were rarely serving spoons. Mostly we used the china spoon from our place setting to serve ourselves. Eventually we would end up with 8 – 11 different dishes on the Lazy Susan. Somewhere in the sequence, usually 3 or 4 dishes into the meal, a large bowl of soup (with or without a ladle) would appear. Somewhere in the sequence a large bowl of rice would appear (with a serving utensil). Sometimes the rice came early in the sequence. At least once it came very near the end. Eventually, without fail, a plate of watermelon slices would be presented, signaling the arrival of “dessert” and the end of the meal. By this time there were more dishes on the Lazy Susan than there was room to accommodate them without piling them on each other.
And what was on these dishes? There was always some chicken stir fried with some vegetable. There was often some beef and/or pork dish. Sometimes the dish was generously meaty. Sometimes the meat was a seasoning for the vegetables that made up the bulk of the dish. Sometimes there was a shrimp dish. Tofu appeared at almost every meal, sometimes in multiple forms. There were always some ostensibly vegetarian dish. The soups tended to be light broths with something floating in the broth – they were always fairly simple and had a minimum of ingredients. With the exception of a Peking Duck dinner, no dish had a name or at least not one we’d recognize from a Chinese/American restaurant menu. They might have had names that placed them inside of some standard Chinese culinary structure but we never heard them. Very few ingredients were identified. Some could be divined from their appearance or taste but some were mysteries. Asking our guide, Zhang, would usually reveal that the little football-shaped things were turnips or the beige sheets were bean curd skins. Occasionally the answer would be “I don’t know”. At one meal which featured 18 different kinds of dumplings at least 4 were identified by the waitress as pork, one as ham, one as fish, one as shrimp, one as chicken and one as vegetable but no description beyond the main protein ingredient. The others are lost to memory or weren’t identified.
For at least two meals we went to a “Wedding Center”. It makes sense. A wedding center can accommodate large groups at one sitting. Wherever we ate, wedding center or restaurant, the establishment was able to accommodate our group without pushing tables together. They were equipped and ready to seat us in large groups. Actually, that’s the way most of the Chinese eating in those same restaurants ate. I don’t think I ever saw a table with just two people. It was always groups of at least 5 or 6 and they often included children. Again, it makes sense. The Chinese restaurant isn’t set up to serve individual portions and the Chinese people, from what we saw, eat family style. There are no “courses” in the Western format of salad, soup, entrée and dessert. The “dishes” seem to appear as they are finished in the kitchen and which everyone eats from communally.
Was what we ate authentic? Yes, I guess so, in the way a Wisconsin church-hall wedding reception of broasted chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, bread dressing with poultry seasoning and white sheet cake is authentic American. What we ate, for the most part, represented a narrow slice of Chinese cuisine. Was it the best of Chinese cuisine? No, but it wasn’t presented in that way. It was food – lunch or dinner – quickly served to hungry people on the move. The food was always filling and tasty and there was always more than we could eat – not to say we didn’t finish one or two of the dishes while barely touching others.
All that being said, there were some noteworthy dishes amongst the sameness of the meals which I’ll visit in another post.
In answer to my earlier questions –
What do the Chinese call Chinese food? I think they call it food.
Was it what I expected? Yes, No, Not really. With a few exceptions, it seemed kind of generic.
Was it authentic? Yes. I saw Chinese people eating it every day.