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GUIDE TO CHINA

EATING & DRINKING


The Chinese love to eat, and from market-stall buns and soup, right through to the intricate variations of regional cookery, China boasts one of the world's great­est cuisines. It's also far more complex than you might suspect from its mani­festations overseas, and while food might riot initially be a major reason for your trip, once here you may well find that eating becomes the highlight. However, the inability to order effectively sees many travellers missing out, and they leave des­perate for a "proper meal", convinced that the bland stir-fries and dumplings served up in the cheapest canteens is all that's available. With a bit of effort you can eat well whatever your budget and ability with the language, though it can be monotonous eating solo for any length of time - meals are considered social events, and the process is accordingly geared to a group of diners sharing a vari­ety of different dishes with their companions.

Though fresh ingredients are available from any market stall, there are very few opportuni­ties to cook for yourself in China, and most of the time eating out is much more convenient and interesting. The principles of Chinese cooking are based on a desire for a healthy harmony between the qualities of different ingredients. For the Chinese, this extends right down to considering the yin and yang attrib­utes of various dishes - for instance, whether food is "moist" or "dry", or "heating" or "cool­ing" in effect - but can also be appreciated in the use of ingredients with contrasting textures and colour, designed to please the eye as well as the palate. Recipes and ingredients them­selves, however, are generally a response to more direct requirements. The chronic poverty of China's population is reflected in the tradi­tionally scant quantity of meat used, while the need to preserve precious stocks of firewood led to the invention of quick cooking tech­niques, such as slicing ingredients into tiny shreds and stir-frying them. The reliance on eating whatever was immediately to hand also saw a readiness to experiment with anything edible: so, though you'd hardly come across them every day, items such as bear's paw, shark's fin, fish lips and even jellyfish all appear in Chinese cuisine.

Ingredients and cooking methods

The after-effects of Maoist policies mean­ that as late as the 1980s the availability of good ingredients in China was pretty poor leading to a miserably low standard of food served outside the highest-class hotels and restaurants. Now, in much of the country, market stalls are swamped under the weigh, of fresh produce, the restaurant industry is booming - though there is a growing nation­al tendency to cover up poor cooking skills by using too much oil and flavour enhancer.

In the south, rice in various forms - long and short grain, noodles, or as dumpling wrappers - is the staple, replaced in the cooler north by wheat, formed into buns or noodles. Keep an eye out for lamian - liter­ally "pulled noodles" - a Muslim treat made as you wait by pulling out ribbons of dough between outstretched arms, and serving them in a spicy soup.

Meat is held to be a generally invigorating substance and, ideally, forms the backbone of any meal - serving a pure meat dish is the height of hospitality. Pork is the most com­mon meat used, except in areas with a strong Muslim tradition where it's replaced with mutton or beef. Fowl is considered especially good during old age or convales­cence, and was quite a luxury in the past (chicken was once the most expensive meat in Beijing ), though today most rural people in central and southern China seem to own a couple of hens, and the countryside is lit­ Wed with duck farms. Fish and seafood are very highly regarded and can be extraor­dinarily expensive - partly because local pollution means that they often have to be imported - as are rarer game meats.

Eggs - duck. chicken or quail - are a popular nationwide snack, often flavoured by hard-boiling in a mixture of tea soy sauce and star anise, There's also the so-called 'thousand-year' variety, preserved for a few months in ash and straw - they look gruesome, with translucent brown albumen and green yolks, but actually have a delicate, brackish flavour. Dairy products serve limit­ed purposes in China . Goat's cheese and yoghurt is eaten in parts of Yunnan and the Northwest, but milk is considered fit only for children and the elderly and is not used in cooking.

Vegetables accompany nearly every Chinese meal, used in most cases to bal­ance tastes and textures of meat, but also appearing as dishes in their own right.

Though the selection can be very thin in some parts of the country, there's usually a wide range on offer, from leafy greens to water chestnuts, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, seaweed and radish - even thin, transparent "glass" noodles, made out of pea starch which the Chinese regard as vegetables too.

Soya beans are used very widely in Chinese cooking, being a good source of protein in a country where meat has often been a luxury. The beans themselves are small and green when fresh, and are some­times eaten this way in the south. More fre­quently, however, they are salted and used to thicken sauces, fermented to produce soy sauce, or boiled and pressed to make white cakes of tofu (beancurd). Fresh tofu is flavourless and as soft as custard, though it can be or pressed further to create a firmer texture, or deep-fried until crisp. This is often smoked or cooked in stock, sliced thinly and used as a meat substitute in vegetarian cooking. Regional variations abound: in the west tofu is served heavily spiced; in Hunan they grow mould on it (rather like cheese), in the south it's stuffed with meat; northerners make it spongy by freezing it; and every­ where it gets used in soup. The skin that forms on top of the liquid while tofu is being made is itself skimmed off, dried, and used as a wrapping for spring rolls and the like.

Seasonal availability is smoothed over by a huge variety of dried, salted and pickled vegetables, meats and seafood, which often characterize local cooking styles. There's also an enormous assortment of regional fruit, great to clean the palate or fill a space between meals.

When it finally comes to preparing and cooking these ingredients, be aware that there's far more on offer than simply chop­ping everything into small pieces and stir-fry­ing them. A huge number of spices are used for their health-giving properties, to mask undesirable flavours or provide a background taste. Marinating removes blood (which is generally repugnant to the Chinese, though congealed pig's blood is a common rural dish in the south) - and ten­derizes and freshens the flavour of meats, Chicken and fish are often cooked whole, though they may be dismembered before serving. Several cooking methods can be used within a single dish to maximize tex­tures or flavours, including crisping by deep frying in flour or a batter, steaming, which can highlight an ingredient's subtler flavours boiling and blanching, usually to firm meat as a precursor to other cooking methods, and slow cooking in a rich stock.

Regional cooking

Not surprisingly, given China's scale, there are a number of distinct regional cooking styles, divided into four major traditions. Northern cookery was epitomized by the imperial court and so also became known as Mandarin or Beijing cooking, though its influences are far wider than these names sug­gest. A solid diet of wheat and millet buns, noodles, pancakes and dumplings help to face severe winters, accompanied by the savoury tastes of dark soy sauce and bean paste, white cabbage, onions and garlic. The north's cooking has also been influenced by neighbours and invaders: Mongols brought their hot pots and grilled and roast meats, and Muslims a taste for mutton and chicken Combined with exotic items imported by foreign merchants and vassal embassies visiting the court, imperial kitchens turned these rather rough ingredients and cooking styles into sophisticated marvels such as Beijing duck and bird's nest soup - though most northerners survive on soups of winter pick­les or fried summer greens eaten with a bun.

The central coast provinces produced the Eastern style, whose cooking delights in seasonal fresh seafood and river fish. Winters can still be cold and summers scorchingly hot so dried and salted ingredients feature too, pepping up a background of rice noodles and dumplings. Based around Shanghai, eastern cuisine (as opposed to daily fare) enjoys little, delicate forms and light fresh, sweet flavours, sometimes to the point of becoming precious - tiny meatballs are steamed in a rice coating and called "pearls", for example. Red-cooking, stewing meat in a sweetened wine and soy-sauce stock, is another characteristic of eastern dishes.

Western China is dominated by the bois­terous cooking of Sichuan and Hunan, the antithesis of the eastern style. Here, there's a heavy use of chillies and pungent, con­structed flavours-vegetables are concealed with "fish-flavoured sauce, and even nor­mally bland tofu is given enough spices to lift the top off your head. Yet there are still sub­tleties to enjoying a cuisine which uses dried orange peel, aniseed, ginger and spring onions, and the cooking methods them­selves - such as dry frying and smoking - are refreshingly unusual Sichuan is also home of the now-ubiquitous hotpot (huoguo), for which you pay a set amount and are served with various raw meats and vegetables which you cook in boiling stock.

Southern China is fertile and subtropical. a land of year-round plenty. When people say that southerners - specifically the Cantonese - will eat anything, they really mean it: fish maw, snake, dog and cane rat are some of the more unusual dishes here, strange even to other Chinese, though there's also a huge consumption of fruit and vegetables, fish and shellfish. Typically, the demand is for extreme­ly fresh ingredients, quickly cooked and only lightly seasoned, though the south is also home to that famous mainstay of Chinese restaurants overseas, sweet-and-sour sauce. The tradition of dim sum - "little eats" – reached its pinnacle here, too, where a morn­ing meal of tiny flavoured buns, dumplings anf pancakes is washed down with copious tea, satisfying the Chinese liking for a varied assortment of small dishes. Nowadays dim sum in Mandarin) is eaten all over China, but southern restaurants still have the best.

Hong Kong basically takes the best of Chinese cooking as its own, though heavily biased towards the southern style, while in Macau you'll get the chance to try the s unique mix of Portuguese and Asianfood, known as Macanese. Aside from the four major styles, almost every part of China has its own regional slant on food.

Breakfast and snacks

Breakfast is not a big event by Chinese stan­dard, more something to line the stomach for A few hours. Much of the country is content with a bowl of zhou (also known as congee, Rice porridge) or sweetened soy milk, flavoured with pickles and accompanied by a heavy, plain bun or fried dough stick, the latter rather like a straight, savoury doughnut. Another favourite is a plain soup with rice noodles and perhaps a little meat. Most places also have countless small, early opening snack stalls, usually located around markets, train and bus stations, Here you'll get grilled chicken wings, kebabs, spiced noodles, baked yams and potatoes; boiled eggs grilled corn and count­less local treats. Look out also for steamed buns, which are either stuffed with meat or vegetables (baozi) or plain (mantou, literally bald heads"). The buns originated in the north and are especially warming on a winter's day; a sweeter Cantonese variety is stuffed with barbecued pork. Another northern snack now found everywhere is the ravioli-like jiaozi, again with a meat or vegetable filling and either fried or steamed; shuijiao are boiled jaozi served in soup. Some small restaurants spe­cialize in jiaozi, containing a bewildering range of fillings and always sold by weight.

Western and international food

There's a fair amount of Western and inter­national food available in China, though supply and quality varies from place to place. Hong Kong has the best range, with some excellent restaurants covering every­thing from French to Vietnamese cuisine, and there are a number of restaurants spe­cializing in Western food in Guangzhou , Beijing , Yangshuo and Shanghai . Elsewhere, international-style hotels may have Western restaurants, often serving relatively expen­sive but huge buffet breakfasts of scram bled egg, bacon, toast, cereal, and coffee; and there's a growing number of cafes in many cities, offering fresh coffee and tea, along with set meals from Y30-80 - steak hotplates are a current trend (the more expensive versions using imported beef), served with a drink, small soup and salad. Shangdao Kafei and Coffee Language are two widespread Taiwanese-owned chains, with branches in several cities. Burger, fried-chicken and pizza places are also ubiquitous, including domestic chains such as Dicos alongside genuine McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut.

Where to eat

In itself, getting fed is never difficult as every­ one wants your custom. Walk past anywhere that sells cooked food and you'll be j hailed by cries of chi fan - basically, "come and eat!"

Hotel dining rooms can be very flash affairs, with the most upmarket serving a range of foreign and regional Chinese food at ruinous cost, though more average estab­lishments can often be extremely good value. Advantages include the possibility that staff may speak English, or that they might offer a set menu of small local dishes. Elsewhere, restaurants are often divided into two or three floors: the first will offer a canteen-like choice, upstairs will be pricier and have more formal dining arrangements, with waitress service and a written menu, while further floors (if they have them) are generally reserved for banquet parties or foreign tour groups and are unlikely to seat 51 individuals. Note that the favoured atmos­phere in a Chinese restaurant is renao, or "hot and noisy", rather than the often quiet norm in the West.

The cheapest stalls and canteens are necessarily basic, with simple food which is often much better than you'd expect from the furnishings. Though foreigners are gen­erally given disposable chopsticks, it's prob­ably worth buying your own set in case these aren't available - washing up frequent­ly involves rinsing everything in a bucket of grey water on the floor and leaving it to dry on the pavement.

While small noodle shops and food stalls around train and bus stations have flexible hours, restaurant opening times tend to be early and short. Breakfast is usually under way by 6am , and will have wound up by 9am . Get up late and you'll have to join the first sitting for lunch at 11am or so, leaving you plenty of time to work up an appetite for the evening meal around 5pm . An hour later you'd be lucky to get a table in some places, and by 9pm the staff will be yawning and sweeping the debris off the tables around your ankles.

When ordering, unless eating a one-dish meal like Peking duck or a hotpot, try to select items with a range of tastes and tex­tures - perhaps some seafood, meat and chicken, each cooked in a different manner; it's also usual to include a soup. In cheap places, servings of noodles or rice are huge, but as they are considered basic stomach fillers, quantities decline the more upmarket you go. Note that dishes such as jiaozi or some seafood, as well as fresh produce, are sold by weight: a hang is 50 grams, a banjin 250 grams, a jin 500 grams, and a gongjin one kilo.

Menus, where available, are often more of an indication of what's on offer than a defini­tive list, so don't be afraid to ask for a miss­ing favourite. Note also that English menu translations tend to omit things that the Chinese consider might be unpalatable to foreigners. Our menu reader (see p.1266) will certainly help you order if you can't speak Chinese: otherwise, pointing is all that's required at street stalls and small restaurants, where the ingredients are dis­played out the front in buckets, bundles and cages; canteens usually have the fare laid out or will have the selection scrawled illegi­bly on strips of paper or a board hung on the wall. You either tell the cook directly what you want or buy chits from a cashier, which you exchange at the kitchen hatch for your food and sit down at large communal tables or benches,

When you enter a proper restaurant you'll be escorted to a chair and promptly given a pot of tea, along with pickles and nuts in upmarket places. The only tableware provid­ed is a spoon, bowl and a pair of chop­sticks, and at this point the Chinese will ask for a flask of boiling water and a bowl to wash it all in - not usually necessary, but something of a ritual. A menu will be pro­duced. if they have one, but otherwise you might be escorted through to the kitchen to make your choice. Alternatively, have a look at what other diners are eating - the Chinese are often delighted that a foreigner wants to eat Chinese food, and will indicate the best food on their table.

One thing to watch out for is getting the idea across when you want different items cooked together (say yikuair) - otherwise you might end up with separate plates of nuts, meat and vegetables when you thought you'd ordered a single dish of chick­en with cashews and green peppers. Note also that unless you're specific about how you want your food prepared, it inevitably arrives stir-fried.

Dishes are all served at once, placed in the middle of the table for diners to share; eat fairly slowly, taking time to talk between helping yourself. To handle chopsticks, hold one halfway along its length like a pencil, then slide the other underneath and use them as an extension of your fingers to pick up the food - though note that rice is shov­elled in using the chopsticks, with the bowl up against your lips, while soft or slippery foods such as tofu or mushrooms are man­aged with spoons. With some poultry dish­es you can crunch up the smaller bones, but anything else is spat out on to the tablecloth or floor, more or less discreetly depending on the establishment - watch what others are doing. Soups tend to be bland and are consumed last (except in the south where nay be served first or as part of the mail meal) to wash the meal down, the liquid slurped from a spoon or the bowl once ,the noodles, vegetables or meat in it have been picked out and eaten. Desserts aren't regular feature in China , though in the sweet soups and buns are eaten (the not confined to main meals), particularly at fe­stive occasions.

Resting your chopsticks together across the top of your bowl means that you've fin­ished eating. After a meal the Chinese don't hand around to talk over drinks as in the but get up straight away and leave. In canteens you'll pay up front, while at restaurant ask for the bill and pay either the r or at the front till, Tipping is not expected in mainland China .

Drinking

Water is easily available in China , but never drink what comes out of the tap. Boiled water always on hand in hotels and trains, eigher provided in large vacuum flasks or an urn, and you can buy bottled spring water at station stalls and supermarkets - read the labels and you'll see some unusual sub­stances (such as radon) listed, which you'd probably want to avoid.

Tea

Tea was introduced into China from India around 1800 years ago and was originally drunk for medicinal reasons. Although its health properties are still important, and some food halls sell nourishing or stimulating varieties by the bowlful, over the centuries a whole social culture has sprung up around: this beverage, spawning teahouses which once held the same place in Chinese society that the local pub or bar does in the West. Plantations of neat rows of low tea bushes adorn hillsides across southern China , while the brew is enthusiastically consumed from the highlands of Tibet -where It's mixed with barley meal and butter-to every restaurant d household between Hong Kong and Beijing .

Often the first thing you'll be asked in a restaurant is he shenme cha -"what sort of tea would you like? Chinese tea comes in red, green and flower-scented varieties, depending on how it's processed; only Hainan produces Indian-style black tea. Some regional kinds, such as pu'er from Yunnan , Fujian's tie guanyin, Zhejiang's longing, or Sichuan's emei cha, are highly sought after - if you like the local style, head for the nearest market and stock up. Though tea is never drunk with milk and only very rarely with sugar, the manner in which it's served also varies from place to place: sometimes it comes in huge mugs with a lid, elsewhere in dainty cups served from a miniature pot; there are also formalized tea rituals in parts of Fujian and Guangdong. When drinking in company, it's polite to top up others' cups before your own, whenever they become empty; if someone does this for you, lightly tap your first two fingers on the table to show your thanks. If you've had enough, leave your cup full, and in a restau­rant take the lid off or turn it over if you want the pot refilled during the meal.

It's also worth trying some Muslim tea, which involves dried fruit, nuts, seeds, crys­tallized sugar and tea heaped into a cup with the remaining space filled with hot water, poured with panache from an immensely long-spouted copper kettle. Also known as babao cha, or Eight Treasures Tea, it's becoming widely available in upmarket restaurants everywhere, and is sometimes sold in packets from street stalls.

Alcohol

The popularity of beer -pijiu-in China rivals that of tea, and, for men, is the preferred mealtime beverage (drinking alcohol in public is considered improper for Chinese women, though not for foreigners). The first brewery was set up in the northeastern port of Qingdao by the Germans in the nineteenth century, and now, though the Tsingtao label is widely available, just about every province produces at least one brand of four percent Pilsner. Sold in litre bottles, it's always drink­able, often pretty good, and is actually cheaper than bottled water. Draught beer is becoming available across the country.

Watch out for the term "wine" on English menus, which doesn't usually carry the con­ventional meaning. China does actually have a couple of commercial vineyards producing the mediocre Great Wall and Dynasty labels, more of a status symbol than an attempt to rival Western growers. Far better are the local pressings in Xinjiang Province , where the population of Middle Eastern descent takes its grapes seriously. More often, how­ever, "wine" denotes spirits, made from rice (mijiu), sorghum or millet (baqiu). Serving spirits to guests is a sign of hospitality, and they're always used for toasting at ban­quets. Again, local home-made varieties can be quite good, while mainstream brands-especially the expensive, nationally famous Maotai and Wuliangye - are pretty vile to the Western palate. Imported beers and spirits are sold in large department stores and in city bars, but are always expensive.

Western-style bars are found not only in Hong Kong and Macau , but also in the major mainland cities. These establishments serve both local and imported beers and spirits, and are popular with China's middle class as well as foreigners. Mostly, though, the Chinese drink alcohol with their meals - all restaurants serve at least local beer and baijiu.

Soft drink

Canned products, usually sold unchilled, include various lemonades and colas, and the national sporting drink Jianlibao, an orange and honey confection which most foreigners find over-sweet, Fruit juices can be unusual and refreshing, however, flavoured with chunks of lychee, lotus and water chestnuts. Coffee is grown and drunk in Yunnan and Hainan , and imported brews are available in cafes; you can buy instant powder in any supermarket Milk is sold in powder form as baby food, and increasingly in bottles for adult consumption as its bene­fits for invalids and the elderly become accepted wisdom. Sweetened yogurt drinks, available all over the country in little packs of six, are a popular treat for children, though their high sugar content won't do your teeth much good.