My earliest memories of Chinese food are not those of a quick trip to Panda Express with a mall full of squealing kids and the sound of anxious footsteps. Instead, I’m taken back to the smell of fried noodles, freshly steamed Char Siu Baos (buns with barbecued pork), the delicious aroma of garlic and chicken, and the salty savory sauce of Black Bean Spareribs. Although I realize our trip to China will not be days of a three entrée plate of Kung Pao Chicken, Fried Rice, and Egg Rolls, I have a secret hope of plates filled with Bok Choy, Chinese Broccoli, Shumai, Tofu, Baos (dumplings) with coconut filling, and Egg Tarts. Since the dishes of Northern China are very different from those of my Cantonese Popo, I embark on the following observations:
1) As with any foreign country, what looks good on the menu may not taste the best. A few times we order seemingly delicious noodle dishes only to find disappointment. Lesson learned: Also order the questionable-looking item, it may be the best thing on the menu.
2) Perhaps having been in many Chinese banquets has de-sensitized me from seeing chicken and fish heads, but I come to find that you can’t disguise seafood and expect me not to cringe when I taste it. I’m all in favor of just diving in and taking a bite, but I can’t bite into a piece shrimp and convince myself it’s tofu.
3) What I wasn’t prepared for: lots of dishes with tomato, cabbage, potatoes, and cucumber. I don’t think we’re in China anymore.
4) Upon seeing Hello Kitty toys for McDonald’s Happy meals, I knew my next meal destination. My curiosity grows even more when I see a booth for tea and a dessert case with mochi. I nearly jump when I see mooncake orders at Starbucks only to find that mooncake season is in Fall. Perhaps the red bean green tea cheesecake in the dessert display would have been a good substitute.
5) Looking for food odds and ends took us to the Beijing night market. Here we watch scorpions, sea horses, and starfish wiggle on sticks before being fried with spices. Even though I wish to avoid contact with these creatures, constantly bumping into people provides me no such luck. As I turn away from the stench of stinky tofu, I run into a man chowing down on scorpions. “Is it good?” my mom asks. He grins and nods with satisfaction.
6) Food can be entertaining as it is delicious when we taste homemade noodles from the Muslim parts of China. Cameras surround a chef as he stretches dough for some noodles not to be missed.
7) No, I did not knowingly eat dog. Had I done so, I would curl up in bed sobbing under my pillow as memories of my childhood beagle Snoopy play in my mind with her ears flopping in the wind. I most certainly would have become vegan at that point, and possibly Buddhist.
While I can’t help but wish every chef in China cooked exactly my Popo, perhaps it’s better that there is only one Popo who cooks like mine so I can savor every bite. Having too much of a good thing, like overfilling yourself everyday with Thanksgiving turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and wine can make you forget to enjoy and be grateful for it. After all, if everyone ate the same there would be no variety that adds to the spice of life. So, the next time I’m eating in China, I’ll do my best to dive in head first and taste a little bit of everything.