Exotic Eats in China —by Jinny Batterson
Whenever I’ve returned to the U.S. after a lengthy stay in China, I miss the variety of vegetable greens in my stateside diet. The typical American choices—broccoli, peas, green beans, or spinach, each boiled—can get wearisome fairly quickly if one has gotten accustomed to more varied fare. I’ve relished the sampling of Chinese vegetables and Chinese cooking methods I’ve had a chance to experience so far, and I’m sure there are even more Chinese-grown vegetables and presentation methods that I have yet to discover. (About the only “American” vegetable dish that I miss in China is fresh salad—because of sanitation concerns, eating vegetables raw has long been a no-no in much of China.) The diet in many parts of China is somewhat more locavore than here. Long-distance transportation of fresh produce for all but the very wealthy has only recently become practical. “Average” Chinese over centuries have discovered differing edibles, and different ways of cooking them, that tempt the palate and help temper the seasons. Not only are peas eaten a la American “peas and carrots,” but snow pea pods are widely available—boiled in broths, sauteed with a little garlic, or added to stir-fries. At certain seasons, “pea tendrils,” the tender upper sets of leaves and stems on emerging pea vines, can be sautéed or added to broth for an early spring soup. Certain varieties of squash and sweet potatoes furnish not only their fruits or tubers, but also edible vines. While winter typically limits choices more than the other seasons do, cabbage family crops abound—not just our round, bland, green, typically overcooked version. There are lots of varieties, and lots of spices that can add zest.
One of my green favorites is called (I think) “wa wa tsai.” It looks vaguely like Brussels sprouts—lots of small round protuberances around a central stalk. I don’t remember exactly how to cook it, and would have to ask a Chinese friend again whether to eat the outside or the core. What I do remember is that the vegetable’s name is descriptive of a family with multiple infants (the round heads)—“cry-cry vegetable.” A perennial favorite when we go to our local Chinese restaurant is “four season beans.” This alternative to “green bean casserole with mushroom soup and onion crisps” requires two short cooking cycles—first blanching, then, after allowing a little time for the beans to dry, flash frying with garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppercorns, and a few drops of soy sauce. When done right (which I’ve despaired of ever doing in my sensitive-smoke-alarmed American kitchen), the beans are tender but not mushy, with a slightly wrinkled exterior and a piquant taste. A version is also called “tiger skin beans.”
A favorite restaurant during my Ya’an stay was one specializing in “mushroom hot pot.” The damp, fairly temperate climate of this part of Sichuan province was good for growing mushrooms—at certain seasons, I could splurge by ordering a deluxe hot pot that included nearly a dozen different mushroom varieties, along with vegetables and variations of tofu suitable for cooking in a hearty broth.
Chinese cooks have also been inventive with street food. Most large towns and cities have one or more “night markets” where all kinds of foods on skewers can be purchased for grilling over wood or charcoal fires. I haven’t yet been adventuresome enough to try scorpions or small songbirds, but have enjoyed varieties of seafood, pork, mutton, eggplant, and tofu. Night markets will sometimes also have crepe-like snacks cooked on griddles adapted from old oil drums. These can be savory or sweet. The “expensive” versions (for about the equivalent of 60 cents U.S.) include a cooked egg in the filling.
The most exotic dishes I’m aware of having eaten came during banquets at my first short-term teaching assignment. Then, I wasn’t aware that Chinese banquet etiquette dictated leaving some of each dish on a serving platter to indicate one had had enough of that particular dish. As an American child of the 1950’s who was indoctrinated into the “clean plate club” and expected to finish every last morsel put in front of me, I found this particular lesson hard to grasp. I also hadn’t learned that most Chinese banquets consist of many successive courses, with the most prestigious and nourishing coming toward the end of the meal. So, as I sat beside the Foreign Affairs Officer and across from our school’s principal and his wife at our welcoming banquet, I tentatively sampled some of the early dishes. I found one that looked and tasted somewhat like the chipped beef I was served as a child. After others had helped themselves, I took the final slice from the platter. Our school principal smiled at me, signaled the waiter (who promptly brought another plateful), and then said something in Chinese to our FAO.
She translated for me, “Principal Wu says he sees you like the donkey meat.”
I still haven’t mastered banquet etiquette. In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to sample ant-filled pastries, duck’s tongues, and elm tree buds, among the dishes whose English equivalents have been explained to me. Over time, I’ve learned that, as a general rule, one waits for a whole fish or a meat dish, followed by a final toast, then some fruit slices, to signal that a banquet is finished. I’m still learning, and you may be stages ahead of me. At any rate, I wish you many happy eating adventures, Chinese style.