Daily Archives: March 22, 2012

Ten Acquired (Chinese) Tastes

I’m turning Chinese, I think I’m turning Chinese, I really think so…

Or at least that’s how I feel when I find my mouth watering at some of these exotic delicacies after only about a year and a half of living in China.  Ah, the subliminal power of culture: you think you’re immune, but over a billion people is some powerful group-think.  

Read on to hear how my palate has changed since I’ve been here.  I hardly recognize myself sometimes!!

Suan cai (Read: anything, and I mean ANYTHING pickled)

A Chinese pickling stand.

When we first arrived in South China, my husband and I would turn up our noses at the smell of sour peppers, beans, and the pickling stands by the side of the road.  Nanning people love what they call suan cai, or sour vegetables, and they add them liberally to bowls of rice noodles, and sprinkle sour peppers and beans throughout their stir-fried dishes.

The problem was, we couldn’t stand them.

But while my husband still has an aversion to the stuff, I realized when I was handed a vacuum-sealed pack of pickled vegetables on a Chinese flight last summer that my heart sort of leapt.  I squeezed the sour stuff all over my rice and gobbled it up.  I’ve just adapted to love that sour flavor, so much so that I appreciated the slightly pickled vegetables in Egypt, I’m now elated when a restaurant puts some of their homemade pickled cabbage on the table as an appetizer, and I even love luo si fen (see below).

What can I say?  My taste buds have changed to appreciate the sour side of life.

Bitter Melon
And the bitter side?  Well there’s another set of taste buds that have turned Chinese!  Many Chinese people will tell you that eating bitter melon is definitely an acquired taste.  It’s associated with a personality that can really endure the rough side of life, an endurance and a willingness to literally ‘eat bitterness.’

So bitter melon, with its bright green, ripply appearance and its exceedingly pungent taste is an iconic food in Chinese culture.  While it’s something that most Westerners avoid, it turns out we love the stuff!

Traditionally it’s stir-fried with beef or eggs, but my husband also fries it.  When we had some Chinese friends over to our house one evening to try his fried kugua, they marveled, “you’ve innovated our cuisine!  I’ve never eaten it like this, it’s amazing!”  Suffice it to say my hubby-chef was pretty proud of how seamlessly we’ve acclimated to this new culture of cuisine.

Drinkable Yogurt
It’s one of those classic East/West divides: here they drink their yogurt, while in the West we eat it with a spoon.  And I’m not talking go-gurt, people.  I’m talking runny yogurt in a carton, where you cram the straw through the foil and slurp until it’s all gone.

I have to admit I do prefer to buy the more Western, solid variety, but when I’m on the go, in Yunnan or other places, you can’t really beat a tart fresh yogurt in a glass jar with a straw to go with.  It’s an acquired texture, and it’s really quite refreshing once you get used to it.

Ma la (or tingling peppercorns)
If you’ve never tasted these peppercorns, which are a mainstay of Sichuanese cooking, you really should before you die.  Otherwise you may not believe me that these little peppercorns can induce their seductive spice powers to literally numb your mouth!

But the flavor is also a distinct, earthy spicy one, and we love it in hot pot or rubbed on pork or beef.  There’s never a dull moment when you order up a dish with mala spice or sauce, and you’ll never forget that tingling feeling either.  You may even (like me) come back for more.

Soy milk on a hot day
It’s a staple of breakfast here in China, that is, a steamed bun and a bag or a little carton of dou jiang, the sweet soy milk.  Now some of the stuff is no more than powdered sugar and water, but a nice robust gulp of soy milk on a hot morning in China is pretty sublime.  Like other treats, I used to always turn this one down and opt for a safe bottle of water, but I’ve changed.  Give me a soy milk with my morning bun and you’ll see one happy girl!

Porridge with preserved egg

The spread at a meal in the countryside, including a platter of century eggs.

When you get to China and you’re the guest of honor, along with the fish’s head, and the chicken’s feet, you’ll probably generously be offered a bite of the purplish-black century egg.  Never fear, despite its namesake, it’s not actually (well, usually, hehe) one hundred years old, but merely preserved through a process that only takes several months.

And yes it’s stinky, and no, I try not to eat it alone unless I’m forced, but cooked up in a nice bowl of porridge, it’s a perfect salty complement.  Porridge was something else that I never ate before I came to China; it sounded like something children in orphanages with hard lives slurped down because it’s all they had (and it is still in some cases, I’m sorry to say), but in China it’s also the ultimate comfort food.  My husband is a porridge enthusiast.  I myself only appreciate it on a cold day, and with some preserved egg, of course.

Bai jiu or rice wine liquor
Many Westerners compare it to rubbing alcohol, the type of drink that burns your throat on the way down, leaves a terrible afterbite, and turns your face red immediately.

And to be fair, Chinese rice wine liquor often does do all those things, but it’s also the sign of hospitality, festiveness, and revelry in China.  While tea has its place, the Chinese bond over tiny thimbles of the pungent elixor, and until you’ve shot back gulps of the stuff with an old man and a side of spicy duck neck, you haven’t really experienced the real China.

Well, maybe that last line’s a tad bit dramatic.  

In short, it’s not really about the quality of the bai jiu (although to the Chinese it certainly is), but about the experience of fine wining and dining, followed by boisterous carousing that makes an evening memorable in China.

All things tofu
Until we came to China, my husband and I had tried to cook some tofu ourselves, but no matter how long we pressed it between towels, marinated it, or fried it, it came out tasteless and limp.  The Chinese simply know how to do tofu–and in so many varieties!

Yet another variety of tofu, upper left hand corner.

We love tofu skin “noodles” cold, tossed with some garlic and cilantro, dried or smoked tofu stir-fried with vegetables, or tofu soaked in spicy hot pot oil.  My Dad hates tofu so I’m eager to treat him to the stuff this summer only later to reveal he’s been bitten by the tofu bug.  We’ll have to wait a few months to see if he’s a convert.

Jack fruit and durian
It’s that time of year when the slightly pungent, sweet smell of jack fruit and durian flood the streets, and vendors, whose carts are weighed down by the giant fruits dissect their spiny and spiky outsides to reveal morsels of yellow fruit inside.  The two are slightly different, of course, but when I arrived they were both alien to my palate.

It’s a commonly told that people will be likely to kill you in China if you lug a durian on a bus, so strong and overwhelming is the smell.  But like stinky tofu, the Chinese urge, don’t be turned off by the smell, judge the fruit by its taste.  And you know it’s not all that bad.

Luo si fen (or river snail rice noodles)
I blogged about this final conversion and my epiphany over a bowl of these a few months ago, but I still can’t believe I like something so exotic, so different from the pot roasts and casseroles of my Midwest upbringing.  I guess it just goes to show that anything is possible, that when you become enchanted by a people and a culture, you warm up to bowls of snails and preserved eggs and even sour soup with snails!

I think the experience of trying new cuisine is one of the most earnest and refreshing, because the person sitting beside you wants so much for you to share this carnal appreciation for something so genuinely a part of them and their culture.  And I guess in my experience if you just give it a try (and maybe a few months or years), often you’ll find you really can share their appreciation it.

What about you?  What are some of the weirdest things you’ve tried only to find out you genuinely like the taste?