By Ezra Klein
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.