Travels in Sichuan and China

Travels in China, by Andreas

Helen (Gong Zhihong) and I spent a month in China in late 2011. I’ve been to China a number of times, but always to Beijing and Shanghai. My Chinese friends always told me to see other parts of China. Helen is from Sichuan, so we went to visit her family and friends.

Here are my notes about China. If you have comments, please write at the bottom of the page (in English or Chinese) and I’ll reply. Text and photographs are © Andreas Ramos 2012 USA. You can ask me for permission to use these.

All the Food in China

The biggest thing about China is of course the food. There is no doubt that the Chinese have the world’s most complex and developed culture for food. It’s not just the food: it’s also the way they serve and the way they eat.

So what’s the difference between Western and Chinese food? It’s not just chopsticks. It has to do with the idea of flavor. The essential idea of Western cuisine is complementary flavors. The meat is the center of the meal and the other items support its flavor. Thus it’s steak and potatoes, hamburger and fries, chicken and rice, etc. The drink’s flavor should also complement the food: red wine with beef, white wine with fish, and so on.

In contrast, the Chinese like their food to be in contrast and disharmony. This is why they serve so many things (you can easily see 7-10 dishes for a table of four) and many different kinds of things: noodles, fish, chicken, beef, pork, and so on made in different ways: fried, steamed, and so on. The flavors fight for attention: you’ll get super-hot, sweet, savory, sour, aromatic, bitter, and more all in the same meal.

This isn’t just complexity: the Chinese like chaos and odd juxtaposition. Everything is possible. I think this highlights the difference between Western and Chinese culture: Western culture for some 2,500 years has been based on the combination of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, which presents the idea of a single god which unifies all aspects of the universe in one. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, and so on are based on a fundamental idea of (and ideal) unity. In contrast, Chinese have 5,000 years of multiple simultaneous traditions which arose for different reasons. They don’t expect unity in the universe.

The candy section in a supermarket.

Once you see this, you began to understand many things about Chinese culture. They wear the oddest fabrics, styles, and colors together and don’t mind that it clashes. For Westerners, the ideal is a coordinated ensemble. A Chinese can wear a business suit with red socks and white running shoes and not understand why we notice. A Chinese street is a chaos of sounds, colors, billboards, and activities. They even have a word for that style: “hot and noisy.”

Restaurants, markets, street life: They like it that way.

Go to the very best Western restaurant and the best Chinese restaurant. The ideal Western restaurant is a five-star French restaurant with muted coordinated colors, quiet conversation among adults, and food served at the same time, featuring simple preparation and clear flavors. People wait politely to start eating at the same time and everyone has table manners. Many meals often start with a prayer. Your assigned waiter comes to your table to check on you.

A Chinese restaurant is everyone talking loudly all at once, children running around, dishes are hurried out to tables, where everyone immediately starts eating. Table manners? Others have written that Chinese have the suspicion that table manners are a Western trick to keep you from digging in, and it seems that way. Nobody prays before they eat. They wolf down food, stuffing their mouths, talking non-stop at the same time. If you slow down, your neighbor spoons food onto your plate without asking. Everyone is included: grandmother, spouses, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews, and friends. You want a waiter? Flag any waiter down, halfway across the restaurant, as they run from table to table, and just tell’em what you want. I really like this kind of restaurant. It’s total fun to eat with our Chinese friends. Every meal is a big happy group of family and friends and we have practically nothing like this in Western cuisine.

To learn more about the difference in Chinese and Western food, see Albert Lazlo Barabasi’s article on Chinese cuisine.

Kitchens in the Home

After a few days, you’ll finally realize there are no ovens in the home kitchen. This means they don’t make bread, so bread isn’t a part of their cuisine. They also can’t make pizza, pies, or cookies at home.

If there is no bread, then the things to put on it are also missing: no butter, no peanut butter, and so on. No toast, butter, and jam.

It also means roast duck is not something that you make at home. It’s made only in restaurants. That can seem a bit odd to us: I can’t think of any Western food that can’t also be made in the home. We don’t have that distinction of “restaurant food versus home food.” (However, we distinguish between home-made food and processed food, such as Fritos and Pepsi, which you can’t make at home.)

There are a few Western-style bakeries that make wedding cakes and so on. Because these are foreign and exotic, they also tend to be more elaborate than ours. We celebrated my birthday while I was in China: the cake included fireworks! Now that would be a great addition to birthday cakes in the US, no?

Chinese kitchens have “dish drying cabinets.” These are large cabinets with built-in heaters. You put in your dishes and turn on the heater. It also sanitizes the dishes.

I also noticed in most homes that they don’t have coordinated sets of pots and pans. Every item came from a different place. It seems that whatever works is okay. The kitchen is a workplace for the maid and visitors rarely enter the kitchen.

Because Chinese food often includes frying, the home stove has a hood that encloses the range on both sides and above.

The kitchens also have doors. The trend in American kitchens is to open the kitchen to the rest of the house. But Chinese don’t like the kitchen odors to be in the rest of the house. That’s one of the complaints that Chinese have about American houses: the kitchen is open to the rest of the house.

Kitchens in Restaurants

Restaurants can be very rustic and simple. Often in the morning, we bought steam buns from street carts. We ate at many roadside restaurants where floors and walls are bare concrete. On a country highway, we stopped at a farmer-style restaurant that was once a favorite of Deng Xiaoping. In the countryside, waiters often stand out in the road to flag customers into the restaurant. Restaurants can also be an exotic luxury beyond any Western restaurant. In Beihai Park, the imperial park in Beijing, we had lunch at a place that once served the imperial court. Because China has a long tradition of porcelain, many restaurants, even simple places, often have unique and beautiful dishes, bowls, and cups.

An imperial restaurant. The pillars and walls are adorned with gold leaf.

Nearly all restaurants are local and family-owned. There are also quite a few new Chinese chains. In the large cities, you’ll see Western chains, such as McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Dairy Queen, and many more. KFC is very popular in China. There are mini-McDonalds that sell only fries and drinks. McDonalds also delivers by motorbike.

McDonalds delivers!

Restaurants generally have a public area, but families or groups go upstairs to private dining rooms, where they sit around large round dining tables. Several waitresses are assigned to the room. Private dining rooms often have a large flat-screen TVs and sofas for relaxing.

The waiters are almost always young women and they leave you alone. None of the “My name is Todd? I’ll be your waiter this evening? Is everything okay? Would you like to see the dessert menu?”

In the West, each person orders his own plate, often with elaborate instructions (hold the pickles, medium rare, curly fries, dressing on the side). In China, one or two people are in charge of ordering and they order what they think the others will like. They order items in each category, which includes soup, vegetables, the four meats (bird, seafood, pork, beef), mushroom dishes, and so on. The waiter stands by the table as they order, and there is often a long discussion about how something is prepared because there are so many province styles of Chinese food. However, they don’t make changes to the dishes, at most, you can ask for mild or spicy. No “medium well” or substitutes.

At dinner at Beijing University. Starting at left: The Chief Editor of Beijing University. CEO of a company at the university. Helen and me. A visitor from Canada. She just came to the US to do a graduate business degree. A producer for CCTV, the TV network of China.A daughter. Owner of a jewelry store. Her husband is a professor of geology.

They always over-order. If there are six people, there can easily be eight or ten dishes. Sometimes there are so many dishes that they are stacked up in a pyramid. Dishes are brought out as they are ready. Everything is shared. People begin eating with the first dish.

Food is served in bite-size pieces to be eaten with chopsticks. In a local restaurant, they’ll dig around the kitchen and maybe find an old fork for you. We ate in many homes which had no forks. Chinese have used chopsticks (“kuaizi” in Chinese) for nearly 4,000 years. They are mostly pine or plastic. Ironically, many Chinese chopsticks are made in the US, which has large pine forests. Napkins are small and thin. They’re basically what we call a Kleenex in the US.

I’ve had many business lunches and dinners in China. What’s that like? You show up for a meeting at 10 am. Several people join the meeting and there’s a long rambling conversation about everything but business. Everyone talks about friends, politics, whatever the US is doing that week, the industry, the weather, universities, ideas for more business, and so on. After a while, someone asks if the others are hungry. Everyone troops out to a restaurant within several blocks. Massive amounts of food is ordered and you spent at least two hours eating and talking. Somewhere along the way, an agreement was reached and there will be endless rounds of toasts with maotai, the Chinese vodka. A business meeting is never less than three hours and always includes lunch or dinner. A family celebration will be much longer.

In many restaurants, we visited the kitchen. Restaurant kitchens are small and primitive. Only a few cooks who use only a few basic kitchen tools, yet they make dozens of plates. Even large restaurants don’t have the large elaborate kitchens and staff of Western restaurants. A Western food inspector would find so many violations, but we ate everything, everywhere, and never got sick.

Another odd thing about Chinese restaurants in the West. These are generally laid out according to feng shui. Why? According to feng shui, evil spirits try to enter a building, but they are long and rigid so they can’t turn. Restaurants block their path with an aquarium. The fish also absorb the evil energy. But most mainland Chinese don’t believe this stuff. I never saw a restaurant in China that used feng shui.

And another thing: no fortune cookies in China. This is “only in America,” just like burritos are only in the US. Mexicans don’t eat burritos.

A small noodle joint in Sichuan.

Table Manners

I wrote they don’t have much in the way of table manners, but there are a few table rules.

Westerners fill their large plates first. Chinese use a small plate. The dishes are placed on a central Lazy Susan (a large rotating platter). They take a few bites from each dish.

The main rule is to talk. They love conversation with their meals. Every meal is hours of non-stop talk.

They won’t touch food that has fallen off a plate, either on the table or the floor. No two-second rule. If it falls off the plate, it’s gone.

Types of Chinese Cuisine

Let’s get one thing clear: There is no Chinese food in China, just as there isn’t a thing called “European food”: there’s North Italian, Swedish, South German, and so on. There are eight general styles of food in China: Lu (Shangdong), Chuan (Sichuan), Yue (Cantonese), Su (Shanghai), Min (Fujian), Zhe (Zhejiang), Xiang (Hunan), Hui (Anhui). Some of these can be broken down into sub-categories.

People generally prefer food from their own region. This means the university cafeteria serves at least four different styles of food.

Their breakfast is nothing like ours. We have foods that we eat only for breakfast, such as pancakes. They’ll have sweet soup and corn on the cob for breakfast.

Supermarkets have perhaps twice as many things as we have. They have pretty much all that we have and more. There are additional vegetables and fruits that we don’t have, including many kinds of mushrooms. Along with many kinds of shellfish and fish, there are turtles. The butcher includes all the parts of a pig that Americans won’t eat.

Chinese are crazy about pomelo. It’s a large dry grapefruit. You pull each section off and peel the section. It’s available in some US supermarkets, but in China, farmers stand by the road to sell these. Everyone loves to sit and talk while eating pomelo.

There’s also Black Chicken. These are small chickens with very fluffy feathers. Under the feathers, it has black skin. Chinese say these make very healthy soups, so when you get sick, you get black chicken soup. You can find these at Chinese supermarkets in the US.

They also have a spice called Hua Jiao (pronounced “hwa-joe”). There’s nothing like this in the West. In English, it’s called Chinese pepper, but it’s not pepper. It has a very odd taste which also tingles in your mouth like an electric current. This spice is used only in Sichuan and the southwest China; many Chinese in other regions don’t like it. I like it because it tastes so different.

There’s also a vegetable that feels like cat fur in your mouth. I have no idea what this is called in English.

So many kinds of mushrooms!

Jerky (dried meat) is very popular. There are many jerky stores with perhaps a hundred kinds of jerky. It’s a specialty of Sichuan, where they eat it like candy.

Hot pot is another type of Chinese food. The center of the table has a hole, in which a large soup pot is placed, which is heated underneath by gas burners. The waiters bring a dozen or more small plates with different kinds of thin-sliced meats, vegetables, and mushrooms. You take a small piece and drop it in the boiling pot and eat it when it’s cooked. It’s another form of social eating; everyone shares. Hot pot restaurants are very popular. They often specialize by type of meat, so there are fish head hot pot, rabbit hot pot, and lamb hot pot. In Shanghai, we went to a hot pot restaurant that served over 25 kinds of mushrooms.

At a hot pot restaurant in Chengdu. They put the “hot” in hot pot by using hundreds of chilis.

It’s quite true about China: they eat everything. We had grilled rabbit heads, duck tongue, duck heads, duck bills, and duck feet, along with at least six different dishes of turtle. Pig ears are boiled and sliced into thin strips. These actually taste pretty good. I’ve had both dog and donkey. None of these are served in the West.

Some things are missing. Like I said, they don’t have ovens at home, so no bread. For whatever reason, there isn’t much chocolate. They also don’t eat much rice. You have to ask for it in a restaurant.

It’s raining, but that doesn’t stop tea and mahjongg!

Chinese love corn. They make a thick corn soup, like a chowder, for breakfast. It’s a bit sweet. I think they add sugar (Chinese use sugar as a spice, just enough to sweeten.) (Americans use sugar as a major food group 🙂 For lunch and dinner, they steam the cob and cut it in half and eat it off the cob. However, I never saw them use those little cob sticker things that we use to hold cobs. They just use their fingers. No butter or salt. At the zoo or in parks, street vendors bring wheeled stands that have a large bowl for charcoal, on which they roast corn in the husk. You buy it and eat it while walking around. No butter or salt. Many Chinese fast-food restaurants serve a hot corn drink: I suppose they steam the cob, strip off the kernels, crush them a bit, and maybe add a bit of water.

They don’t eat dessert after a meal. Perhaps there is a small bowl of fruit, or a few slices of watermelon, but the assortments of pie and cakes is missing. They also don’t eat ice cream as a dessert after meals.

They generally don’t drink much with their meal. Some may have a small cup of tea. Restaurants don’t put out glasses of water. If you want water, you ask for it. You get bottled water, not tap water. Generally, if they drink water, then they ask for a pot of hot water. They rarely have ice. There isn’t much fruit juice. If it’s a large festive gathering of family or friends, there will be lots of beer, which is pretty good. For celebrations, there is Beijiu, the 120-proof alcohol, which is similar to vodka or gin. It’s served in tiny glasses in endless rounds of toasts.

We’re at a small country restaurant.

Coffee is new and exotic, which also means it’s very expensive. We went to Laguna, a cafÈ in Nanchong, where it was US$35 and $45 for a cup of coffee.

The specialty of China is tea. The best Chinese teas are like single malt scotch in Ireland or Scotland. They have been cultivating and discussing tea for nearly 3,000 years. The art of tea has been elevated to a level that most Westerners don’t even know. A number of schools teach the tea ceremony (how to prepare and serve tea); a tea serving can take two to three hours. What we know as the Japanese tea ceremony is actually from China. Just as we have specialized glasses for single-malt scotch (starting at US$50-80), the Chinese have a complex culture for the types of pottery for tea pots and tea cups. To them, even the cup’s type of clay makes a difference. The best tea cups can cost thousands of dollars; there are tea sets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The price of tea can also vary widely. Tea leaves are sorted in five grades of quality. The tea cups are tiny, almost like a doll’s cup. We had many different teas and they have remarkable complex aromas. What is sold as tea in the US and Europe isn’t worth the bother. Go to a Chinese tea shop and try a few of the teas.

Although Sichuan is crazy about chili peppers, they have only one kind. We went into several very large supermarkets and vegetable markets; they only have Thai chili. They don’t know about chili negro, pasillo, ancho, chipotle, Serrano, Anaheim, Tabasco, cayenne, habanero, poblano, and so on. I think some day, they’ll learn about these and there’ll be an explosion of flavors.

Hot pot with chili. Yes, that’s all chili.

The city is Beijing, but it’s called Peking Duck, not Beijing Duck.

Helen’s mom didn’t eat beef. I asked why, and she said “Cows work for the people.” Most vegetarians have an ethical reason to avoid meat; she had a Communist reason. Very few Chinese are vegetarian. Some are Buddhist, so on the 1st and the 15th of the month, they don’t eat meat.

A Tea House

The social life of Sichuan revolves around the tea houses and foot massage houses. Men and women talk, drink tea, and play mahjong.

Just as in restaurants, you get private rooms for your group, where you spend the whole afternoon drinking tea, playing mahjong, and talking. There are also small day beds if you want to take a nap.

More Stuff about Food

It may surprise Westerners, but in general, Chinese don’t like Western food, which they find bland. As I said, Chinese like food with contradictory clashing flavors. We prefer our food to be simple. Just as British food is boring to just about everyone else, Western food is boring to the Chinese. When they come to the West, they prefer Chinese restaurants.

However, one Western food is similar to Chinese food, both in its flavor and the way it is eaten. That’s pizza, which has lots of different flavors and is placed in the middle of the table and everyone shares.

What most people know as Chinese food are “Chinese restaurants for Westerners”. It’s fake Chinese. If you have Chinese friends (who were born and grew up in mainland China), ask them to take you to a real Chinese restaurant. They’ll ask you if you’re sure. Go with them and let them order. Don’t order the stuff for Westerners, such as “Broccoli Beef” or “Lemon Peel Chicken.” Let them order and don’t ask what it is. Just eat it.

Next: Sichuan, Villages, and Nature

China Part 2: Sichuan, Villages, and Nature