“But what will you eat in China?”
The question startled me. It wasn’t the standard question asked by Chinese practicing their English: “Do you like Chinese food?” It came from a longtime resident of New York City, where Chinese food is not exactly an unknown quantity.
Having been back on the China Diet for three months and counting, I have to say it: Hunan food is better than Guangdong food. (Guangdong is the southeastern coastal province that includes Guangzhou.) “But Hunan food is very spicy!” the standard practice conversation continues, followed by, “Yes, I know. I love it.” Guangdong food is not so spicy, but it turns out to be mercifully free of what I dislike about Cantonese food in the United Sates, mainly that cloying sweet-and-sour sauce. And I can now identify most dim sum, which originated here.
At the risk of writing in sentence fragments, here’s a taste of what I’ve found:
Eggy scallion pancakes thin as crepes, with just a hint of sweetness.
In Hong Kong, fried rice with minced pork and preserved olive, so perfectly cooked that each grain of rice was distinct from all the others, and the pork so finely minced that it was indistinguishable from the grains of rice.
Shrimp at the beachside restaurant on Sanya Bay on Hainan Island, swimming in a tank one minute, boiled and on my plate the next. (Nearly every restaurant in Guangdong has a wall of tanks with live seafood at the entrance.) They turned into a peel-and-east feast for a mere $7; the Cantonese wouldn’t bother to peel. Only after I had eaten the shrimp did I discover the couple grilling next door and move on to the next course: more shrimp, skewered head to tail and flash-grilled in their shells on skewers, thinly sliced potatoes, a slender eggplant butterflied – all topped with lots of garlic, pungent yet sweet.
Strawberry and peach nectars, a divine alternative to orange juice for starting the day. For some unknown reason, all orange juice here, even Dole from a cardboard carton, tastes as if it came out of a can. But who needs orange when the strawberry juice from Starbucks contains so much pulp it’s practically puree? Slightly weirder, there’s blueberry juice with actual blueberries floating in it. I’ve also found cherry juice (sweet memories of Poland) and pomegranate (Istanbul) and coconut palm. Instead of the Twining’s Blackcurrant I swill in New York on demand from my Mr. Coffee iced tea maker, each day I brew a liter or so of green tea, possibly from the plantations outside Hangzhou that I toured a couple of weeks ago.
I’ve always thought Chinese leftovers make a fine breakfast, especially fried rice or noodles, but here no one thinks I’m eccentric for it. Every hotel has a buffet, which usually runs about $10 to $15 if not included in the room rate. In addition to the rice and noodles, it often includes leftovers from the day before, like the stir-fried spicy cabbage or, one morning, watercress at my beach hotel in Sanya. At home, a schoolday breakfast usually consists of frozen baozi (pork-stuffed buns) from the supermarket, microwaved for a minute or two. While I’m sure the fresh-steamed ones I could get if I’d actually walk to the supermarket are better, these are surprisingly good, accompanied by a banana and a daily cup of strawberry yogurt for calcium in this non-dairy culture. On a weekend or Thursday, my free day, I might do a “brunch” of bacon and (hard-boiled) eggs. Chinese bacon is marvelous — long, meaty rectangles with very little fat. (Why is the United States seemingly the only country where bacon means mostly fat with skinny strips of actual meat?) Even better, a recent excursion to Metro, a warehouse-style supermarket chain with international foods, turned up black pepper bacon, as well as a few treats: prosciutto, bresaola (Italian dried beef) and two excellent crumbly cheddars.
Lunch or dinner may be home-cooked, or at least home-boiled. It took me two weeks to learn how the electric hotplate worked. (It will not turn on until it senses the weight of a pot on it.) But now I can hard-boil eggs (successfully), roast peanuts (less successfully), and fry rice and noodles (not as good as I can get outside). Granted, I’ve been lazy and use the hotplate mainly to boil the frozen jiaozi – dumplings stuffed with pork and corn, pork and greens, mushrooms and vegetable, and most recently little shrimp tortellini, meant for soup but just as good treated like dumplings. A dozen dipped into a simple mix of light soy and sesame oil, spiked with a little chili paste, make a fast, filling meal – especially with a garlic-heavy cucumber salad from the restaurant next door, with its leftover sauce mixed into the dipping sauce once the cucumbers are gone.
Dessert is mostly fruit, with an occasional wedge of strawberry mousse pie from the campus bakery. I gravitate toward the fruits I’d choose at home: breakfast bananas, crisp pink-and-yellow-striped apples, mandarin oranges. During melon season, I enjoyed small round watermelons, just the right size for someone who lives alone (though hard to open with a meat cleaver, the standard cutting device here), and a pale orange melon that looks like cantaloupe but has firmer, sweeter flesh. I’ve ventured outside my comfort zone, trying the infamous durian, which neither smells as horrible nor tastes as delectable as reputed, and persimmon, which I found fibrous and not nearly so flavorful as its flat-orange-tomato exterior might suggest. While pretty, starfruit and dragonfruit do little for me in terms of flavor, and pomelos I know from experience I can do without. Best dessert of all: candied walnuts. And though I try not to snack, I find it hard to pass by a bag of hot-pepper peanuts.
Dining out can be as simple as my Wednesday office-hours staple, beef fried rice with bright green soybeans at the Blue Bottle coffee shop on campus, or as elaborate as a dinner where one dish follows another, and then another, until the meal abruptly ends, as it normally does in China. But for that you need people. The very nature of Chinese dining – ordering lots of dishes to share, as opposed to one person, one plate – has always made it a group rather than a solo activity.
And it’s not so easy dining out as a single in a land of big, round tables for eight or more. My first night on campus, with no food in the apartment beyond the next day’s breakfast, I went to the restaurant next door for dinner. There I was eyed suspiciously, placed at a small, square table for two right by the door, and handed an “English” menu – no photos, just words like “maw,” which, whatever it is, I don’t eat. Unable to find anything that sounded safe except “fried rice with vegetables,” I ordered that and tea – a whopping $3 check. Since then, I’ve found myself much more welcomed when I do what I would in New York, if I still ate Chinese there: invest $20 in five or six dishes from the lavish picture menu that will last a week, and take the food to go, rather than taking up a table that will yield more revenue from someone else.
It’s been said that the people of Guangdong will eat anything, and any part of anything. I’m squeamish by nature about food, especially meat; I eat no dark poultry, no skin, no gristle, no fat I can possibly remove, no internal organs. (I don’t eat sushi, either, unless it’s vegetable or cooked.) All of which puts me at a disadvantage in Guangdong. When dining out, I always have a much higher discard pile – skin, bones, shrimp heads – than anyone else at the table. A student who invited me to a holiday lunch had pre-ordered “fish three ways”: deep-fried nuggets (spine and bones left in), chunks of flesh simmered in a hot pot with its skin, and the piece de resistance, fish heads Hunan style, served in broth and covered with red chili peppers. “Have some!” my student said, popping out an eye. Sorry, but no. The fried nuggets were delicious, bones and all.
For much of my time here, when temperatures were 90-plus, I couldn’t even think about malatang; now that the weather has turned and I’ve had a cold for two weeks, I most definitely can. Malatang is a ubiquitous hot pot where you choose what you want and a chef cooks it, item by item, in a communal pot of broth at full boil. Being squeamish, I avoid the skewers of meat and fish balls, whose texture I don’t like, and the pork and chicken kebabs with their fat, and the cocktail-size hot dogs. But all their flavors merge in the broth, creating a base of what for me becomes vegetable soup, full of greens, black mushrooms, thin slices of what seems to be bitter melon, water chestnut cake and the thin, crinkly tofu I like.
That’s street malatang, but hotpot is also served in sleek modern restaurants with long lines outside the door, like the one where my new best friend Chen, a graduate student in journalism, took me a few weeks ago. Four of us sat around a pot with a mild seasoned chicken broth in the center, surrounded by a red chili pepper broth, blazing hot in every conceivable way. Chen ordered form the Chinese-only menu, and a cart of raw ingredients appeared by my left elbow, to be dipped, cooked and eaten piece by piece: paper-thin slices of beef and lamb, meatballs, tofu skin, vegetables. Even skipping the “cow voicebox” — oh, that’s maw! — I found the food and the heat more than satisfying.
Though I try to eat Chinese as much as possible, I do backslide, which is easer in a big city like Guangzhou than in Hunan. I allow myself one burger a week – if I’m in a hurry, at the local Burger King, where the (Chinese) bacon cheeseburger is actually good; if it’s a nice day and I have time, at the Happy Monk, an Anglo-American-style pub. Its bacon cheeseburger could compete anywhere: Chinese bacon, real cheddar, dripping with juice; I use the garlic dipping sauce for the fries in place of mustard. The Happy Monk also offers a creditable Caesar salad with finely shredded chicken breast and bacon, as well as a passable plate of nachos, with avocado slices rather than guacamole. It needs far more cheese, though, and when I tried asking if shredded chicken from the Caesar salad might be added to the nachos, it was more than the waitress’s brain could handle. I will miss sitting on the Happy Monk’s patio now that the time has come to move indoors. But there’s a good Thai restaurant in the Happy Valley Mall, where my favorite dish so far is the minced beef served in lettuce-leaf tacos, along with an even more garlicky cucumber salad.
I’ve tried one French restaurant, La Seine next door to the Xinghai Concert Hall on Ersha Island, a special-occasion place to the locals. The kir was far too heavy on the cassis, but the dark, creamy mushroom soup with truffle oil was superb. I’m not sure any Provencal would recognize the orange sauce and blood orange slices on the cod Provencal — in my experience, Provencal means in a tomato-based sauced with peppers, olives and capers – but as cod a l’orange it was sensational. And a crusty French roll with butter — my first in two months.
But the best meal to date, possibly my best in the five years since I left Hunan, was dinner at a new Hunan restaurant just off campus with Josephine Song of the university’s teaching affairs office and her husband, Harry. A Hunan girl herself, Josephine knows what to look for, scouted out the restaurant and approved. The beef with lemongrass was exactly the dish Pamela Britnell and I used to order every time we went to a certain restaurant, once prompting the laoban to tell us, “You know, we have many kinds of delicious foods . . .” There were the sliced raw lotus root that I love, fried rice, stir-fried cabbage, two kinds of tofu and shrimp, all but the lotus root spiked with, if not steeped in, red, hot chili peppers. The meal cleared my sinuses, and my mind.
Only one thing could top that. Josephine has invited me home for dinner.