Responding to your requests on Instagram, here is the article about my experience with Chinese food. This summer, as I told you, I spent two weeks in Shanghai and Hong Kong and I was able to learn a lot about their gastronomy!
Chinese cuisine is a festival of spices, of intense and sweet and sour flavors, of spicy explosions. It is not suitable for weak stomachs, nor for those who are only looking for simple dishes. The knowledge we have of it is quite wrong. We know the spring rolls, the three delights rice and little else, and most of what we try here does not resemble what is in China.
In this post I tell you curiosities that have surprised me, its most famous dishes and also where to eat good Chinese food in Barcelona, for those of you who do not want to travel so far. Ah! And a special thanks to the podcast A walk through Shanghai, which I discovered by chance and helped me a lot to make the most of the trip. I totally recommend it if you decide to travel to this city.
Curiosities: what surprised me about Chinese food?
You eat with chopsticks, obviously. But you have to take into account that it is not well seen to poke the food with them, nor to pick it up with the hand. In most restaurants you won’t see cutlery on the table by default, and we didn’t ask for it anywhere. Maybe if they see that you are a Westerner and have no skill, they feel sorry for you…
They eat almost everything from animals. On restaurant menus you will see dishes with all parts of the animal: fish head, fried chicken feet, kidneys, lungs, turtle (whole) and even brains. And seeing the pictures on the menu is not nice at all… I saw in many places turtle, and they put it there sprawled on the picture. What a pity…
There are a lot of vegetables and they prioritize fresh over frozen. They usually accompany them with sweet and thick sauces, sweet and sour or slightly salty thanks to the use of soy. They also love vinegared and preserved vegetables.
Many of their dishes are spicy, especially the cuisine of the Sichuan region, so if you don’t like spicy food, you’d better ask. Oh, and their tolerance level is much higher than yours, so be careful: if it indicates that the level of spiciness is low, don’t trust it.
Chicken, fish and seafood are usually marinated with different liquors before cooking and accompanied by sugary and sticky sauces. Braised eel is a great example, accompanied by a delicious thick brown sauce. I had always been pretty disgusted by it, until a couple of years ago when I decided to try it in a Japanese restaurant, and I was amazed at how delicious it is.
Hot water (yes, plain water) and hot tea are the usual drinks. It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, the drink always comes scalding hot. In many restaurants they serve it for free, and it is advisable to take advantage of this because drinks are expensive, sometimes costing the same as a plate. Except for Coca Cola, beers and bottled water can cost 5-6 euros or more depending on the restaurant.
Drinking juices or soft drinks with meals is something the Chinese don’t usually do. They drink them separately, between meals, on the street… That is why you will see many juice, smoothie and bubble tea take away stalls on the street.
Soups occupy an important place in Chinese cuisine and you will find them in almost every restaurant. Beef, fish, chicken… They are served with or without noodles, with or without wonton. Wonton soup is one of the most typical dishes.
In China it is common to have many different dishes on the table, especially in group meals and with the family. So you can try a bit of everything, and always with rice as a side dish. Look at the group tables in restaurants, it’s amazing how much food they have!
They make noise while eating, and we saw that in many restaurants, because that means they are enjoying the food. The more noise, the more enjoyment, so it is common to find Chinese people in restaurants making a lot of noise when slurping soup and noodles. It is also said that they do it to cool the dishes when eating them…
Take any leftovers with you in a tupper. In absolutely EVERY restaurant, expensive or cheap, it is common to ask for a tupper to take what you have not eaten. They won’t look at you funny if you ask for it, don’t worry.
Typical Chinese dishes that you have to taste
Xiaolongbao, explosions of flavor
It is one of the most common dishes in Chinese gastronomy. Small buns made of flour and water that are steamed in a bamboo basket. Its dough is very thin, translucent and not opaque like other types of dumplings.
They are usually filled with soup and pork, or soup with seafood, although there are also versions with vegetables. As they are soggy inside, when you bite into them there is a small explosion in your mouth.
Shaomai, stuffed bags
Shaomai is a type of dim sum in the shape of a sack, open at the top so that the filling can be seen, which can be pork or lamb, shrimp or mushrooms. It is always accompanied with soy sauce, to dip them to taste.
Dumplings, a must in every meal
Boiled or fried, dumplings are present in any Chinese restaurant menu. They are usually stuffed with pork and vegetables, but you can also find them stuffed with shrimp, duck or vegetables.
We tried them both steamed and grilled, which is the way I like them best. Highly recommended are the ones from Ajisen Ramen restaurant (several locations in Shanghai) and the ones from Tim Ho Wan restaurant, the cheapest Michelin Star restaurant in the world, by the way.
Hot Pot, the social food of China
The hot pot is one of the favorite dishes of the Chinese, although to say “dish” is an understatement. Eating a hot pot is a social event, and the variety of dishes that make it up is impressive. We tried it at the Haidilao Hot Pot restaurant, with several locations in Shanghai, and found it to be quite an experience.