Chopsticks and the glorious Hot Pot
The first thing people ask me when they hear I am in a foreign country is "Do you like the food?" This basic question can yield a complicated answer. So far I haven't sampled even a tenth of the cuisine that this country has to offer. Each region has their own specialties that are rich in flavor and texture. Shanghainese food is known for being sweet, mildly spiced, and oily. When I traveled to Jingdezhen the food was similar but usually more spicy. It wasn't unbearably hot, like Szechuan cuisine, but it could sneak up on you if you weren't paying attention. From what I have tried I haven't found a taste that I don't like. I do try to avoid foods that are created with processes that have toxic byproducts. For instance, one type of preserved black egg has traces of lead in it from the plaster curing process that is used to make it. As much as I have tried to convince my coworkers that anything with lead in it is bad they still gobble it up when our Ayi prepares our lunch.
The restaurants that I find most entertaining are called Hot Pots. There are hundreds of them in the city. The general idea is that you cook meat and vegetables in a boiling broth that is heavily spiced. This fondue-like cooking process extends the meal to be an hour or more. The pictures above show our plates full of fresh mushrooms, seaweed, and a variety of soy products. Each restaurant has a buffet of dipping sauces that the food can be dunked in right after it comes out of the pot. My favorite is a Chinese BBQ sauce that is less sweet but more complex than the American version.
Pictured are my friends Eric and Guo. They are sitting at one end of the table with the hot pot between them. Each table can have two or more electric hotplates built into their surfaces. This makes cooking, eating, and talking very comfortable for large groups. On this night there was a group of Chinese business man having a dinner behind us. It was an absolute spectacle. The table of twenty was rowdy and excited to be together after what must of been a long day at the office. They came to the restaurant ready to eat with cases of beer under their arms. Every ten minutes a toast was proposed, which was then followed by at least two members of the group engaging in a chug off. As the night went on the table got progressively louder until they noticed me looking at them and began to shout "Chinese Man" as they beat their chests like King Kong. It was hilarious.
This competitive spirit is built into this style of eating. Each time I have gone to a hot pot there are moments where my friends are challenging each other to eat ridiculous combinations of food. "Seaweed + spinach +cilantro + fish balls + Hot Sauce. OK now you try hot sauce + mushrooms..." You can see Guo about to drop an octopus into the pot. When cooked right it is slightly firm and delicious. The craziest thing I have eating so far has been cow intestines. I was a little scared at first but shocked that they weren't that bad.
One surprise for me has been my new found love of eating with chop sticks.With a spoon you can shovel food into your body faster than your stomach can realize what is happening. As time passes you become overly full because you were eating too fast to notice your bodies signals telling you that you have had enough. Chop sticks circumvent this problem by making you eat smaller bites. This is a much slower and more enjoyable way to get food into your body. As a side note, China traditionally combats hunger in its massive population with large scale rice production. My friend says "Chinese might be poor but everyone eats rice every day."
Here is a snippet on Hot Pot history from Chinatownconnection.com. For the full post click here.
(The hot pot (huokuo) has a long history in China. It originated in the north, where people have to fend off the chill early in the year. It spread to the south during the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906). Later, northern nomads who settled in China enhanced the pot with beef and mutton, and southerners did the same with seafood. In the Ching dynasty, the hot pot became popular throughout the whole area of China.