It would be impossible to choose one particular favourite dish or favourite meal I’ve had since I’ve been here, so instead I’ll just describe the best few, and by the end you’ll all be hungry and also eager to come to China.
There was one particular restaurant that we kept going back to – Sophie and Rachel went five times in three weeks – where the owner spoke English and all the dishes were either covered in syrupy sauce, or crisp and fried, or sometimes both. The menu was all in Mandarin and had no pictures so it could have been so hit and miss but in all the times we went there wasn’t a single thing I didn’t enjoy. It also helped that it was BYOB – 40p beers from the shop across the road went very well with every meal.
One of our go-to favourites there was the fried aubergine dish that we had every time we went was enough to make me actually like aubergines, which I’ve always previously thought were a rather pointless vegetable, like courgettes. On request, the waiter guy also recommended that we try this incredible caramelised potato dish: imagine a kind of toffee-apple type scenario, except with potato, and completely fresh – the caramel was so hot that you had to dunk it in water before you ate it unless you fancied searing the skin off the roof of your mouth.
One of my other favourite types of meal was something called ‘hotpot’. Essentially each table received a pot of boiling broth on a hot plate at the start of the meal, of which you could choose the flavour and spiciness, and you ordered various plates of stuff to cook in it. You fill up a bowl with sauces of your choice (sesame and peanut were the best) and once the stuff is cooked you dunk it in the sauce and enjoy. Because of the way you only add one or two plates of stuff at a time, you had to be very adept with chopsticks if you wanted to make sure you got enough of the most recent addition to the pot – as soon as the meat stopped being red it was a race to grab it out of the water. They also had this strange way of creating shrimp or pork balls: they served you a rectangular platter of what was essentially meat paste (I won’t lie, it resembled nothing more than pale vomit), and using a spoon you shaped them into balls before dropping them into the pot. Looked gross, tasted incredible.
A real candidate for my favourite meal of the trip was at the beginning of this week, where I tagged along with one of the groups and their buddies to go to a street barbecue, Chinese-style. If I enjoyed the first foray into street food on Ferong street in the first week, it was nothing to how much I loved this. It was heaven: dozens of different meats on sticks! (I’m very easily pleased). But seriously. It was spicy, fresh and sizzling, just off the barbecue, and just so so so tasty. Even though once again we were reminded of the real emphasis on ‘waste not want not’ in China – we definitely sampled tendon, and also something which I think Yi Chen said was bone marrow, or at least something related to bones. Anyway, as ever I try everything once, and the flavour more than made up for the questionable texture. The meal was also very much complemented by the large and manifold pitchers of very easy-drinking beer. Suffice it to say we were all very jolly by the end of that meal, what with the many cries of “ganbei” and us generally feeling that it would be rude not to. Brilliant brilliant evening.
In the last week we also got the chance to sample South Korean food, which is apparently quite popular in China. It was the first time I’d had cheese in China – admittedly not much of it, and it was no cheddar, but it was very much appreciated. It was also the first time I’d been out for a meal and been given an individual dish – I guess that’s how they do things in Korea. All the dishes were served in a kind of metal bowl, still sizzling, and you had to mix everything round to stop the rice from burning on the hot bowl, and to make the cheese melt. It was awesome, though very different to reconcile my patience/hunger with the fact that the food was obviously burning hot (sigh, life is full of complications).
I guess you could say that I’m going to miss the food in China. I’m a bit disappointed that the lure of McDonald’s has got to me a couple of times, and Pizza Hut once (I blame the company I was in) – because really junk food Chinese-style is way better than regular junk food.
Though I’m looking forward to the promise of simple things like cheese on toast, spag bol and mashed potato, I can guarantee that in a week I’ll be craving chopsticks and dumplings and egg fried rice. Mmmmmmm egg fried rice.