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What do you call Chinese food in China?

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Part of the problem with taking a trip alongside other bloggers is that they end up blogging your joint experiences first. And so it goes with Matt's post on the food we ate in China. A couple of observations, only some of which mirror his.

1) The funniest culinary experience of the trip happened in Yiwu, where they served us shark's fin soup (which turns out to be an environmental horror, though I didn't know that at the time) and brisket. The soup tasted like the best chicken noodle soup you could imagine, and the brisket tasted like, well, delicious, delicious, brisket. So far as things go, this seemed needlessly calculated to tweak the Jews on the trip. Here in America, we Jews eat Chinese food because our native cuisine isn't all that good. In Yiwu, we found actual Chinese people serving Jewish food that tasted delicious. This suggests it is not our recipes, but our execution, that is holding Shabbat dinner back.

2) There are a lot of cuisines in China, only a few of which have made it over here in real numbers. Americans can pretty much always find American-Chinese, and maybe dumplings, and if they live in cities, they can generally find Sichuanese, Hunanese and Cantonese. Most of the meals we had, however, had little in common with those spicy, interior styles. Instead, they focused on seafood and tended toward sweet, syrupy sauces.

3) Most of our meals were planned for us. That said, we escaped for a few of them. And our luck wasn't great, at least until the final day. People always say that the thing about Italy or France is that any restaurant you go into will be pretty much the best restaurant you've ever been to. That wasn't my experience in China. You can have bad food.

4) That said, the best thing I ate -- and one of the best thing I've ever eaten -- did come from a random place we wandered into. Roast Fish Legend actually served grilled fish. You pointed to the fish you wanted and then to the preparation. We got one with a Sichuan mirepoix (dried red chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, scallions) and one with a fermented black bean mirepoix (alongside the black beans were celery and red pepper). It was just astonishingly good, and the picture is atop this post. If anyone knows how to make a fermented black bean mirepoix, please share.

5) A partial list of things I hadn't eaten until this trip: sea cucumber, jellyfish, two types of tiny sea snails I'd not seen before, shark fin, turtle, chicken feet.

6) I owe an apology to every kitschy Chinese restaurant I've ever rejected as aesthetically inauthentic. No one loves China kitsch more than the Chinese. Red lanterns, tiny figurines, caged birds, silk hostess dresses, dragon designs and everything else I associated with silly Chinese restaurants was present in places that had no idea what to do when Westerners walked in and tried to order food.

7) Apparently, the most popular chain restaurant in China is KFC. It's killing McDonald's. Here are four reasons why. Also, Yoshinoya beef bowl draws crowds, which made me profoundly sad, and at least one Carl's Jr. was opening up.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 3, 2010; 5:22 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

When I was in China five years ago, Pizza Hut was huge. People would wait 2+ hours to eat there. Of course, the Japanese will wait 2+ hours to get into Krispy Kreme, so they've got nothing to brag about it.

One of the most interesting restaurants I went to in China was Jackie Chan's sushi restaurant. Think about it: a man from Hong Kong has a japanese restaurant in mainland China, where they don't even like japanese food.

Posted by: mdg1111 | June 3, 2010 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Interesting to learn #6.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | June 3, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

It's disturbing that your Chinese hosts would serve shark fin soup to foreign journalists at an official dinner. Beyond the ecological issues, shark is high in mercury (one of the consequences of being a top predator). To make up for your unwitting participation in the ecological disaster of shark population destruction, perhaps you can write a post or two on the subject (and encourage Yglesias and the others on your trip to do the same).

One of the winners of the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize, Randall Arauz, got his award because of his years of work to stop shark finning in Costa Rica. Perhaps you could interview him. Or talk with one of the legislators in Hawaii that recently passed a ban on possession or sale of shark fins. (link to Goldman: http://www.goldmanprize.org/pressroom/2010_print/bios/southcentralamerica)

One of the less appreciated points about shark finning is that by allowing ships to bring only the fins to market (after tossing the rest of the shark back into the ocean), over-fishing is encouraged. Fins sell for many times more than shark meat, so unless required to by law, a fishing boat won't keep the shark meat on board. And since it takes a lot of fins to fill up fishing vessel compared to entire shark carcasses, a fishing boat will kill a lot more sharks during a voyage.

As a top predator, sharks play a critical role in marine ecosystems. The New York Times had a piece in 2007 about a study that showed how overfishing of sharks in the Atlantic led to a crash of the bay scallop fishery. Some of the favorite prey of large sharks — smaller sharks, rays and skates — eat scallops, so as shark populations have declined, the population of sharks' prey has gone out of balance, leading to reduced scallop numbers.

Here is the Monterey Bay Aquarium page on Shark: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_factsheet.aspx?gid=54

On the subject of the diversity of Chinese food, Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford have a superb book called "Beyond the Great Wall" that looks at the foods of the non-Han populations in China, notably those in the Western art of the country (e.g., Tibetans, Uighers).

Posted by: meander510 | June 3, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

whoa! you ate shark fin!

that's like eating baby seal steaks and picking your teeth afterwards with dolphin bones.

though your karma might not be completely ruined, a lot of it is fake.

Posted by: ThomasEN | June 3, 2010 6:32 PM | Report abuse

I second meanders' well thought out comments. People eviscerated Yglesias for the shark fin fiasco, but they kinda missed the point - like a lot of people, he didn't know it was a bad thing. Hell, I didn't know it was a bad thing, and I'm about as green a granola-crunching hippie as they come.

So if it's a lesson from SharkfinGate, its let's up the knowledge. Obligitory environmental post on shark fins for all.

Posted by: strawman | June 3, 2010 6:59 PM | Report abuse

I know I shouldn't, but I find the entire shark fin fiasco to be hilarious.

Posted by: laser83 | June 3, 2010 7:39 PM | Report abuse

I once made a fermented black bean sauce similar to what you mention -- a little oil, a little garlic, fermented black beans, then a little sesame oil and rice wine vinegar, red pepper flakes and soy sauce, and then add your vegetables (I used green onions and gai lan) and served with ribs. Probably not authentic -- mostly an experiment.

And one super key thing I learned: make sure you rinse your fermented black beans A LOT. They can be incredibly salty.

Posted by: JasonFromSeattle | June 3, 2010 7:55 PM | Report abuse

I recommend seeking out Chiu Chow / Chaozhou style cuisine, if you are in Hong Kong. Uniquely delicious.

Posted by: staticvars | June 3, 2010 11:55 PM | Report abuse

"Here in America, we Jews eat Chinese food because our native cuisine isn't all that good."

I knew about Jews going out for Chinese on Christmas, but I assumed that was because most other restaurants were closed. Didn't know Jews were particularly big on Chinese the rest of the time.

Posted by: rt42 | June 4, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Come on Ezra. You didn't know about the horrors of shark fin soup? Really?

That one's kinda obvious to most of your readers. I think you're better informed than that. Just admit you wanted to try it once, anyway.

Posted by: maxicurls | June 4, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I can't believe you ate Shark Fin soup. Bad Ezra!

Posted by: chrynoble | June 7, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

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