Saturday, September 03, 2005

Chinese Food - Ingredients, Ruined

Rex Hotel - HCMC, Vietnam
Juice Cafe - HCMC, Vietnam
Golden Buffalo Hotel - Hanoi, Vietnam

Many people have been lucky enough to hear one of my trademark rants on the subject of my low esteem for Chinese cooking. The usual punchline to the lengthy diatribe is some variation on "Chinese cooking is the process of taking perfectly good ingredients and ruining them". Until recently, this statement was always made having had no exposure to Chinese food outside of the US. Having been so exposed, I feel that a refinement on the now-cliche thesis is in order.

Let us break this down by region and/or specialty dish of note:

Day-toDay Northern Grub - By Northern, I guess I really mean "Beijing". Citizens of the capital prefer their food oily and a variety of it. A typical meal consists of several main meat dishes, a few vegetable side dishes, and steamed white rice served family style. There is a good chance that something on the table will contain a >lot<>
  • Chicken Feet - This abomination is best described as culinary effluent. Seriously, China, what are you thinking? We had two varieties of feet. The straight-up fried kind made me want to puke like a Lloydie at Apache. The drowned in chili oil after being fried variety looked (and tasted) like it came out of the same Lloydie.
  • Stomach Lining - Not sure what kind of animal this came from. Maybe a cow. It makes little difference, though. It had a sickeningly rubbery texture and a taste reminiscent of oily goat. Ew, gross.
  • The Great Intestinal Wall of China - Once again, the zoological origin of this steaming heap of muck is a complete mystery. The intestine had a somewhat less intense goat oil taste than stomach, but made up for the deficit by adding a new and horrifying element of slime to the already described rubberyness. This may be the most unsatisfying thing I have ever consumed.
  • * Islamic Bread/Mutton Soup - A very grumpy woman gave us each a bowl and a big chunk of some kind of flatbread. The done thing was to crumble the bread into small pieces and store them in the bowl. Once we thought we were done, the lady came back and shouted at us to indicate that our bread pieces were not small enough. After a second round of crumbling, the lady returned once again and grudgingly accepted our work.

    She disappeared with all the bowls, returning 20 minutes later having cooked 'em up with a thick broth and big chunks of mutton. Although it is not much to look at, the results are very tasty. The bread pieces are a slightly chewy mush and the lamb has a strong fatty/peppery flavor. I ate my whole bowl and half of another.

    Unfortunately, the next day I suffered from enthusiastic toilet usage. If you like meaty soups and have some reading to catch up on, this is the meal for you. Side effects aside, it really is very nice.

    * Sichuan Vittles - Food from this Chinese province is supposed to be hot and zesty. Maybe restaurants went easy on us because we are from out of town, but I was not impressed by the heat and I am famously vulnerable to spicy food. On top of that, many dishes had a soapy taste that came up suddenly and stuck around for ages. i think it may have been cardamom pods. The highlight of our Sichuan eating was undoubtedly the local hotpot, but even that did not meet expectations. Lots of build up and little delivery led to disappointment.

    * Cantonese Eats - By the time we got to Hong Kong, I had severe esophageal ulcers, so I was not in a position to sample the full range of dining options. The rice, noodles, and wontons (especially the wontons) are really nice. I can say nothing really good nor bad about the cuisine of Canton. I hear it is comparatively nice, though.


    I propose several possible refinements to my original punchline.

    Chinese cooking is the process of:

    1. "taking substandard ingredients and further ruining them"

    2. "taking perfectly good ingredients and adding oil (and ruining them)"

    3. "obscuring the true object of cuisine - not poisoning diners"

    I reckon #1 is closest to my feelings. Suffice to say, I have not developed a great love for the food of China. And it is not for lack of trying.


    Blogger jason said...

    We've enjoyed a lot of the finer points of asian cuisine over the past month or so. Apparently, the chinese and vietnamese enjoy any food product that can be filed under miscellaneous.

    And for those keeping score at home, the mutton soup is known as paomo, and it didn't give anyone else any intestinal problems. It was delicious.

    9/03/2005 9:23 AM gmt

    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Agree with Mike on the chicken feet... They taste (to me) like greasy little rubber bands wrapped around tiny sticks. Why eat the feet when the rest of the chicken is full of delicious chicken?

    ...'anything that swims, slithers, crawls, or flies with its back to heaven is a food,' as a Chinese friend once told me...

    9/03/2005 9:47 AM gmt


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