Technicolor turns to shades to gray as you leave Hong Kong for China by train. You cross the border at Shumchun station, following the sign that reads "To China" past streams of Chinese carrying long poles on their shoulders balanced with bundles of vegetables at one end and airline flight bags at the other. First you notice that everyone is loaded with bundles. Only gradually does it dawn to you what has made the scene to startling: All those people are dressed alike, in the same dark colors that you come to see as no-color.
After that comes the surprise that the effect is not grim.Realities in China may be harsh, but life as seen in public is good-natured. For example, a visit to China starts right at the train station with lunch.
A large room is set with tables for 8 to 10 people, each place with chopsticks and a fork (the last you may see for weeks) and the food already waiting. By its temperature it may have been waiting since you made your reservations.
This introductory food is unexpectedly familiar: sausage rolls that taste like corn dogs, sweet-and-sour pork that could have come from any Chinese-American carryout, an egg dish that is a close relative of an omelet, a vegetable dish similar to the "Buddha's Delight" on Chinese menus everywhere. Least familiar was the cold plate, the standard beginning to a meal in China. This one was relatively simple -- smoked chicken, smoky sliced fish fillets that looked like anchovies, pinwheels of meat paste rolled in a thin omelet and steamed.
You would have thought that the Chinese were feeding us snakes and snails and puppy dogs' tails. Many of the tourists in our group of 18 thought the pinwheels were, in fact, snake. They picked at the meat dishes but refused to touch the cold platter, thus setting the stage for two weeks of tea and rice. Declared one woman, "I'm not eating anything on this trip unless I know what it is!" That's rough when you can't tell a steamed omelet from a snake.
For those willing to learn, however, there were several lessons to be ingested with that first meal.For one thing, food in China can be very good and very bad, sometimes in the same meal. Second, temperatures of food or beverages are of no apparent interest to the Chinese. When food is ready, it is put on the table, whether or not the guests are there. In fact, for one meal we ordered chocolate souffles: They came before the meal, because that was when they were ready.
We learned that paper napkins are available, but never to be found where you expect them. We already knew that one never tips -- not ever -- in China. We had yet to learn that Chinese restaurants close early so that we must plan on dining before 7 p.m. (Oddly, no one was ever able to explain why.)
We had, in fact, a lot of things to learn as we began our two weeks of China on Six Chopsticks a Day.
It did not take long to learn that despite a prejudice in favor of Chinese food, I could eat as badly in China as anywhere -- and as well. The restaurants may all be run by the government, but they are as individualistic and independent as one would expect them to be if they were locked in fierce competition with each other.
Every city in China considers itself to have the best cooking, and when students or guides talk about their school days or tours of duty elsewhere and their relief at returning home, food is what they mention. They couldn't stand the rice of Peking/Shanghai/Canton; food is very different from one region to another, they say. But for a foreigner -- eating in hotels and the foreigners' sections of restaurants -- the differences are minimal. Not mythical -- just minimal.
If generalizations can be made about the cooking of southern versus northern and western China (Peking is in the north, Szechuan in the west; Canton lies to the south of Peking, with Shanghai in between), one could say that northern food is saltier and spicier, usually served at hotter temperatures. Southern rice is softer, southern sauces sweeter, southern noodles more often made with rice instead of wheat. No region, however, has a monopoly on grease -- Chinese food is oily and fatty, greasy wherever you eat it.
Other preconceived ideas fell by the wayside as well. Cloying sweetness is not, as some believe, an American adaptation of Cantonese food. Fish in China, for example, is usually fried, swamped by a cloying but peppery sweet-sour sauce (black bean and ginger sauce is a desirable alternative). But a significantt difference between Chinese food in China and America is that, with the exception of sweet-and-sour sauce or occasional noodle dishes, much less sauce bathes the food there than here. In China, the only sauce is what clings to the food, as with pasta dishes in Italy.
If the foods are not colorful enough, artificial coloring makes banquet platters more festive. Monosodium glutamate is at least as prevalent as in Chinese-American cooking, though not used for seafoods cooked live or in fried foods.
Whereas many of our Chinese-American dishes are mixtures of meats and/or seafoods and vegetables, in China dishes tend to be either meats or seafoods or vegetables. Except for seasoning vegetables like scallions, the vegetables come as separate dishes or surround the meat. And though they're fresh, they're sometimes limited in variety -- only bok choy hearts in Canton restaurants in autumn, for example. The most plentiful animal products were chickens, ducks and fish; beef was infrequently seen and of poor quality.
Since the average Chinese family shares a kitchen with several families, has little storage and no refrigeration, food is bought daily -- in summer fresh for each meal -- from open markets. You could find one of these markets by walking upstream of shoppers carrying a tiny fish or a crab or a live frog on a string, then following your nose to the source of the smell of offal and coriander.
During our visit to China, prices in four major categories -- meat, eggs, fish and chicken -- rose 30 percent: meat and fish from 65 cents a pound to 80 cents. Salaries went up about $3 a month to an average of $36. Not surprisingly, rice, at 10 cents a pound, remained the staple, along with vegetables, and animal ingredients were little more than seasonings. Still, China is proud that for the first time in thousands of years, starvation has been eliminated and that these price increases were the first for many years.
With such crowded housing and poor cooking facilities, it is not surprising to find that much of the eating is done in restaurants or on the streets from stands selling buns and pastries, candied fruits or ice cream, or more elaborate meat-filled dumplings or dumpling-filled soups. Restaurants, many of which serve hundreds or even thousands at a time, are usually crowded with Chinese eating quickly from large bowls in the center of a table, their meals largely rice or noodles.
Restaurants are social halls as well as eating places and conviviality more the focus than food. Neither are standards of cleanliness, to put it politely, a point of focus. In the large dining halls where the average Chinese gather, floors are often encrusted -- since there are no plates, bones and such are spit on the floor -- the tables may be greasy and the chopsticks still smelling of the meal before.
The grandeur of Chinese cuisine exists almost exclusively in the banquet cooking of restaurants, which make use of special ingredients and techniques and the services of famous chefs. The opening of China to Westerners means that there are more tourists looking for elaborate Chinese dishes and willing, and able, to pay for them, and some grand old, pre-Mao restaurants have been reopened and expanded to accommodate the new visitors. The banquet for foreigners is reviving Chinese haute cuisine, but, like other Chinese arts, Chinese cooking is recapturing the traditional rather than inventing and experimenting. The next step to watch is what Chinese cuisine will create as a new generation of young chefs are challenged. Canton
Canton is the gateway city to China if you enter from Hong Kong, and its sprawl is a surprise after that dense, highrise island. Being tropical, its tempo seems slow and that impression is enhanced by the bicycle-pace of its rush-hour traffic. The streets, sidewalks and dusty parks are crowded, and endless as well. Canton is a fitting introduction to the incomprehensible size of the population of China.
Cantonese, they say, eat everything with four legs except the table. Yewei Hsiang, one of the city's three dozen famous restaurants, specializes in wild game, Taitung in roast pig, and there are restaurants that feature snake, cat, monkey or duck. Given a month in Canton, however, I would probably pay a daily visit to Pan Hsi, which specializes in dim sum. As it was, my first and last restaurant meals in China were at Pan Hsi. Located on Xiangyang Road, this restaurant is itself a park, with bridges over small streams leading from room to room and some dining rooms built over a small lake.
When we arrived for ouur first meal -- a banquet ordered a few hours ahead -- our table was set with silver chopstick holders and cloissone ashtrays, along with green plastic toothpick holders. The napkins were cloth and folded into complicated shapes. Menus were printed for the occasion. While, as at most dinners in China, we kept the same small plate from appetizer through dessert, the formality of a banquet decreed that dishes be brought one or two at a time. After that dinner we learned Banquet Rule Number One: Eat fast. The dishes are brought in such rapid succession that a twelve-course banquet, including a brief linger over tea, is finished in an hour. And dishes are removed as quickly as they are brought. So, unless you wield your chopsticks quickly and keep track of comings and goings, you can miss a course or two.
Trying to keep notes on the progression of dishes took rapid-fire switching between chopsticks and pen. First came the plate of cold appetizers: duck liver, spiced beef, sausages, egg and meat pinwheels, duck gizzards with ground meat topping, blood sausage, shrimp, chicken and molded quail eggs, all the ingredients forming a platter-size basket of flowers. Ribbons of dyed agar-agar and egg formed bows for the handle. Butterflies of sliced turnips dipped among the meaty flowers. It so astonished us that we whipped out a Polaroid camera, intending to amaze our waitress with an instant photo. When the photo emerged, one waitress grabbed it, shook it to dry, and remarked that the camera should have been positioned and focused better. Chagrined, we started eating, remarking to ourselves that the cold plate didn't taste as good as it looked after all.
But Pan Hsi's dim sum -- in thousands of varieties served in an ever-changing menu -- certainly made up for any deficiencies in the cold plate. Our hotel clerk had told us that a group of Japanese ordered dim dum delivered from Pan Hsi every day for a hundred days, and the assortments never duplicated themselves.
For our banquet, therefore, we insisted on dim sum. They were a highlight of the meal -- of the trip, in fact. The dim sum platter was decorated with orange and gold filaments formed into nests, with vegetables carved into flowers, and with shredded multicolored shrimp chips. On it, meatballs were coated with finely diced egg white. Lard doughs were shaped like flowers. Shrimp toast was superb. Meat-filled little crepes were wonderful. The only competition with the dim sum for honors in this meal was shredded duck with garlic shoots, mushrooms and bean sprouts.
We learned a lot about Chinese banquets that night:
That on the whole they can be more gorgeous than delicious.
That chicken or duck served with a head means you are getting the whole bird, and if you you order half a bird, you will be served half a head;
That soups and sweets might come anywhere in a banquet, though both usually are at the end;
And that rice is only a token portion.
We also learned somewhat later that it is nearly impossible for a foreigner not to be served a banquet -- and at banquet prices.
There are only two ways for a foreigner to dine at a restaurant on his own in China. You can walk in off the street and order from the menu, either in the Chinese or the foreigners' sections (usually you will be formly shepherded for the foreigners' section, which avoids, among other things, the embarrassment of having diners shifted mid-meal to make way for "special guests"). Or you can order a banquet. You maay think there is another way -- like reserving a table and ordering a la carte -- but that is only a charade: Once you reserve a table ahead of time you are in for a banquet, or at least banquet prices. You can, of course, order a banquet when you walk in off the street, but there is no advantage; it just means you will be eating a meal that has a pre-set price, the price being double, triple or quadruple the a la carte prices. And, with prices in Chinese restaurants having doubled for foreigners this year, banquets are formidable expenses even by American standards.
The day after our first banquet we did succeed in ordering our first off-the-menu meal at Canton's Pei Siu restaurant. There was plenty on the menu to choose from -- 140 items of goose, chicken and duck. We chose a simple meal -- after the banquet we were ready for simplicity -- mostly noodles and vegetables ($2.50 a person), plus a cold steamed chicken ($5) as its expensive focal point. But the price was low compared to the $16-per-person tab (without beverages) of our banquet. And the food was obviously fresh, since the staff were squatting outside the front door picking cucumbers, trimming scallions and hacking up bok choy hearts for dinner.
While fresh food may be abundant, that doesn't mean the Chinese haven't been introduced to fast food. In fact when the Chinese put their minds to it, watch out, Big Mac.
We saw the tip of the iceberg at last fall's Canton Trade Fair: instant chicken soup with ginseng. The problem that won't solve hasn't been invented yet.
Convenience foods in China parallel food in general in China. On one hand, a Chinese can buy an entire ready-to-cook meal in the market, and it will be just what any chef would use: fresh vegetables, meats and condiments sliced or julienned or chopped, ready to stir fry for dinner. On the other hand, the Trade Fair, aimed at foreign markets, showed Chinese convenience foods just as abortive as any American supermarket might offer. The frozen food cases were stacked with raw oysters and lobsters in the shell, cooked quails and snails. Spiced port offal was just down the aisle from ice cream ready-packed in cones. Canned steamed duck with mushrooms stood ready to venture into the Western world. Chinese milk chocolate bars and yogurt were prepared for duty. And if you think America has a monopoly on insults to the human taste buds, you have yet to taste the Canton Trade Fair's coffee. Peking
One of the disappointments of my trip was that I was not to go to the Szechuan region, but one of its surprises was that the Szechuan restaurants in each city were among the best. This discovery proved particularly true in Peking, that vast, gray, monumental city whose chill is relieved by the brilliant tile facades of its palaces and temples, as well as by the nearly 700 restaurants serving more than a million people a day. But in four days we could visit no more than one percent of them.
It was on an insignificant-looking street, Rongxian Huton, that we found Peking's Szechuan (Sichuan) restaurant, sometimes still called Chengtu. Once the official residence of an important general -- and for a short time after that one of the world's most beautiful jails -- the restaurant looks like a miniature version of the brilliantly lacquered temples of Peking, with its red-, green-, and blue-tiled roof. Entering the courtyard looking for lunch, we threw the staff into confusion over which room would be appropriate for unexpected foreign visitors. Finally we were ushered to a large empty room with a bare red painted floor and institutional-yellow ochre walls, its sofas set with antimacassars and its chair backs set with napkins drying for dinner. The menu was in English, and some dishes we ordered simply for their intriguing prose. "Chicken in strange gravy" was, we discovered, bon bon chicken, the cold shreds of meat in a dark peanut and sesame seed sauce not as well seasoned as many I have tasted at home. Two dishes were worth not only the taxi ride, but maybe the plane ride, too. "Roast duck of tea" was smoky and earthy, permeated with sandalwood scent, a succulent bird of haunting savor. "Crispy rice with three precious," the sizzling rice common to restaurants in America, turned the flaws of oiliness, sweetness and saltiness into assets. Salty ham somehow balanced the sweet, gingery brown sauce to contrast and accentuate the clumps of puffy, crispy fried rice. The meal was rounded out with slightly warm, crisp cucumbers in sesame oil, Szechuan peppercorns and soy sauce; a peppery and oily thin-sliced tongue; doughy and mushy batter-fried shrimp in a scintillating hot sauce; bland celery cabbage in chicken fat; and deep-fried yellowfish, reminding us that frying is not the road to success for a Chinese fish.
The meal was a coup for $6 a person. And except for the presentation and decoration (and, reminded my Chinese friend, prestige), this impromptu meal matched most banquets we were to try, at a much smaller price.
In Peking, our greatest expectation led to our least accomplishment. Fang Shan, the last dowager empress' favorite restaurant and the choice of Chiang Ching, widow of Mao and member of the Gang of Four, had been closed to the public since the Cultural Revolution but had recently reopened and was serving the empress' legendary banquets to the public. The restaurant, set in Beihai Park along a willow-lined lake, is reached through painted and gilded arcades. The banquet rooms vary in sumptuousness, and ours was fairly plain. But our $30-a-person banquet -- which would cost considerably more now -- was to include the empress' favorite dishes. The cold plates were careful pyramids of meat dishes and sweets, decorated with maraschino cherries and canned pineapple. Seven cold dishes, two of them pasty sweets of subtle beauty, blended into one crescendo of disappointment. They were followed by two soups, one of them shark's fin and neither of them interesting in flavor. Pigeon arrived, with deep-fried noodles shaped like fantail fish, followed by fried shrimp, roast duck and fish from the nearby lake. All of them were either doughy, stale or in some way unsavory. A mid-meal sweet break reminded us that the empress must have been more famous for her sweet tooth than for her discrimination. After the fish came buttercream cakes, tea cookies, conical- and heart-shaped white sugary candies and spring rolls. They were pursued by stir-fried vegetables and an interesting meat dish of sesame seed rolls, chewy and faintly sweet, to split and stuff with salty, gingery minced pork. These little sandwiches were the most satisfying of the main dishes, but the meal ended on a sour note of canned mandarin oranges with maraschino cherries. Impressive as the meal was, it was far from good. Most of it tasted like tourist trap food.
But what could we expect from the favorite restaurant of a woman who, according to our guide, ate 280 courses at every meal, and though she ate alone, could have fed 5,000 people from each of her meals?
The empress also favored the Summer Palace as a place for dining, and its Ting Li Guan restaurant, translated into the Pavilion for Listening to the Orioles, cooks for tourists what are known as Palace Dishes. More than 600 people a day eat lunch there, dining on fish so fresh that their mouths still quiver. In fact, you can choose your carp from the pond and have it slashed and cooked so quickly that it comes flapping and gasping to the table, its gills still heaving even after all its flesh has been eaten.
A restaurant like this is a mecca for cooks. This kitchen -- really a complex of kitchens with separate ones for making filled steamed buns called baos, for butchering, for preparing vegetables and for the cooking itself -- has 14 chefs, the head chef having worked there for 30 years. Fish is the most popular dish, all fresh from Peking's waters. In fact, all the food is local except the canned mushrooms, frozen shrimp, evaporated milk and canned asparagus. Cooking in Peking, said the chef, has changed greatly since the Revolution. Thirty years ago it was more crude. It has gradually become more delicate, and chefs are increasingly concerned that the food be healthful. Vegetables are crisper, being cooked for shorter times. In consideration of cholesterol, egg yolks are used less. And monosodium glutamate, while still in use, is left out of fried dishes and foods that are cooked live.
After carp and pigeon and a proper parade of other dishes, we were still to sample Washington's favorite, Peking duck. At the largest of the city's four Peking Duck restaurants, with seating for nearly 2,500, we found, in a banquet far better than Fang Shan's but equivalently priced, the Peking duck to set the standard. Its golden skin was glistening, its meat succulent and tasting of fresh, well-fed bird with just enough fat for unctuousness. Delicious by itself, it needed no embellishment. The three thick piles of pancakes had some life and character to them. Also came flat sesame rolls similar to Fang Shan's, and hoisin sauce and scallions to season the duck sandwiches. This was the climax, but the meal continued with duck webs, livers and hearts in several guises; big, woodsy wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots; canned white asparagus with wonderful baby bok choy, a crisply fried whole fish in a mild sweet-and-sour sauce, crunchy battered shrimp stir-fried with scallions and garlic (the first firm, crisp shrimp of our trip). The final main course was duck soup, delicate and ever more endearing as one ate beyond the first mouthfuls.Desserts were batter-fried lychees dipped in caramelized sugar, as bananas and apples are done in America's Chinese restaurants. Finally came tangerines and mandarin oranges, fresh ones this time.
We left with high hopes for mass feeding. Hangchow
Beautiful Hangchow, the resort on the West Lake that gives its name to famous fish and duck dishes, may be the New Orleans of China. Its culinary tradition thrives; eating remains an important art. It was in Hangchow that I made two significant discovereis: Even if you are eating with your tour group in a hotel, you can order extra dishes off the menu and thereby try special local dishes; and you can get tired of duck even if it is one of your favorite foods.
In Hangchow we also discovered a whole new kind of chicken, so tough and stringy that chewing it must be an art learned over a lifetime. But then, it was here that we became acquainted with honeyed ham, soft and salty, with the earhty, well-aged flavor of true Smithfield ham, but lapped with a gently sweet thickened sauce with lotus seeds. That was a sweet-salty dish of formidable character.
Hangchow chefs know how to take advantage of a good thing. Thus, a banquet at Hangchow Restaurant seasoned no less than six dishes with that fine ham. This Hangchow banquet deserves a chapter of its own. Not only was it reasonable, costing about $14 a person, but it was extremely well-served.
We discussed the menu with the chef the day before, and the staff kept a lookout for our arrival. The dining room was decorated with plants and flowers, and each napkin was in a different flower shape. This was what one member of our group dubbed a "two-table banquet," for a separate table had been set up for tea to precede the meal. The cold plate, with 14 different foods on it, was shaped like a flower, each food forming a separate ornate petal. That was succeeded by nine main dishes, two kinds of dim sum and fruit. We found the West Lake fish fresh and succulent. The crabs and shrimp arrived in a golden egg sauce. We sampled luxuries like sea slugs and beggar's chicken -- stuffed with pork, ham and bamboo shoots, seasoned with cinnamon, pickled cabbage, ginger and wine, wrapped in lotus leaves and cellophane and cooked in clay. And the ending was as grand as all that preceded: a clear soup floating the airiest fish and egg white dumplings, their tops decorated with slivers of vegetables and ham formed into fish. It was a liquid work of art -- the imaginative blending to two of Hangchow's most valuable resources, its fish and its hams. The whole staff gathered at the door to say good-bye. We wanted to reserve again for tomorrow, next week, next year. Nanking
Traveling from Hangchow to Nanking overland by train, we concluded that the West could learn a lesson or two from the East -- even if it is classically sweet and sour.
On the trip, our dining car was set with folding chairs in cotton slipcovers at tables bearing white plastic cloths, potted plants and three bottles of wine for six people. Platters arrived intermittently. First, soy sauce chicken with vinegar, ginger and scallion was savory but so tough we dubbed it chicken chewing gum. The sweet-and-sour pork, though, was crisp and very sweet but well balanced with vinegar. A whole fish with scallion and ginger was lukewarm and strongly fishy. But its compensation was a bowl of tiny peas with cubes of omelet and red pimento, the three colors shiny under a translucent sauce.
Grand food it was not, and some of it was dreadful. But it was a lunch of personality, and better than most meals I have had in motion.
When you ask about food and restaurants in Nanking, somebody politely turns the conversation to Nanking's famous bridge. It is the kind of city where the best cooking is in the hotels, and their best dishes are said to be foreign foods. The city's most famous dish, Nanking duck, is flattened, salted and boiled, and nobody seems to actually like it.
If Nanking wasn't to offer any culinary revelations, except extraordinary shirmps the size of small lobster tails, we decided it was the city to learn more about the local people. So here we dined with the masses. And it was here we spent a Saturday night memorable for much except its food.
Eveyone seemed out on the town. We ended up in the Tung Ching Lo restaurant where the glass-covered wooden tables were packed with identical blue jackets. In one corner the patrons were participating in a mao tai drinking contest. In our corner, finding the restaurant out of beer, we imbibed hot water mixed with a brandy labeled "China Famous Wine. Special Fine Brandy." It added $7 to our $4-a-person banquet, but it helped lubricate the evening and was the part of the meal we were most eager to remember. Shanghai
Unlike Nanking and most other mainland cities, Shanghai has streets dense with bakeries and restaurants -- said to number 12,000! For 10 million people that is not a lot, but it gives tourists plenty of scope. You can walk in off the street and order a meal as sophisticated as any banquet, or nibble dumplings and pastries from one stand after another. You can eat authentic French food or a grilled cheese sandwich. And you can find someone who speaks at least a little English on every street. The street signs and numbers are in familiar characters.
Shanghai food was familiar to us, though the meatballs we had known as lions' heads were improved in Shanghai by the addition of crabmeat and a golden sauce. We rarely found the braised meats we had known to be Shanghai specialties, except for a duck that looked about as dead as anything I have ever eaten. One surprise was being served a single enormous fish head as lunch at the Heng Shan Hotel. Our group left the head largely intact, but relished its sauce, a gingery brown gravy floating square transparent noodles that had absorbed the flavors.
Shanghai is full of fascinating food experiences.
We wandered through the warrens of streets in the old city around Yu Yuan park, followed by children practicing their "hellos." We watched jao tse being wrapped in their dough and steamed in giant iron pans. We feasted at a dumpling stand on batter-fried cabbage, jao tse, egg rolls and bowls of soup floating a dozen won ton each, all for about 15 cents a person. Take that, you $40 banqueteers!
But we would not have missed a taste of the Peace Hotel dining room, as pretentious, formal and sneering a restaurant as any in New York or Paris. The eighth floor dining rooms are red and gold glories. The menu lists a range from Pakistani curries to meat blintzes. Crabs are served arranged on platters like tall crowns. Most of the diners were Americans, eating things like apple pie, at American prices. Stir-fried shrimp with pine nuts cost about $7, a plate of fresh mushrooms over $4. And if you ordered less than a whole dinner you got an unmistakably translated cold shoulder. But the scene turns from intimidating to endearing in light of signs like this: "From to day service steamed Yenching River large crab is a best season dish. Welcome try." After China
Hong Kong, after we returned from China, seemed Western and incomparably luxurious. Whereas the markets in China had vast mounds of some vegetables and fruits, for instance, Hong Kong had them in stunning variety, imported from all over the world (including cauliflowers from the U.S., selling for 50 cents each). Hong Kong is like China's banquet room -- able to obtain any food, able to cook any dish, able to serve to any degree of lavishness. The food may be better in Hong Kong than in China, but dining out in China is like eating Hangchow's famous steamed crabs in the shell: There is pleasure in the search and in the discovery of each delicious morsel, of capturing the culinary nuances on their home ground, in their natural context. Chinese food is the same if you eat it with a fork, but eating it with chopsticks allows you to experience it as it was meant to be tasted. And Chinese food in Washington tastes different to me now that it is imbued with the nuances, memories and lessons of tasting it in China.