Being back in China has made me think about how much Chinese food is part of my experience in China. I love Chinese food. (Well, in general, I love food, as my (hopefully shrinking) paunch demonstrates, but Chinese food in particular.) I cannot understand people who come to China for a week and need to eat western food. I can go multiple months in China eating nothing but Chinese food. (Although coffee and chocolate are two things that I general do like to have on a fairly regular basis.) Actually, I think the majority of western meals I have had in China have either been at other peoples insistence or because of American holidays that I felt like I should celebrate and western food was the best I could think of (included a surreal Thanksgiving dinner eating pizza with a Korean girl and a girl from Japan listening to a Filipino cover band sing Country Western songs.)
I struggle a bit with the title of the post, thus the (?). For me comfort food has a particular connotation in English. A comfort food is something you eat when you aren’t feeling well. When you are homesick. Foods from home. Comfort food soothes and makes you feel at peace. Comfortable if you will. The foods I am thinking of aren’t quite that. They are foods that ground me. Bring me to a place or help me to know that I am in a place. They aren’t the food I want to eat when have a fever or am feeling crappy. But they are the first foods I want to eat when I get to China. They are the flavors of China for me.
When I landed in Guangzhou a few days ago, the first thing I thought about was finding a Sichuan restaurant for dinner. I wanted 家常菜, home style dishes. 回锅肉，鱼香茄子，蛋炒饭，等等。I want to write about three Chinese dishes that are the most grounding for me. That have the most resonance for me in my travels.
This was the first dish that I ordered when I arrived in Guangzhou this trip. It was also the dish that I asked Christina to order for dinner the first night that the 9th graders were in Beijing. “Dry Fried Green Beans” It is a yummy pile of big fat green beans fried until the skins are crispy, mixed with lots of hot peppers, huajiao (mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorns), little crumbles of pork, garlics, and some other spices. It is spicy and I can easily eat a while plate of it by myself. It is best when served with beer, preferable a big bottle of Hapi, Qingdao, or Yanjing. When I am by myself for a meal, which is fairly frequent as I travel around a lot on my own, 干煸四季豆 are one of my go to dishes. It is also a dish I have never had made quite right in the US. I am sure that there are restaurants that can make good ganbian sijidou, but for me, it is a dish that is China.
“Cumin Meat wedged in bread” Or a Cumin meat sandwich. Lamb fried in a very hot wok with cumin, ground hot pepper, jalapeños, and mung bean sprouts and placed in a round of hard bread. Unlike 干煸四季豆, I have only ever found this in the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, and really there is only one place in the world that makes this to my liking, a small cart in Xi’an. Again, best enjoyed with a cold beer, this is a meal that I can have for dinner and then again for a snack before bed, and have a number of times. This is despite knowing that eating it one will hurt in the morning and twice in one night will double the “pleasure” on the other side. There is nothing comfortable about this food, but if I am in Xi’an, I would beeline for 孜然肉夹馍 maker. Actually if I were any where near Xi’an, I would consider a side trip just to eat at this man’s cart. This food is Western China to me.
Yangrou Chaunr hold a very special place in my heart. Two chunks of mutton with a small piece of fat in between them skewered and roasted over a charcole fire sprinkled with salt, cumin, and la, ground up dried hot peppers. These are THE street snack of Beijing and all of Northern China, although you can get them everywhere. Mostly cooked by Uygurs, turkic people who make the majority of the western most Chinese province, Xinjiang, these are a traditional snack from Xinjiang that is closely related to Turkish kabobs. These are once again best appreciated with a cold, cheap beer (there seems to be a theme…) late at night on a little stool in a back hutong of Beijing. If I were ever to open a restaurant, I would only serve meat (lamb, beef, chicken wings, maybe tofu for the veggies) and bread on a stick (and maybe Cumin meat wedged in bread) and cheap beer. Nothing else. It would be called The Chuar Bar… Not that I have thought about this or anything. But I cannot think of a better late night snack. Chuanr are in someways the definition of a trip to China for me. I have to have them. (And I got my chuanr in Guangzhou… so it was a real trip to China.)
None of these foods are true comfort foods. If I have had an upset tummy, these fiery dishes are definitely not high on my list of foods that I want to eat. None of them are foods that remind me of home. I have my comfort foods, but these dishes have their own place in my patheon of foods. These are the grounding foods. The foods for me that a most associated with place. There are many other Chinese foods I love. Many foods that, love or hate, I have special memories of. But these three foods are special. For me the experience and the food are one. A trip to Xi’an tastes of lamb, cumin, and spicy. A late summer night in Beijing tastes like chuanr and cheap Chinese beer. These tastes ground me to where I am and I cannot separate them from their locales. These are the foods of my China.