Chinese people eat constantly. As soon as we are done with breakfast, my father-in-law’s family suggest we have lunch. And after we have lunch, why not have a snack? Then it’s time to go for dinner.
It drives me crazy, because eating with the family is such a complicated affair. We can’t just have simple food, since we are guests they want to treat us to nice restaurants and fancy food. I appreciate it, of course, but I wish we didn’t have to order twenty dishes and that it wouldn’t take two hours for people to eat. Okay, I’d do that once a day, but certainly not at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
And deep down, I’m more into 小吃, street food or eatery staple foods such as steamed buns, tofu dish, spicy noodles, rice and veggies, etc.
“So, did you like the food? Or are you going to run to McDonald’s with Feng?” Feng’s cousin joked the first time we had dinner together.
“I’m French,” I replied. “French don’t run to McDonald’s, they burn them down.”
I’m not sure why Chinese are convinced that Westerners don’t like their food. Well, many don’t I guess. But I love Chinese food in general—the spices, the flavours, the textures. Okay, I usually don’t crave snake or dog meat (a Hunan specialty), nor chicken feet or pig intestine. I’m happy with just, you know, chicken, beef or pork, regular meat cuts. I love tofu and bean curd. I can have steamed buns, dumplings and Chinese-style pancakes anytime. And I’m pleased to report that sweet bread (often with coconut) is delicious. And egg tarts! Thanks Portugal for that one, they are originally from Macau and can be found anywhere on mainland now.
I tasted a lot of foods to please the family. I enjoyed the famous Hunan dish of steamed eggs, like a French flan but savoury. I wasn’t a big fan of Wuhan’s specialty, fried rice between fried eggs—too greasy—but I had 热干面 (literally ‘hot dry noodles”, noodles with a spicy peanut sauce) several times a day, even though it’s technically breakfast food. I loved spicy eggplants, tofu dish, meat with beans, shredded potatoes, fresh fish…
I’m often surprised how cheap the food is. A bowl of noodles and a few steamed breads are about 10 yuan, this is less than $2 (for the French readers who can still remember Wuhan francs, it’s easy: one yuan equals one franc!). Of course, in fancy restaurants, it can be much more expensive but you often pay for the atmosphere and a sense of cleanness. Many middle-class Chinese think street food is dirty, even though it’s made right in front of you—fancy restaurants can have not-so-spotless kitchens!
On our last day in Changsha, Feng and I decided to try stinky tofu, a kind of fermented aged tofu that… well, stinks. And oh boy, it stinks! The smell is unmistakable. I was wondering what it was at first, and I thought it was blood sausage or some strange meat. Once I learned it was tofu, the gross factor disappeared—weird.
Stinky tofu doesn’t stink anymore after it’s fried, and it’s actually not bad at all, although very spicy. Mark wasn’t a fan, though…