When Finnair invited me to go on a culinary trip to China I was honestly a little bit apprehensive. Some reasons were completely unfounded in my own prejudices but others were honestly just food related. Ever since I had food poisoning from a chicken lo main take-out in New York ten years ago I haven’t been a fan. That memory and the idea of chicken feet and other “delicacies” left me hesitant about the prospects. Why I thought that the Chinese chefs would have nothing better to do than to sneak chicken feet into random dishes for unexpectant tourists, I do not know. But let me just say right here, I shouldn’t have been worried in the slightest.
Mind you, our culinary trip started with a bang in the business class of Finnair. There was not only unlimited champagne and a new menu to try but all the ice cream and cupcakes I could fit. Not a bad way to start a culinary journey though I declined the seafood congee for breakfast – 3am is no breakfast time for me and it was way too early to try my first Chinese dish!
We had two stops on our agenda, Chongqing and Xi’An, where we were going to taste lots of Shaanxi dishes and Sichuan cooking. What do they both have in common? Let’s just say that some like it hot… But fear not, because most dishes are adapted to western taste so your mouth will only burn slightly. If on the other hand you do like it properly hot, you can always add some extra Sichuan pepper to your dinner. Just take it in small doses because this little spice which is actually a citrus fruit, unlike regular pepper, can throw a good punch.
Here are some other favorites from our trip:
Chongqing Hot Pot
The name says it all – a hot pot is not only hot temperature wise but also hot as in spicy, especially in Chongqing as it comes with a lots Sichuan pepper that numbs and adds spice. Basically, a hot pot can best be described as a Chinese fondue. Some broths are clear and mild while others really spicy, order a shared hot pot if you have different levels of spice enthusiasts sharing. Once the broths are boiling you will dip your ingredients in to cook them: vegetables, thinly sliced meat, seafood – anything goes. Once they are cooked, cool them down in a garlic and oil dip and enjoy!
Of course, the same rule applies as it does with any fondue – if something slips off your chopsticks and gets lost in the hot pot it becomes fair game for all.
Try it at Hong Ya Dong, Chongqing
Okay, so I know that drinking tea is technically not a food but it is such an essential part of experiencing Chinese cuisine that I will include it here.
The sign for tea can be translated to: Tea – Human Being – Picking
Any tea house will give you a tea ceremony so you can not only try the different teas but also learn how to drink them properly: Guys keep one hand behind their back, women hold their cup elegantly from underneath with the second hand, down your cup in 3 sips, and smack your lips slightly to show appreciation of the tea.
You have the choice between Green and Black tea, Oolong also called Dragon Tea, Flower, and Yellow Tea. Chinese never use milk or sugar, but fruit extracts like lychee if they want to drink a sweeter tea. Each tea comes with its own set of health benefits and needs perfect water temperature, which tells me it’s time to finally invest in a proper good kettle.
Le freak c’est chic
You cannot go to China and not try something freaky. Anything really. Start at xue tian wan market in Chongqing for some (a)live inspiration: frogs, wriggly eels, pig’s everything, blackened chickens or a bucket of blood tofu anyone? While I love any kind of food markets and the concept of eating every piece of an animal, I understand that some things are hard to stomach (pun fully intended!) even if you are not a vegetarian.
So if this market doesn’t entice you to get down and dirty in the kitchen, I recommend a getting your freak on at a fine dining restaurant. If chicken feet are pushing your limit, how about some tripe, jellyfish head or a 1000-year-old egg? For those who have a sweet tooth and still want something strange, I recommend an unusual yet really delicious toast & ice cream tower or an aloe and papaya salad.
Try many of these dishes at Real Love Chinese restaurant, Xi-An
I must admit that the only thing I was more scared of than chicken feet were snakes. I don’t like snakes and will never voluntarily get close to one, not even to eat it. So when our lovely guide Ken kept on talking about a snake coming up next for dinner I was quite frankly terrified. To my greatest relief the next dish wasn’t snake, though, but rather a snack (this snake/snack pronunciation confusion came up a few times) of steamed buns that you fill with vegetables.
This snack became one of my favorite dishes. Other dishes you shouldn’t say no to? Mapo tofu, also a favorite of my foodie spirit animal Anthony Bourdain, kong pao chicken and anything that looks like a dumpling of course!
In case, you only want to eat dumplings and lots of them head to the Dumpling House in Xi’An. While I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t actually made out of dumplings, the inside was something to write home about. You can either have a quick snack downstairs or head upstairs for a multi-course dumpling feast.
After a little lesson in dumpling making, which I should add, most of us failed at, we feasted on deliciousness in all shapes and sizes for hours. Monkey faces stuffed with spicy chicken, little swans filled with sesame duck, rice-filled dumplings, rose shaped dumplings and as a grand finale the most delicious persimmon sticky dumpling. And when you think you can eat no more comes the ma shi, a noodle soup with tiny dumplings. Depending on how many you get in your bowl you will have luck, double happiness, health or great career chances for the year ahead. So eat on up!
DeFaChang Dumpling House, Xi-An
What could be better than to eat like a queen? To dine like an empress of course! At the Real Love Qin restaurant, you can eat like royalty from the Qin dynasty. Choose between different courses which are all inspired by original recipes. As per usual in China meals start with a fruit salad and end with soup. In between you will eat delicacies such as filled baby pumpkin, tofu custard, deep fried meatballs and cold noodle salad. Unlike in most other Chinese restaurants you will even get your own miniature portion of each – an empress doesn’t share.
For those concerned about MSG & Co, this is the place to eat as the kitchen here doesn’t use any additives. For those who like proper theatrics, you can even have your meal in some 200BC century outfits.
Real Love Qin restaurant, Xi-An
Street food fair
Xi’An has a big Muslim community that over time has also influenced the city’s cuisine. Go to Muslim Street for a street food feast and a side of proper entertainment. These chefs do so much more than cooking and don’t mind you watching while they make candy, fry squid or fire up a bowl of deliciousness.
Not to be missed: rou jia mo, the Xi’An version of a burger – a flat bread bun with shredded lamb, and yang rou pao, a traditional lamb soup with pita bread pieces. And as per usual when eating street food – go where the line is longest and you know you are in for a treat. Don’t be deterred by the tourists taking pictures, everyone does it and it doesn’t reflect badly on the food quality.
Ode to the noodle
I once wrote a post about pad thai named “Ode to a Noodle”. I could write many more because I simply love noodles and pasta. I don’t think they can be praised enough and they are without a doubt my favorite food group. So I was incredibly excited to realize that we had arrived in a part of China that sees more noodles than rice and features them prominently in many dishes. This was what I came for! Even those struggling with wheat should be very happy here because noodles are also made of rice, potato starch, tofu or even tomato starch.
Take a stroll through Ciqikou, the ancient town in Chongqing and you can see how most of them are made and of course, eat to your heart’s content.
Two of my favorite dishes on this trip were DanDan Noodles and you po mian, translating to oil pour noodles. DanDan Noodles are a favorite dish in Sichuan and were invented in 1841 by Baobao Chen who sold them as a street food snack from a so-called Dandan, a carrying pole connecting two baskets. Today you can still find some everywhere at food stalls and markets. But beware – they were the spiciest thing I ate on my trip!
With all that said, I am hungry now. Anybody got any good Chinese restaurant recommendations in Hamburg? Have you been to China? What were your favorite dishes?
Disclaimer: I was in Chongqing and Xi’An with Finnair. Thank you for the invitation!