Chinese Food: The Good, The Bad and The Gelatinous

Updated 2009-11-28 10:25

Have you ever felt like you were destined for something? Not that there's some grand master plan laid out for you, but that a bunch of small events in your life were preparation for something greater?

It sounds strange to say it, but I feel that way about China, especially Chinese food. I'll explain.

The farther I have been from my parents, the more I see how they have influenced my culinary palate. Food was a big deal growing up; my Mom loves, loves, loves to cook. She is renowned for making huge fantastic dinners and inviting throngs of the hungry to partake until they feel about to burst. My Dad, brothers and I were happy guinea pigs in her mostly successful cooking schemes. She would sit with a pile of cookbooks in her free time, making notes on what we liked and didn't like, and what she wanted to make next and for whom. In some of my Mom's favorite cookbooks she not only has notes about us, but about family friends who would come weekly on their designated evening for dinner. Some of my best memories are of standing on a chair when I was too small to reach the counter and 'helping' make dinner for company; I would be the Stirrer, the Measurer, or the Pourer.

The excuse, 'I don't like that', was met with 'You don't know unless you try it. TRY IT.' My Dad set a good example in this and on the rare occasions I remember him not liking something I think he did his best to finish it anyway, so we followed suit. There was no dessert otherwise. Cooking has always been is a major way Mom expresses love and we show her love back by eating her culinary wonders and it was music to her ears to hear us point to something in one of her books and say we wanted to try it.

Fast forward 20 years and I'm in China. Who would have thought?

There's a lot of good food here and I have to admit, a lot of it I haven't wanted to try at first. But then I hear my Mom saying, 'Try it.'

The Good

Chinese food is mostly very healthy. Its heavy on the veggies, most people do not eat a whole lot of meat and if they do its of the leaner variety, with the exception of Yanrou Chuan'r (say like, YawnRoChwar). Yanrou Chuan'r is lamb kabobs and there's always a chunk of fat on the skewer. We can say that the best food we have had in China is from the Xingjiang province though, its questionable depending on who you ask, if iXingjiang really is in China.Their food is heavily influenced by mid-eastern cooking, but is a nice balance between familiar flavors and the complete unknown. The best meal in China meal is yanrou chuan'r, homemade yogurt, cucumber and tomato salad and nan bread and something (I forget the name) with lamb, bread and onions all fried together.

We've also been eating a lot of tofu and many varieties of mushrooms; and while I could eat plates and plates of broccoli, Jeff loves spicy green beans. So when we go out, we get our own veggies so we don't have to share.

I can now say I like frog , cold duck, and donkey- sometimes (its kind of tough meat and has to be prepared correctly). As for Northern foods, jioazi (steamed or fried pot-stickers) is delicious and Jeff really likes jianbings (like a crepe with egg). A vegetarian would be quite happy here; while most Chinese people don't understand what it means not to eat any meat, its not hard to find dishes with out it. Buddhist monks don't eat meat, at-least they're not supposed to, but its rare for someone to be vegetarian by preference. I know a few happy vegetarians though who survive in China quite happily.

The Bad

Most of the bad food experiences I've had, and there haven't been many, were because I thought I was getting something else when I ordered it. I think that just adds credibility to the idea that sometimes its better not to know what you're eating until after you tried it. On other occasions I have thought to myself, 'well, its hot and seems to be cooked through, so at-least I know I probably won't get sick'. And now I can say politely, as I was taught, 'I don't care for that flavor, thank you' when it comes to fruit juice with milk, beef and chicken hearts, egg soup, chicken feet, red bean soup, and even though its sacrilegious to say I don't like the ultimate Chinese comfort food- rice porridge.

The Gelatinous

This is a different category all unto itself. In the US, we don't have to many gelatinous food substances. Jell-O maybe being the only gelatinous thing we can tolerate, aspics being the one most can't. But China has quite a few and this a food group I am not prepared to conquer anytime soon. As of now, I still don't have the fortitude to try jellyfish salad, sea cucumbers, or seaweed jelly, eyeballs and pig intestines (while not gelatinous, it sounds like a sure fire way to Hepatitis).

I know that if, or rather, when I'm confronted with them, I'll hear my Mom's words, 'Try it.' ringing in my ears. I'm pretty comfortable putting that off for as long as possible though.

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