Splattery, Salty, Spicy: 5 Authentic Chinese Dishes That Will Blow Your Senses Away

China, Food & Wine — By on August 9, 2010 at 11:54 am

Lost Girls Deputy Editor Meghann Foye finds that sampling China’s cuisine brings on sensory overload—in the best possible way.

I may have claimed to be excited about taking in Tiananmen, checking out the Forbidden City and touring the Great Wall on my recent trip to China, but in all honesty I was there for the food.

You can learn a lot about a country’s culture by observing its street life, art and architecture, but often times, you can pick up even more just by sitting down to a meal and talking to your dining companions.

In China, where the phrase “Have you eaten?” is as commonly used to greet friends as “what’s up?” you quickly come to realize just how important food really is.

Looking for some kind of generalization about Chinese cuisine proved difficult. The diversity of flavors, textures and tastes is astonishing (as diverse as the 56 ethnic groups that make up the country itself) but I did find one running theme: Eating is often a fast, loud and sometimes a full-body experience.

Meals in China feel like a circus and begin as soon as the first dishes are placed family-style in the center of the table. Wok-fried vegetables splash from serving vessels onto your plate. Morsels of meat slide around in pools of peanut oil as you wiggle them into your mouth with chopsticks. Flavorful bones, chewy cartilage and crunchy outer shells get worked around your mouth and spit out heartily as they separate from the meat sticking withing. And to top it all off, if you’re sharing a meal with important business prospects, or even family and friends, it’s custom to down at least a few shots of stomach-burning grain alcohol in unison to show gratitude for your guests’ presence at the table.

I found that in order to fully appreciate the experience, you have to willingly turn yourself over to your senses. Taste, of course, but also smell: Often time, the gamier, most pungent foods are the most flavorful. Sight, as you appreciate a table full of familiar colors mixed with foreign textures. Sound, as porcelain soup spoons rattle around bowls, chopsticks click-clack and a lazy Susan whirls in the middle of the table. Conversations zigzagging in Mandarin as cell phones go off and get answered mid-meal. And finally, touch, as slurp-y, steamy and sometimes slimy textures co-mingle from the center of the table, pit-stopping in a pool on your plate and finally plopping into your awaiting mouth.

While every dining experience I had in China challenged (and often delighted) my palate, here are five dishes that made my senses come alive all at once:

1. Mongolian hotpot: Sesame oil and peppercorns produce an endorphin-boosting effect in this sizzling, spicy stew where you choose your own meat and vegetables and cook them yourself at the bubbling hot cauldron in the center of your table. At least one liter-sized Tsing-sao beer per person is advised for its counter-balancing cooling effects.

2. Xiaolongbao, or soup-filled dumplings: A little precision is needed as you bite into one side of these special dumplings popular in Shanghai, while simultaneously sucking out the hot juices as a burst of steam wets your face. You’re given a straw with the bigger, snack-size versions.

3. Jian Bing: This street-food staple functions as breakfast for millions of Beijingers on their way to work in the morning as well as late-night bite for expat partiers on their way home at night. The vendor pours batter onto a rotating hot iron, raking a spatula over it to create a perfectly done thinness. Then, like a French crepe, it’s pulled off as fillings like eggs, bean paste, a crunchy cracker, green onions and cilantro are pocketed in, creating a perfect portable meal.

4. Sichuan chicken: At just about all of the sit-down meals I had, there was some form of this style of chicken from the Sichuan region, in which small pieces are wok-fried with spicy red chilis and Sichuan peppercorns, creating a ma la effect, or a tingly numbing sensation on your tongue. If you have an addictive personality, I’d say stay away, because they literally produce a high feeling that becomes addictive, or at least for me. At Kempinski’s imperial-style restaurant Dragon Palace in Beijing, we were treated to a form of this dish that was dry-rubbed with loads of this spicy peppercorn dust, then cooked in a sizzling platter in the oven. I had to wait about five minutes between each piece to eat so my tongue could resume feeling, but even now, I can’t stop thinking about it.

5. Hairy Tofu: In Huangshan Mountain area, we were treated to a few really great meals featuring Hui cuisine, the style of food made popular by the ruling Hui clan who gained in wealth and influence around the time of the Ming Dynasty. Typical Hui cuisine is known for its use of fresh, local meat and vegetables and braising, sauteing and pan-frying techniques with a bit more oil than other regions. We had Mandarin fish fresh caught from the river, jewel green stem-like vegetables, organic local whole chicken and mild-but-pleasant bamboo soup, but my favorite was Hairy Tofu, one of the area’s well-known dishes, where a mold-covered style of tofu is fried to the point where it develops a crispy crust and oozy cheese-like center. The taste is almost like a French Brie.

After a while, I realized that a few rules must be followed.

First: Don’t wear your favorite top. Most of the dishes have a wet quality to them, thanks to oil or the soup they’re swimming in, and spoons and/or chopsticks can only help so much to make sure drips don’t occur. I saw people prevent splatter stains by getting nice and close to their plates or bowls, working with a fast and furious slurping/pulling technique to get food from the plate into their mouths, but I never quite mastered this trick and ended up with an oil stain on everything I was wearing.

Second: BYON or Bring Your Own Napkins. Again, in an interesting cultural comparison, the Chinese do not use very many, so if you want to prevent said oil stains, try to keep a few on hand in your bag.

Third: Look beyond ominous-sounding names like Mapu Tofu (pock-mocked tofu) and “Stinking Fish.” Instead, suspend all form of thinking logic and let your senses lead the way. With a recent history marked by bitter poverty and starvation, wealth and health are most-often signified by a full table meant to warm your belly and keep you full until your next meal. Just as with the culture itself, you might have to work at your food a little, poking and prodding to unearth the best and tastiest bits of meat behind a protective layer of bones, skin, gristle or scales of a whole fish. But then again, when did anything good ever come easy?

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