Travel favourites – Wuhan
Is it okay to be slightly embarrassed about the city you are born in? Wuhan, my birthpace and the capital city of Hubei, China, is also the capital of Arguing. Loudly. It’s not uncommon for women around here to sound hoarse from talking and arguing so much! On the flipside, once you’re close friends with someone in Wuhan, they will treat you as warmly as they would their own family. It was mostly this amazing hospitality that kept me sane during the Chinese leg of my trip.
The foodie occupying my brain was more than satisfied, and not simply because most things are delicious, but because Chinese food and eating is in a state of constant and intriguing change. Apologies for the lack of photos – although to be honest, a lot of the food I ate wasn’t particularly pleasing to the eye anyway, just homely deliciousness. It’s a shame because most of the descriptions are really unappetising, but I found this list of favourites seriously yummy.
Dou Pi, and Dou Si
Dou Pi consists of sticky rice, combined with tofu “gan zi” (a type of extra firm tofu), and usually some meat (mostly pork) and shiitake mushroom. It’s encased in a huge crepe (pictured above) made of mung bean flour and egg, and cut into squares. You usually find it in street food courts. If you’re a vegetarian and don’t mind meat touching your food, it’s usually fairly easy to pick out the bits of meat, but only if you’re very experienced (otherwise you’ll waste a lot of mushroom and tofu).
Dou Si is a crepe made with mung bean flour, and is often cut up into thick noodles and stir fried or chucked into soups like a noodle.
Wiki’s description of this as a “salty doughnut” doesn’t really do this justice. Texturally the centre is like very moist chewy sourdough (since they’re shallow fried), and a special device is used to make them so the holes are crunchy/crispy. Their fragrance comes mostly from spring onions/green onions/scallions, but other spices are sometimes also used. They’re much harder to find these days as everyone is becoming more health-conscious.
Gnou, or lotus root
Slowly boiled with pork bones, ginger, and finished with spring onions is my favourite way to eat lotus root. It’s not something you’d usually eat while out, and is mostly enjoyed at home. It resembles a potato in texture but has distinctive threads (kind of like mozarella, only thinner) that make lotus root impossible to eat in a particularly dignified way. Very much something you eat with family on a regular basis. Many asian supermarkets sell these now as they are often used in Japanese cooking as well, but usually cooked to retain crunchy (in thin slices).
Hong Cai Tai
This is a purple-green winter brassica that is eaten mostly for the stalks, and texturally is like asparagus but tastes like intense and sweeter bok choy. It’ll usually be served as the seasonal vegetable at street food courts with rice in winter.
in Wuhan, but also available in other parts of China:
A thick glutinous rice stick, thinly sliced, soaked to soften, and stir fried. It’s chewy and doesn’t taste like much but soaks up sauce well and provides a good contrast to crunchy textures in stir fries.
Literally “soup rounds,” these are glutinous rice balls filled with sweetness. I tend to grab the black sesame version. You can find them in many supermarkets in the freezer section, but I suggest avoiding buying them on the street unless the stall looks really popular as they’re often very stingy with the filling.
Shan He Tao (“mountain walnuts”)
These walnuts are much smaller and almost impossible to crack by hand without crumbling everything. They’re not cheap (I worked out the packet I bought was about 400 yuan per kilo for the cracked ones), but have a very unique, moreish flavour worth searching for. Like ordinary walnuts they go rancid very quickly so I suggest trying them in small packets. They’ll likely be loaded with a few “numbers” but they’re one of the few things I will make an exception for (and hey, walnuts are good for ya, so you win some and lose some right?).
…in all manner of dishes, with all manner of preparation and sauces. I loved the smoked bamboo I tried in Wuhan the most, but try it any which way.
China is a mushroom-lover’s best friend, whether you’re looking for fresh or dried mushrooms. My favourite is xin bao gu, which is mostly stalk and HUGE. It’s kind of like a cut of meat for vegetarians – so handy and delicious stir fried with a bit of soy sauce and garlic. Mu Er, or wood ear mushrooms, are almost everywhere and add a weird crunchy-but-not-actually-crunchy texture to lots of meat dishes. Then of course there are shiitake mushrooms, which taste quite different fresh compared to the dried version, which is more meaty and intense in aroma and texture. Shimeji mushrooms are readily available at most supermarkets now too.
Tofu, not like you imagined
The tofu you get at most Western supermarkets is, for the most part, totally unlike the tofu you get in China. This isn’t to say the Western stuff is bad, but I do want any tofu-haters out there to reserve their judgement. Analagously, the cheapo cheese you get at the supermarket is nothing like parmigiano reggiano! Furthermore, just like there is more than one type of cheese, there is more than one type of tofu. There are round rolls, mouldy tofus, smelly tofu, tofu of varying firmness, tofu sheets that are cut into noodles…the list goes on. Keep an open mind and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. They all play with sauces differently.
Bing Tang Hu Lu
These are like the Chinese version of toffee apples, but instead of apples a walnut-sized apple-flavoured fruit called san zha is used (sometimes you can get ones made with strawberries instead, as well as other bite sized fruit). These are threaded onto a long skewer (like fruit kebabs) and sold all over the place in winter when the sugar sets quickly in the cold. San zha are also sliced and dried and used in teas.
Sweet rice wine is made with glutinous rice, that is then fermented. It’s readily available in plastic pottles above supermarket freezer aisles, and looks like rice soaked in water. The tangy fragrant broth is used in soupy desserts and usually you serve it with glutinous rice balls, sultanas and eggs scrambled and stirred through.
If you’re a vegan with a sweet tooth, you will be absolutely overwhelmed with choices, but don’t expect desserts to taste anything like Western desserts! Glutinous rice, nuts, seeds and beans are used in lots of Chinese sweet treats, and dairy is rarely used.
Western vegetarians often get frustrated in China, because vegetarians are incredibly rare unless you’re a Buddhist monk. You can’t just ask for a vegetable dish, you have to state that you are vegetarian, or “I eat vegetarian” (hehe), which in pinyin is “wo chi shu” – although you’ll want to get someone to tell you how to pronounce this in Chinese. You can try “I don’t eat meat” but some people will think this just means you don’t eat certain types of meat. You can always try Buddhist temples for lunch if you want a vegetarian meal, but these are generally pretty pricey.
If you’re a fan of “real food,” I’d strongly advise you to stay with a family in China that you or a friend knows. This way you can browse the markets and avoid the inevitable bliztkrieg of MSG that gets put in almost everything.
Almost all dairy in China has a buttload of additives, and doesn’t taste particularly good either. It’s also fairly pricey relatively speaking. I’d avoid dairy where possible (the imported stuff is still kinda pricey) and embrace the creative ways Chinese people eat and cook with plant protein.