That night we ate at a local restaurant, a table on the pavement; bones strewn around, watching the world go by. Chinese cooking is justifiably famous around the world and back at home it is no different with food being a national obsession, as evidenced by the common greeting “Have you eaten?”.
According to various phrase books and guide books this phrase is used commonly as a result of the many famines that China has suffered over the years, most recently the Great Leap Forward when some 40 million people died and the shortages of the Cultural Revolution. And yet I rarely heard this phrase used. Maybe this is due to the fact that there has been surplus since the opening up of the Chinese economy under Deng Xiao Ping and the Four Modernisations of 1978. Or maybe it is just that at the sight of two hungry foreign cyclists the Chinese wished to preserve and save their kitchens from the inevitable and did not ask this question.
Despite the importance of food and eating to the Chinese both at home and abroad, the experience of dining in China is very different from the UK. For a start the menus are almost unintelligible. This is not just due to their use of Chinese characters, but due to items such as ‘mayi shan shu’, which translates as ants climbing a tree but in actual fact is thin spicy noodles, and dishes such as fish heads and chicken feet. Exotica such as snake are available but not as widespread as stereotypes would have us believe, in part no doubt due to the cost of such items. The Chinese food that we get in Britain is largely of Cantonese origin, a lot of sweet and sour and mono sodium glutamate. In China there is not as much ‘sweet and sour’ or MSG, and Sichuan food, hot and spicy, is the most popular of cuisines.
Not only is the food itself different but also the manner in which it is consumed – eating in China is not for the faint-hearted or those obsessed by table manners. Sounds of slurping, noisy slurping that causes you to turn and stare, smacking chewing and occasionally spitting provide the background noise to animated conversations that become more heated as more alcohol is consumed. The end of the meal is a scene of debris and carnage, bottles, chopsticks and spilled food littering the table, bones and cigarettes strewn over the floor, not unlike a drunken student visit to a curry house.
People sat on stools and chairs outside their shop-fronts, chatting and laughing with friends, gossiping and joking. It was all very sociable, life happening on the street-side, lacking the privacy and personal space of the west as everything was out in the open. The meal itself was interesting, if only for the ordering. Presented by a menu written in Chinese I explained in Chinese that I could not read Chinese characters. Amusement at the fact that I could not read then worry and concern that I might not be able to order. I then began asking for various dishes that I could remember and each time received the answer ‘mei you’ which means ‘have not’. At the point of exasperation I was led into the kitchen to see what was available and to witness the killing of a chicken – at least one dish would be fresh.
China has a number of great culinary traditions, such as Canton, Sichuan and Hunan. Throughout there is variety. Muslim-Chinese cuisine emphasises lamb, cilantro, cumin, and breads. The food of Yunnan has more in common that of Southeast Asia. The Uighur cuisine of Xinjiang in the north-west of China is of Turkic origin and uses thick noodles, tomatoes and peppers. To fully appreciate this dizzying variety, you must embrace unfamiliar textures – the Chinese place great importance on kougan, literally mouth sensation.