Food and drink in Anhui

Anhui province is more famous for its Yellow Mountain than for its food. But even unknown food can be quite interesting. The most interesting thing I ate in Anhui was a fried stinky tofu. Ever since I met Menschterkaas in my formative years, I don’t pass up a chance to have a new stinky cheese. Anhui’s stinky fried tofu is something special. Its furry appearance, the wonderful mouthful of aroma it releases on first bite, and its creamy texture make for a delightful snack. Unfortunately I was so involved in this plate of mixed grilled and fried hairy tofu that I completely forgot to take photos. I will have to refer you to another source for images.

This was the first time I let go of the life raft of sausages and bread, and sank into a sea of Chinese breakfast. On my first day I loaded my plate with a mixture of Chinese vegetables and more familiar sausages and eggs. The mushrooms, beans, and cabbage were so tasty that I struck out into the deep waters of yam, runner beans and noodle soups. Yoghurt came out of a machine, runny enough to be drunk out of a bowl. Melons, watermelon, oranges and pineapple were breakfast staples, wonderfully juicy and sweet.

Working lunches in China tend to be large, and I had to learn to control my tendency to eat everything that I see, so that I could be in tune with The Family’s needs for dinner. We found a lot of variety. Mandarin fish is an Anhui specialty, and I found it excellent. I like the presentation of fish in China. A braised fish is opened out on to a plate to make it easy to pick at it with chopsticks. The Family had brought a fork and a spoon in her checked baggage, but forgot to ever slip them into her handbag. Instead she resorted to manipulating a soup spoon in one hand and using a chopstick as a knife in the other. I chickened out of this bold experiment and practiced the traditional Chinese eating style.

Eating Chinese food in the rest of the world does not prepare you for the variety and amount of vegetables eaten in China with every meal. If we ever ordered a couple of proteins and rice for a meal, the waitress would always remind us to choose vegetables. Ever since we consciously decided to increase the amount of fiber in our daily food, The Family and I have begun to take special notice of the vegetables we eat. China was an eye-opener. Perhaps it was because we were new to it, but we liked the variety of vegetables available at every restaurant. I don’t know whether the plate you see in the photo above is a regional specialty, but it does give you an idea of how vegetables are usually prepared.

Chicken can be surprising when it is served. It is common to serve the whole animal; I’d noticed this earlier with fish, duck, and pigeon. Our order of chicken came with the full chicken deconstructed on the plate: the crackly skin served on the side of the plate with the meat in the center, and most surprisingly, the head standing upright.

Although China is not famous for its desserts, we found that a wide variety of imports have become regular parts of menus. We really liked the caramel custard which you see in the featured photo. It was served on a bed of frozen milk. That’s a combination I’ve never seen before, but one which I would like to try out again. The key seems to be freezing it very fast before it crystallizes. Did that need liquid nitrogen, or was a blast chiller good enough?

“Ancient well palace drink” is a specialty of Anhui province. Apparently brewed from sorghum using the famously sweet water of an ancient well, the drink was sent as a tribute to the last Han emperor Xian. Since this history is from the 2nd century CE, the well must have long gone dry, and the recipe must have been modified in the intervening two millennia. A bottle opened in the middle of a dinner can often result in an extended evening. I tried a fifteen year old version, but found that I liked the smoothness of the twenty six year old much better. The difference in price is not inconsiderable, but it is well worth the investment.

Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

14 thoughts on “Food and drink in Anhui”

  1. Wow. When I was in Anhui (1983) food was pretty difficult to come by. We traveled with food because food shortages were somewhat normal in China at the time. When we arrived at the hotel (with the plan to climb Huang Shan) the hotel was literally out of food, not only for supper but also breakfast. We had crackers, cheese, peanut butter, and canned pineapple with us and didn’t consider it strange at all that a place would be out of food. My friend — who’d come from Colorado for two weeks and left after a week (China isn’t for everyone, certainly not then) was horrified when she saw young people with shoulder poles bringing food to the hotel in heavy bundles. Back then, almost no one had a car or truck and used “Bus 11” (two legs) most of the time.

    I really miss Chinese green vegetable. I could get it when I lived in California, but not here in Colorado and certainly not here in the back of beyond.

    Thank you again for the window into China now. Please tell it I haven’t forgotten anything and I still love it very much.

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      1. Even back then the US wasn’t friendly to refugees from some countries, the PRC for example. But what’s happening now breaks my heart first for the people it’s happening to who are innocent and suffering, then for the fact that both “sides” of the media in my country are spreading propaganda, and maybe most of all because I don’t see an end to the current madness. 😦

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  2. I enjoy indulging in the food of countries I visit. If I don’t like it, so be it. But often you will enjoy a new taste sensation.
    Conversely, I get annoyed by people who won’t try the food of the country they’re in. If that’s the case, what’s the point in travelling?

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  3. What variety out there! If I get a deconstructed chicken like that, I would surely chicken out 😀
    Liked the idea of soup spoon in one hand and using a chopstick as a knife. Better than fiddling with chopsticks if you aren’t comfortable 🙂

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    1. That style is better than not eating, but it takes only about two meals to get the hang of eating with chopsticks. On the other hand, carrying your own spoon and fork is also quite fine. The main point is to eat the wonderful food.

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