One of the joys of traveling is the ability to enjoy a new cuisine. In America, we pride ourselves on having food from many cultures from around the world, but it is never comparable to the real foreign cuisine. In China, I learned what my Chinese friends had already described to me. There are big differences between American food, American Chinese food, and Chinese food. It would be impossible for me to describe all the food I ate, but I will attempt to paint a picture of Jason’s palate that I have shared these three weeks.
I have almost given up guessing what food is on the menus. Or guessing what the food is once it comes to the table for that matter. There are so many dishes that I have never tried before, and there are so many different ways of preparing one food that I am lost. I take a bite of what appears to be fried chicken and I discover eggplant instead. Only two things are certain here: the food is fresh, and the preparation is good.
Jason and I flew with Asiana, a Korean airline, to get to China. Because Asians put more emphasis on service and food than we do in America, we received meals on our flight from Seoul to Dalian even though the flight was only an hour and a half long. I discovered that the Korean spicy sauce was really hot. Luckily Jason warned me. He always had a trick of being able to guess what I would like and what I wouldn’t like, which I would come to appreciate during my stay. This meal had rice, vegetables, and meat that were all served steaming and intended to be mixed together. It was a very good first taste of food for me.
Jason’s family rarely eats out, but since he was coming home with a guest after being at college for a year, we spent many evenings eating out and catching up with friends and family. While visiting so many restaurants, I was presented with the grand variety of food available to the people of Dalian from home cooked meals to fast food and from traditional dishes to international delights.
My first dinner in China wasn’t actually composed of Chinese food. Instead, Jason and I went with his parents and all of his grandparents to a Japanese restaurant. Jason loves Japanese food, and I can see why. So many different kinds of fish, sushi, and soups were placed before us and shared around the table. I tried many new things, and it was a great meal for my first in China.
The Japanese (along with the Russians) have occupied Dalian in the past, and some of the culture has rubbed off. Jason also has strong personal connections to Japan because he spent a couple of years of his childhood there while his mother was working as a translator. Because his family loves Japanese food so much, Jason knew where to take me to get good Japanese sushi.
Sushi restaurants are geared to be efficient. The one that Jason took me to was so efficient that they did not have menus. They just have conveyor belts that carry the food around. You pick your sushi off the belt, and you pay by the plate. I really liked this system of ordering because I could see exactly what I would be getting, and it was all delicious.
One day, after we spent the morning shopping with Jason’s grandmother, Jason’s grandparents treated us to lunch at a Korean restaurant. Jason and his grandfather chose a plate of various pieces of raw meat. Once it was brought to the table along with the sides we ordered, a waitress cooked it for us over the grill in the middle of our table. It was cool to have the food cooked right in front of us and to try many new meats. Or rather, it was very hot for a June day to sit that close to a fire; however, the heat was worth it.
Hot Pot is another meal where the food is cooked at the table, but this time we did it ourselves. Each person was given their own boiling pot of water and a few vegetables in which they could cook the remainder of their meal.
As we sat and talked with old family friends whom Jason’s parents had known for three decades, we cooked beef, pork, lamb, duck blood, cow stomach, cabbage, shrimp, and assorted vegetables. Everything was sliced thin so that it would cook fast. Chinese food seems to involve more preparation and shorter cooking times than western foods.
McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and KFC are common sights in the city, but I think they are the worst choices for fast food. A typical fast food meal here might include rice or noodles with a choice of meat and sides of vegetables and eggs if they aren’t already cooked in. Everything is served hot. Typical fast food staples like fries and carbonated beverages exist, but they aren’t popular items. There is an interest in being healthy even in a rush.
Breakfast fast food in China is not Dunkin’ Donuts, but they did have fried sticks of bread. Rather than dipping the fried bread into milk, we dunked it in yellow-bean juice. The juice apparently has the same protein content as milk, but it is made from beans.
Beans are used a lot more here. I ate ice cream with red beans at the center. Red beans were also mixed in with the rice in the zongzi, which are sticky rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves for the Dragon Boat Festival. Mung beans were also used in ice cream bars we ate in Xi’an.
Traditional Dalian Dinner
Potatoes and meat covered in a thick savory sauce. A soup made with little pieces of dough instead of noodles. Chicken and onion wrapped in a leaf with sauce. Steamed rolls. Pumpkin slices fried and covered in sugar. Everything was delicious. Unlike southern Chinese meals and Japanese meals I had, the traditional Dalian meal was hearty and filling. It wasn’t made to be looked at but to be eaten and enjoyed.
As discussed in the book Cheap, the first year reading book for this year, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we expect all food to be available all year. We expect to be able to eat sushi in Colorado and to get our shrimp year-round from Thailand. We like strawberries in December. Our government provides enough incentives to large farms so that tomatoes grown in California cost less than ones from next door, even after transportation costs. We care about what we get rather than how good it is. In Dalian, I discovered a different attitude.
From my experience with Jason’s family in China and accounts I have heard from other Chinese students, the Chinese are concerned with how fresh their produce and meats are. It’s not unusual for restaurants to let you select your meat live. Chinese families go to markets for their fresh produce, meat, and seafood. Buying from the source provides healthier and inexpensive food.
Dalian is a city on the sea, so it is no surprise that they eat a lot of seafood and buy it fresh at the markets. You just need to watch where you walk so you don’t get squirted by shellfish trying to swim away as you shop. Jason’s grandmother made fish, abalone, and crab for us. She prepared the fish differently than my grandmother makes it. She would shave off the scales and leave the head on. This way even more of the fish could be eaten, and it could be cooked in a sauce.
The seafood specialty of Dalian is the sea cucumber. I’d never heard of it before. Sea cucumbers are rich in nutrients and are cooked to a jelly-like consistency. They look like little cucumbers with small spikes on them, and they don’t look particularly appetizing, but I loved them.
I also tried octopus for the first time. I had it in stir fry and also in octopus balls or takoyaki, which were spheres of octopus meat cooked in something like a waffle iron. They were then covered in mayonnaise, soy sauce, and some other spices. Octopus balls were one of the best afternoon snacks I have had, and I’d love to have them again.
My favorite seafood was the abalone, which are giant snails. They are thick and meaty like the octopi, and the inside of their shells are gorgeous. I ended up asking Jason for more of them whenever I saw them. I wish that we had them on the east coast, but they are just a delicacy on the west coast. To eat them fresh like they were, I think I will need to return to China.
The food I ate the most in China, and what I miss the most, was the food that Jason’s grandmother made for us at home. My biggest regret from my time in China is that I didn’t make an effort to spend time with her in the kitchen and learn to cook. I’ve tried to replicate some dishes once I got home, with little success.
I loved the breaded eggplant that she made. Lots of people seem to think of eggplant as a healthy dish, but not one that should taste good. This eggplant was delicious, and the breading complemented it very well. I failed to make it at home, and I also failed at making a shredded potato dish that I loved to eat with rice in China.
I haven’t tried to make them here yet, but Jason’s grandmother taught Jason and me how to fold steamed buns and dumplings. It was a challenge to pull and pinch the dough properly, but it was a great learning experience, and I got a lot better at it after the third or fourth one.
The best meals during my stay in China were not the fanciest. My best meals were marked by the people around me. Their love and laughter brought life to the table, and I would like to thank Jason’s family with all my heart for not only feeding me well, but making me feel at home in their city and their home.