You are what you eat and that is especially true when travelling. Our Flightie Artos Low shares his recent experience exploring China with G Adventures, and why meal times were some of his fondest memories from the trip:
I have always felt that to appreciate a culture one needs to immerse oneself in it. This includes visiting the historical sights, but also travelling the way the locals travel, eating where they eat, and WHAT they eat.
Most people only have two weeks or less to do this, so if you’re looking to get down and dirty with a new country, especially one without a shared cultural legacy (in my case, China), I recommend taking a tour. Now, I can hear you say “Yeah, right. What sort of cultural immersion can one get being shuttled from attraction to attraction in an air conditioned tour bus with 40 other tourists, and staying in four star hotels?”
That is a very good point, and G Adventures is the answer! Their standard level China Express Tour uses local transportation, a local guide, and caps their group size at 16 people. At only 8 days, it covers the historical “must see” sights in Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai, and throws in a stop in beautiful Suzhou, the “Venice of the East”.
Now, I could rave about the sights of China; the grandeur of the Summer Palace, the immensity of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, and the sheer scope of the Terracotta Warriors – but I’m sure someone with a greater gift of hyperbole than I has done so already. Suffice to say they should be on everyone’s bucket list, but what I want to talk about is the food!
You are what you eat; that is especially true when travelling. If you want to get under the skin of the country you are visiting, you have to eat their food, in their restaurants, at their food wagons, in their markets, and, if you are fortunate (or travel on select G Adventure tours), in their homes. On this tour I got to experience all of that and they form some of my fondest memories of the trip.
Slurping noodles in a hole-in the wall restaurant at the back of what appeared to be a travel agency, eating pickled chickens feet and jellied pig snout with a gentleman from Wuxi I met on the night train to Suzhou, and dining on Stomach and Blood soup in a fancy restaurant with my tour group (it’s nice to have other food available in case the unique items aren’t to your liking!); you sure aren’t going to do that in Canada!
Our local meal in Xian was in the atrium of the farmers house, using mismatched cutlery and sitting on stools. It was fantastic! Compared to most of the other meals I had, meat was used more as a flavouring than as a centrepiece to the dish, and there were many vegetarian dishes as well, including stir-fried scapes, which were the hit of the meal. Cucumber was also used in several dishes, but it was cooked, not raw, which was new for me. Not too bad!
We visited two night markets on this tour, one in Beijing, and the Muslim market in Xian. The night market in Beijing is the home of wriggly things on sticks, in this case seahorse and scorpion.
I ate the scorpion, but passed on the seahorse. I’m fairly certain this is NOT a local delicacy, as my local guide wouldn’t touch it, and the Wriggly Things booth was selling exclusively to tourists. In Xian, the market has a bit more of a historical pedigree. In the 11th century, Xian was the Eastern terminus of the Silk Road. Muslim merchants who sought their fortune on the Road settled there, forming an enclave within the city. As China is predominately a pork eating nation, the market grew to serve the needs of the Muslim community. The middle eastern influence can be found in the food served there, from the cumin encrusted grilled beef and lamb skewers to the crisp flatbread reminiscent of Armenian Lavash, to the chili flavoured fried potatoes.
The Chinese have definitely put their unique stamp on the market cuisine there, with sweet sticky rice on a stick, noodles, and their Chinese pancake stuffed with pickled vegetables.
You’ll note I haven’t had much to say about Shanghai. Shanghai is different from the other cities I visited in China. Although Western influence is spreading throughout China, that influence is, and always has been, what defines the city of Shanghai. Originally set up as a trading enclave for Europe and the US after the Opium Wars, Shanghai is really a city of two worlds, Chinese and Western as one. From the classic 19th century architecture of the Bund to the bright lights and shoppers paradise of Nanjing Road, Western influence is prevalent throughout the metropolis. If you are desperate for a hamburger on your travels through China, this is where you will get your Whopper or Big Mac. This is also where you will get some of the best seafood in all of China. Shanghai is the biggest city in Szechuan province; a region known for chilis and seafood in the panoply of Chinese cuisine, and it shows off these ingredients in superb fashion. Whether you are looking for sustenance while shopping, want to grab a bite after partying in the French Concession, or want to spring for a fancy night out, this is the place to do it.
Pop into one of the quick service restaurants off Nanjing Road for a superlative Hot and Sour Soup, visit one of the myriad sit down restaurants with a group of friends for a dinner that includes braised fish with chilis (also pictured are fried potatoes with chilis, smoked duck, and steamed pork belly on sweet sticky rice), or venture down a side street for an impromptu “make your own fried rice” from a street vendor.
I hope I have whetted your appetite for China. The people are friendly and for the most part are eager to interact with tourists. Food is the universal social lubricant; a pint in a pub, a shared skewer of “street meat” from the night market, or even a convivial snack of jellied pig’s snout can transcend any language barrier and open your travels up to enriching new experiences. As our local G Adventures guide said at our first dinner together, “Embrace the bizarre!”