When people ask about what I miss most about living in China, the answer is always simple – the food!
And I don’t mean just the banquets or home-cooked meals either – although both are sublime.
The fact is China has a culinary tradition longer than most countries have been in existence. Restaurants were commonplace very early in China’s history and some establishments ostensibly can trace their lineage back to the Song Dynasty, a mere 900 years ago. The relatively early development of organized national-market-oriented agriculture and the creation of developed transportation markets enabled China to not only develop regional cuisines to supply to the moneyed classes but also to transport rare or otherwise necessary ingredients from one part of the empire to others. Afterall, where else is the Emperor in Xi’an going to get his sea cucumber fix if they aren’t being shipping dry-packed up the Grand Canal, and up along the Yangze?
China also benefited from its great willingness to absorb new foodstuffs throughout its history. Although it may seem impossible now, China once did not have tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and most importantly – chili peppers. These all arrived during the Ming Dynasty as part of the Colombian exchange. Spanish traders working West from Mexico and operating out of their base in the Philippines brought these wonderful new foodstuffs to China – foodstuffs which not only grew well but could also be grown on land too dry for rice or too marginal for wheat.
It is thanks to the Colombian exchange that my favorite regional cooking style – Southwest – emerged. Contrary to popular belief, not all foreigners are spice-a-phobic. Among those I knew in Guiyang and Zunyi, all were quite adjusted – and indeed some were completely obsessed with – to eating hot and spicy foods. Second, Sichuanese food is not actually all that hot. The chili peppers they use in such abundance add flavor but not excessive heat. It is the little numbing flower peppers which built up to that searing sensation.
The take home lesson folks is that Chinese food is ancient but has not been stagnant. It has changed over time (see the change from thick gloppy stews circa the Han Dynasty to the elaborate multi-day feasts of the Manchu-Han banquets during the Qing Dynasty which included regional, frontier, and mixed cuisines – prepared with even the most minute details in taste and appearance duly addressed). The tragedy is that too many folks think Chinese food is that stuff on the buffet table at their local eatery. While I love General Tso’s Chicken as much as the next man, it can’t hold a candle to home-made La Zi Ji (a spicy Guizhou/Sichuan chicken dish). If one can’t make it all the way to China, at least try to get to a Chinese restaurant with a friend who speaks/reads the language – the difference can be night and day.
But of course it is better to get to eat it in China!