I have had some of the best food of my life while in China. I don't make that claim lightly, I come from a family that makes a lot of amazing home cooked meals and pastry desserts. In America I love getting huge burgers piled high with practically everything. I love going out for sushi with friends. I love the variety of food I had at home... But the food in China is figuratively to die for.
In the few weeks I've been here I've gone to many amazing restaurants and had some amazing dishes. My descriptions won't do the food justice. (How do you describe food? "It was... um... good. Um... really good.") But let me describe the dining experience for you. (Not every meal is like this, but it's pretty common.)
A group of people, between seven and 12 sit around a large round table. A glass lazy susan sits in the center atop a clean table cloth. The lazy susan holds a pot of tea, an empty bowl, and a small package of napkins but is otherwise empty.
A place setting sits near each chair. It consists of a small five inch plate, a small three inch bowl, a porcelan spoon, and a small two inch tea cup. Occasionally there is another small glass included as well. Sometimes these dishes are wrapped together in heat-shrunk plastic. When this is the case, the black plastic chopsticks are used to puncture the wrapper. Remnants of plastic can be placed in the small bowl that sits on the lazy susan.
It's tradition to wash your dishes with tea, even when it just came out of the plastic wrap. I pour some tea into the larger bowl, then rinse the porcelan spoon in the hot tea. Holding the chopsticks upright in the bowl I use the spoon to pour tea down the last few inches of the chopsticks. I use the spoon to scoop some water into the small tea cup and the small clear glass. I carefully swirl the liquid around and dump it back into the bowl. The plate is the last thing to be washed. Balancing my chopsticks on my teacup, I hold my plate over the pink plastic bowl that contains all the dish wrappers. I carefully pour the water from the bowl onto the plate where it runs off into the waste bowl. This part is a little messy but the dishes are now clean.
During this cleaning ritual the group leader orders food. The leader will typically ask for suggestions and check to see if there are any food allergies or vegetarians in the group. Requests for favorite dishes will come from other people at the table and there's always a little bit of discussion about what to order and how much of it to get. Typically a couple more dishes are ordered than there are people at the table.
Within a few minutes of placing the order the first dish is brought to the table. Some restaurants provide serving chopsticks with each dish, others provide them upon request. Sometimes everyone just uses their own.
Pictures are taken with cell phones. The dishes always look beautiful here. Presentation is amazing. The food is served on large white china dishes. Food here tends to look better than the photos on the menu. My cell phone pictures don't do the dishes justice.
The person closest to the dish (or perhaps the hungriest of the group) will make the first move, taking a little off the serving dish and placing it on his or her plate. There's no protocol for which dish to use. If you'd rather fill your bowl you can do that too. The lazy susan starts to spin, as hungry patrons inch it left or right with their fingers. It rotates and stops giving each party member a chance to pluck some food from the serving dish onto their personal plate. More dishes are brought out as they are finished being prepared.
Food keeps coming and the lazy susan keeps spinning giving everyone a chance to try a little of everything if they want. There's always enough to go around and if anyone is still hungry or someone remembers a dish they wanted it can always be added to the order.
After everyone has had their fill they bring the check to the table. A meal of this size will usually run between ¥300 and ¥600 which will break down to ¥30 to ¥50 per person. (That translates to just about $5 to $7 USD.)
- The meat is always savory. Sometimes it's sweet too. They serve a lot of pork, chicken, and beef.
- They cook with peppers a lot here. Both spicy and not spicy.
- I've eaten more eggplant in the last two weeks than I've had in my entire life. I don't know what they do to it here but it's good.
- Tofu and mushrooms seem to be staples. While I don't particularly care for either of them I have enjoyed eating both.
- Coriander is used in many of the dishes. (I learned cilantro is the Spanish word that refers to coriander leaves.) The seeds and leaves are present in several dishes.
- One of the meat dishes tasted like taco meat. Not sure which spice or seasoning they used but it was interesting and unexpected.
- Everything is cooked over a stovetop, the oils and sauces are always very tasty.
- I've had a lot of dishes that are spicy.
- I love eating with chopsticks. It's only really inconvenient if you have a lot of little things you want to eat and you can always use your porcelain spoon for those.
- I've made it a point to try everything I can. I'm sure I'll encounter something I really don't like, but it hasn't happened yet!
This is a small samplings of my food photos. Mostly provided to give an idea of the variety of dishes I've encountered.
(Above) Bread rolls with sweet and condensed milk as a dipping sauce. Very delicious.
(Above) The meat that tasted like taco seasoning.
(Above) Lotus roots.
(Above) "Oh, it hasn't been deboned..."
"...if you couldn't tell by the still attached heads."
(Above) Supper one of the first nights at Mongolian Noodles.
(Above) They serve tofu with meat in many dishes.
(Above) The remains of a finished meal. Mostly onion and peppers used in cooking.
(Above) My home cooking at it's finest.