Friday, May 1, 2009

The Chinese eat early and they eat long. Dinner normally starts at 6 pm and lasts until just past eight. When they eat out, which is often (when I went there, just before the Olympics last year, China was booming and everyone had a lot of money), they order one dish of every kind.
All the food is placed on a rotating glass top at the centre of the table and everybody gets a set of chopsticks. As the glass top is rotated slowly, you can reach in and pluck out of a bowl whatever you want. Only if the dish absolutely demands it do you serve food in a plate of your own. Otherwise the glass top keeps rotating and you keep picking.
At the end of the meal you always realised that too much was ordered. So do you pack the food and take it home or to give it away to someone? Don’t you suggest it; except among the younger crowd, that suggestion is frowned upon.
I wonder if the recession has made the Chinese more prudent at the dinner table.

Ever so healthy
For all the excess, food habits of the Chinese are rather healthy. Apart from the obvious benefits of an early dinner, there was the fact that almost all their preparations were saut├ęs that used minimal oil and subtle spices or were grilled and roasted. I don’t think I had a single fried dish during the trip. The vegetarian dishes were especially good. Now before you raise an eyebrow – yes, I too have heard vegetarians complain about the lack of food options they face in China; but I think they just didn’t look in the right places. I came back particularly impressed with the Chinese preparations of a variety of greens, right from spinach and asparagus to rape and many types of beans, all cooked in a way that retained their original flavour and crunchiness.

When in Rome…
I’m a great believer in local food. I think it is one of the best ways to experience a place and in keeping with that, I avoided the KFCs and the Pizza Huts like the plague. (Except on one memorable occasion, when I wondered into a hot pot joint unknowingly. The menu was completely in Chinese, so the waitress and I decided via an extensive dumb charades that I should be taken to the kitchen to point at the foods I want to eat. When I got there, I discovered that there was no cooking stove there. The so-called kitchen was only a space where raw foods were cleaned and cut and put in bowls that were served at tables along with a personal pot of boiling water. I beat a hasty retreat and found my way to the nearest Pizza Hut).
The range of street food available was mind-boggling. For one there were the many types of dim sums, from the famous rice cakes of Xian (thick doughy creations) to the towers of dim sum steamed in bamboo containers that I found outside Yu Yuan garden in Shanghai.
At places like Beijing’s Wangfujing Street, there were the candy sticks of meat, like kebab skewers, some a little too bizarre for even me to experiment with. Starting from marinated bits of meat, to live scorpions and even a sea horse (which I almost tried, except it was too cute). For vegetarians, there were candied grapes and cherries, which were delicious.

Facing my nemesis
If I thought I was done with the hotpot though, I was wrong. The culmination of my Chinese food trail was my second encounter with that stove of boiling water. Tickled silly by my dad’s recounting of my experience at the hotpot joint, a friend of his decided I should get a guided tour. So he took us to his favourite joint in Jiangyin, about two hours outside of Shanghai, and sat us down to a table of raw food. I made the mistake of mentioning my fondness for seafood, so a lot of the raw food on the table came from the ocean’s depths and a fair amount of it was still alive. (If you don’t believe me, go see the video.)
Brown shrimps jumped in their jug, making water splash out on my arm. On a bed of ice, there was a clam-like thing, shell on one side and sinuously-moving mass of flesh on the other. My voice was several octaves higher as I asked our host, “I’m, ulpp, supposed to eat this?”
As he replied in the affirmative, I chose from a tray the ganishings that would go into my stove of boiling water – some garlic flakes, coriander, and chilli, a few dried prawns and a pinch of salt. I decided to take things slow, so first to go into my pot were a bunch of leafy greens that turned out tasting incredible. Emboldened by this early success, the shrimps went in next, jumping and dancing their way into the stove where they were covered and allowed to cook. (Can bubbling in a bowl of hot water with some salt and garlic for a minute be called cooking?) They turned a bright orange and actually tasted quite delightful.
The big hurdle was still to come though. The unnamed clam thing went into the pot next. It gurgled and bubbled loudly, and I jumped with each sound. In less than a minute, it wound up in my plate, and I heard myself asking plaintively, “Are you sure it’s cooked?”
Yes, yes. My fears were dismissed and the object was cut and served. Suffice it to say that it was chewy and tasted like an entire glass of water (which I gulped down with it). With that the ice was broken, and I could begin to enjoy the meal. There was sliced fish, oyster and chicken, and I have to admit that the food was very delicious and super healthy (no fears of too much oil, or overcooking and losing all the minerals eh?).

Parting words
If reading this has convinced you that local food is the way to go, then my work’s done. But before we part, as a cautionary tale, here’s the recipe for a dish that was really popular in China a few years back and I didn’t try.

Drunken Prawns

Put a dozen live prawns in a pitcher of vodka.
Leave covered for a couple of hours.
Use tongs to pick out a prawn, place deep inside mouth and then, with a backward jerk of your head, swallow.

Clearly, not all local foods should be tried.

Food on a stick: candied fruits above, and scorpions and sea horses below.

Seafood. The cooked varied above and the raw type below.


Hot pot fodder. Before (below) and after (above) the one minute of boiling in water that passes for cooking.

* A version of this will be printed in the Hindustan Times tomorrow