Seeking comfort food in China

I find that I can eat healthy in China. I can pile a breakfast plate full of steamed and sauteed vegetables, select a couple of dumplings, and add a few pieces of tofu for extra bite. When I feel like eating some more protein, there is often some yogurt at hand. The food is not deep fried or full of rice like a lot of Indian breakfast. Nor is it full of sugars and starch and highly processed like most western breakfast. I like this breakfast, but it is not comfort food.

After all I am hardly likely to get khichdi in China. But usually I can find a bowl of rice topped with sauteed vegetables and fried meat. This extremely common Chinese combination (I don’t know whether it has a name) is close enough to my childhood comfort food to keep me happy. This time around, after a day spent walking across the Purple Mountains of Nanjing, I was unable to find a simple bowl of rice. After some search I found instead a plate of roasted pork knuckles and sauteed vegetables. Accompanied by a large bottle of cold Tsingtao beer this came close to a second style of comfort food. On cold evenings in Germany I’d learnt to seek out comfortable kneipers’ which could serve a large schweinshaxe with potato and gave you a half liter of beer to go with it. The effect of this Chinese combination was strangely similar. The bowls of soya sauce and a spicy powder also made it reasonably close in taste to modern Indian food.

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.