Monday, February 10, 2014

Adventure Food of the Day in China

Food and accommodations can make or break a travel experience, especially with children.  Joel and I are fortunate that Ben (8) and Liv (6) are great travelers, which is largely due to their adventurous upbringing.  They adapt well to a variety of settings they are faced with and eat whatever is offered.  I knew traveling across China and staying at hostels would work well for us, and it did.  What I did not know was how Chinese cuisine and local foods were going to play out, not only for the kids, but for Joel and I as well. 

With this in mind, we made a deal ahead of time.  The deal was we would try "new to us" food each day.  It did not have to be wild and crazy but it had to be local or traditional food of China. We called it adventurous eating and everyone had a chance to pick the adventure food of the day. 

This ‘deal’ allowed us to dive into the culture and experience a wide variety of foods.  Could we have been more adventurous with the food?  Absolutely.  But, with our days focused on how to get where we wanted to go, how to navigate the metro, calculating the cost of everything, taking in the sights, walking miles everyday, and engaging in multi-language conversations… the last thing we needed was to be hungry.  To avoid this we filled the day pack with snacks that everyone would eat (fruit, nuts, and granola bars) and always started the day off with a good hearty breakfast. 

Some of our favorite Chinese cuisine was definitely on the sweet side.  Our favorite adventure food of the day (that we enjoyed multiple times) in Beijing was Churro’s, a Spanish fried-dough pastry similar to a doughnut but in a stick shape.  OK, this one would not be considered traditional Chinese cuisine but for these we made an exception.  

In Shanghai we raided a pastry street market vendor and devoured cream puffs, crispy wafer square of some sort, and a Mandarin Shanghai pancake stuffed with red bean and lotus seed paste for breakfast.

Often we drank our adventure food.  In Shanghai, we enjoyed white pomegranate juice freshly squeezed from an alleyway vendor.  In Yangshuo, we drank freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and Liv enjoyed gnawing on a large stick of sugar cane.  Tea was the adventure drink of the day a couple of times.  In Beijing we shared a ginger honey tea that was amazing and perched high up in the mountains just outside of Yangshuo was the Seven Star Tea Plantation.  Here we experienced a variety of local tea during a tea tasting.  Green, Black and our favorite, Oolong tea.

The adventure food I enjoyed most, other than the churro’s, was the fresh fruit.  Around every corner there were farms, markets, stores and street vendors offering a variety of fresh fruit.  We ate pomelos, mandarins, and kumquats that we could pick fresh at farms or buy almost as fresh from the markets.  Street market after street market offered dried persimmons, brown asian pears, grapes, apples and strawberries.  Never were we short of fresh fruit.

Sometimes purchasing the adventure food of the day was the adventure.  In Beijing, we headed out to explore the popular Hutong Alley district, famous for its history, culture and variety of food. As we walked we noticed a few booths had long lines and decided to join in.  We had no idea what we were going to buy or how much it was going to cost.  The alley was dark and busy with people milling about and we decided we would go with the flow and do what everyone else was doing.  

The first line up was how we discover the churro’s.  The next line up found us enjoying some yummy crispy chicken wings. Perfect 2 for 2.  We are on a roll! The 3rd line up however, defeated us but was the best cultural food moment we experienced. 

Just off the main alleyway Joel spotted another lineup.  I mentioned it was dark, making it difficult to see what everyone was actually eating.  There were a few tables set up on the alley and around it were 4 - 6 people slumped over eating what appeared to be noodle soup.  Perfect! It wasn’t until we got up front, paid, and saw a man scoop was was NOT noodles out of a large barrel.  What was scooped out was thrown on a cutting board and he proceeded to cut up three different types of “noodles” and tossed them into a bowl.  He added broth from the barrel and handed it over to us with a big smile on his face.  Pretty sure we were not smiling at this point, but caught myself and proceeded to smile and say thank you.  Quickly we realized we had just stumbled upon local cuisine.  What makes this experience was how wonderful we were treated.  Our friendly noodle man was quick to rush out to us and set up a little table and chairs on the alley for us.  He delivered four sets of chopsticks and smiled adoringly at Ben and Liv.  It was clear this man was very proud of his soup and very thankful we were going to eat it.  So we did.  Joel tried all three “noodles” and the look on his face, half smile not to insult the man and half disgust was not helping me.  

Ben was having nothing to do with it and pretended to have trouble with his chair or shoes.  Can’t remember.  Liv, who I have no doubt would have dived in had she not had trouble using her chopsticks.  She ended up dropping them and the kind man was quick to get her a new set.  I, who now felt compelled to try the soup because this kind friendly man was still smiling proudly at me, ate what I thought to be the least terrible “noodle”.  It was as expected, terrible and I had the classic food challenge moment of Survivor.  Gag, almost puke, swallow, smile, and OMG all in a single moment.  Thank god it was just after this moment that a car was coming down the alley so we had to pickup our table, chairs, soup, chopsticks and get out of the way.  We took this moment to say our goodbye's, smile, wave and walked around the corner and down the alley with the soup bowl in hand.  Joel discretely tossed it in a trash bin two blocks later.  A few days later we found out we had eaten pig organ soup, a local delicacy.  Odd as it may sound, I would not trade our experience for nothing.  (sorry, no pictures)

We enjoyed a variety of traditional Chinese cuisine during a cooking class in Yangshou.  Part of the class was touring the local market to learn about the local flavors.  Here we saw a wide variety of produce, chicken, birds, pig, and fish.  The market also had types of food unusual to us. There were wolf berries, Chinese red dates, eels, frog, rat and dog.  

The latter were not part of the cooking class, thankfully.  In the class we cooked 5 traditional Chinese dishes of Yangshou.  Duck egg wrapped dumplings, Stir fried pork and vegetables, Chinese greens and garlic, steamed chicken with mushroom, wolf berries, and Chinese red dates, and Egg plant Yangshou style.  

Another staple dish of Yangshou is spring rolls and we were able to sample some traditional ones at a countryside cafe we stumbled upon while riding our bikes thru the countryside. In Shanghai, it is a must to try dumplings.  So we did, for breakfast! 

In Yangshou we found a food vendor that was recommended by an Australian guy we chatted with at a coffee shop.  All I know it as is a Chinese stuffed pancake with hot sauce.  It was delicious and we made a point of going back to it several times.  

The last traditional Chinese cuisine we enjoyed was at the Dragon Backbone Rice Terrace.  This was by far the most remote area we had been to, some 80km outside of Guilin and high up in the mountains.  Here a local rice farmer convinced us to come into his home for a meal.  He could not speak English and the Mandarin we spoke was not understood (each region has their own dialect).  So we really had no idea what we were going to get.  Liv, our amazing travel girl, followed the man into his kitchen and reported back to us that we were having noodles. (not to be confused with “noodles”)  And that is what we had. Egg noodles with a fried egg and Chinese greens in a bowl.  Add hot sauce for flavor.  It was another wonderful cultural moment that I will never forget.

What fun it was to find and enjoy our adventure food of the day while traveling thru China.  

View the complete photo gallery of adventurous eating on Facebook.
The full blog series on our China Adventure:
The full blog series on our China Adventure:
The full blog series on our China Adventure:

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