September 22, 2010

Gluttony on the go: China, part I

One of the few good excuses that I have for my blogging hiatus is the month-long trip to China that I undertook this summer. Ah China, motherland of yours truly...a country full of contrasting sights, sounds of flavours. Or, if you visit during the month of August while an Universal Exposition is going on, a country full of tourists, sweatiness and aggressive air conditioning.

But I digress. Despite the heat and humidity, I had a fantastic time in China. I visited some family, met a lot of cool peeps and went all out with the eating and drinking. Some basic (but still unusual, to ol' Canadian me) food safety precautions aside, China is an absolute penny-saving-yet-wanderlusting-glutton's heaven. There are almost as many eateries as there are people, each region has its own brand(s) of deliciousness, and let's not forget how darn affordable it all is. Oh thank you, 6.5:1 CAD to RMB exchange rate...

During my stay there, I traveled to the cities of Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. And while I didn't come anywhere close to sampling all of the distinctive dishes, cuisines and restaurants of each place, I did have quite a few memorable meals here and there. So without further ado, here is the first batch of food-related memories from China:

Part I: Shanghai and Suzhou

The Shanghai Bund as seen from the Oriental Pearl Tower.

Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou all share some similar traits in their cuisine. Shanghai cuisine, in particular, is a mix of Jiangsu (where Suzhou is located) and Zhejian (where Hanghzhou is located) styles. As cities from the Jiangnan region (literally, South of the (Yangtze) Riveer), they are especially known for their xiaolongbao:

Ok, these are from Hangzhou but you get the general idea.

If there's one thing that you must know about this glutton's favorite foods, it's that she absolutely head-over-heels LOVES xiaolongbao's (and bread and cheese and calamari and salmon tartare and desserts...but that's another story). Pork, beef, seafood, soupy, steamed or fried, I could probably eat xiaolongbao all day long and not get sick of them. Oh yes, they are that good. (My fondness for all things xiaolongbao-esque might also explain why I am so enamoured with dim sum and dumplings in general. Hmm, xia jiao and shaomai...)

But back to xiaolongbao. The secret in their deliciousness resides in the thinness of their skins and the mix of meats used for their fillings. Soupy xiaolongbao's have the thinnest of skins and are filled with juices from the meat filling --- the tricky part, of course, is to make the soupiest of buns without having them split open the skins. Similarly, the best part about eating soupy xiaolongbao's is to prick a tiny hole into the skin and slurp out all of the soup before eating the bun itself. Mmmmmm. And no offense to the Northerners, but they just cannot make xiaolongbao's in the same way that they do it in the Jiangnan! I tried in vain to get my xiaolongbao fix in Beijing, but the closest that I got during two weeks of futile searching was small bao zi with somewhat thinner dough skins. *sad headshake* It just isn't the same, you know?

Jianbao (or fried baozi) from Shanghai. 

I also had some great jianbao (fried baozi or fried buns) in Shanghai. I believe that they are a local specialty and boy did they hit the spot after a day of walking and sweltering around in the city. Big juicy buns with a savoury mixed meat filling that are fried on the bottom and topped with sesame it with red rice vinegar and it's finger-licking-inducing goodness!

Look at all that fried and sesame-d goodness! 

I unfortunately did not get to have as many food-related experiences in Suzhou. In fact, I only stayed in the city for some 36 hours, so my restaurant-hopping time was greatly limited, to say the least. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised at how fantastic the Japanese food is there. Japanese restaurants and eateries abound in almost all Chinese and North American major cities, but I was taken aback by the realization that the supper that I had with my family in a little restaurant on the so-called Japanese Street (aka. Huahai Street) was probably the single best and most authentic Japanese meal that I've ever had. In fact, it was so authentic that the take-out menu that they gave us when we left was in 100% Japanese Kanji...

Japanese Street (aka. Huahai St.) and its broken neon gate signs ..

Also in Suzhou, my family and I had an impomptu hotpot meal at one of the Little Mongolian Lamb chain restaurants:

They claim to import all of their lamb from Inner Mongolia, but
I remain somewhat skeptical of this.

There are Little Mongolian Lamb hotpot spots (hah, try saying that ten times!) in Montreal and I've been to the one in our teensy weensy Chinatown. The experience was not dissimilar to the one that I had in Suzhou, or to most hotpot dinners that I've had in my life. You get a pot of broth, you order meats and veggies, you cook them in the pot and then enjoy them smothered in Hoisin sauce (okay, maybe that last part is just me). The meal is Suzhou was in every bit the same and strangely enough, this made me home, in a way.

The usual hotpot ritual: broth, veggies, fish balls and heaps of lamb!

You know what else makes me feel at home? Grande caramel lattes with extra caramel swirled on top! Oh yes...

They really are EVERYWHERE.

Not even 19 hours of plane and 12 hours of time difference could shake my daily coffee-drink fix. (I hesitate to call it my caffeine fix because, really, I put enough milk, cream and sugar into my coffee to make it into a warm sweet coffee-flavoured milk...) But oh Starbucks, you ever-present fixture in my life. I seem even more attached to you whenever I travel. So yes, I will shell out the equivalent of an entire day's food for a latte (ie. 35 RMB). Even if the milk you use is funny and your caffeine content is so low that a light coffee addict such as myself notices.

1 comment:

Nik said...

i visited china too in the month of march, but they wer different province. it was south china that i visited. the cities there were Foshan,Shenzhen(which was very beautiful)and Guanzhou. The cuisine varies all together. Since u seem a foodie, i wish u come to mumbai. india has got lots of variants of food. it varies in every city. if u neeed to contact me some day my no is +919819747676.