Too be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of Chinese food to start with, so I was already at a disadvantage. Plus, it just makes me nervous, never knowing for sure what I'm eating. In a country like Italy, or India, where I know more about the cuisine, I'm more likely to have faith that something is vegetarian - or to know when it's not. But in China, I just had no idea. I'm generally a pretty mellow vegan. I don't mind a slightly circumspect meal here or there... but for days on end, it gets a little fatiguing. The enthusiasm wavers. If you know what I mean.
Here's the problem. We were on a tour. So we didn't get to pick where to eat, or even what to eat. It was a good tour, so I'm not knocking it on that front. But the way it worked, for the most part, was that they would take us to some weird factory/shopping zone/eatery! WEIRD. For example, we would watch a bunch of poor souls making embroidered wall hangings, then go upstairs for lunch, then go to the store to buy as much embroidery as we wanted! Meals were served "family style" so there wasn't even a menu to pick off of. When my tour guide told them I was vegetarian, at one spot, they brought me this meal: a plate of steamed broccoli, a plate of canned corn/carrots/peas, and "soup". That soup was hilarious... LITERALLY hot water with 2 tomato slices and 1 peice of boy choy. Ha! So sweet, but so pathetic. At least I was stoked on the broccoli.
This is actually not the worst meal... we snuck away from the tour one night (actually, more than once) and went to a Chinese place. We were all psyched to order some proper veg items. Even though Musty and my parents are vegetarians, everyone was more than happy to order all veg dishes. Starting from the top left, here you see some garlic scapes, green beans, bell pepper & who-knows-what, and cabbage with wheat gluten. Truly, not my favorite meal ever... but edible and vegetarian. Notice the glistening quality. In general, I found Chinese food to be pretty greasy, which I'm not used to.
Here's a classic meal. Oh, there were some hungry nights. I ate about 2 bars a day - and I could've easily eaten more! (I'll do a Bar Review coming up soon). This meal consists of white rice, cabbage, bok choy, 3 cherry tomatoes, and a greasy item that I rejected upon closer inspection. This was from a giant lunch buffet, but these were the only 2 hot veggie dishes. I ate SO MUCH cabbage and bok choy. Lucky for me, those are two veggies I enjoy. Our tour guide in Beijing told us that when he was a little boy, his mother would buy about 300 lbs of cabbage to last for the whole winter, because there weren't other veggies available then. After "China opened up to the world," they began importing more foods, and today other foods are available all around China. That said, cabbages are still clearly a winter-time favorite!
And you know what, it was so dry there! We had to drink a ton of water to stay hydrated. My oh my. Musty's a real water guzzler. This is his bedside supply for one night. The tap water there isn't safe for drinking, but the good news is that China has recycling bins absolutely everywhere. I was pretty impressed with that. Way ahead of many places in the USA.
"But Amey, what did you eat for breakfast??"
I'm glad you asked! Our tour had us housed up in some pretty nice hotels! Generally they had pretty nice breakfast buffets. The hotel where we stayed in Suzhou had a crazy-great breakfast buffet. I don't think anyone on the tour would dispute that this was the best breakfast of all. Often, my only breakfast items were two pieces of toasted white bread with jam packets (hello? what's wrong with whole wheat?), and a plate of pre-cut melon cubes. Not too bad, but you'd be right if you guessed that I was hungry one hour later. This place in Suzhou had cool stuff though. This is picture of my first pass at the buffet - and here's what I came back to the table with: congee with goji berries, a fresh steamed water chestnut, a fresh steamed jerusalem artichoke, bok choy (nice and dark green), delicately spiced fresh fava beans, some orange slices, canned peache pieces, 1 piece of white toast, and 1 piece of whole wheat toast. I went back for more water chestnuts and jerusalem artichokes. YUM! It was my first time having either one and I loved them both. Of course I've had the canned water chestnut, but these fresh ones were exquisetly beautiful, and had a sweet, simple taste. They look like gorgeous enameled lacquer boxes. So cool.
Here's another snazzy breakfast, this time from the excessively modern Ramada Inn in Hangzhou. Two whole wheat rolls (carboloading!!), two kinds of melon, DELICIOUS sweet sticky black rice treats with cashews, a yummy yam, and scrumptious winter squash cooked to oblivion in orange juice. Very nice. I loved this little meal. My friend and yoga student Claire was also on this trip and I owe her mad props for pointing out these little rice babies to me. I loved 'em! I went back for another one after I tasted the first one. Wish I knew how to make those goodies!
here's a cool thing. Every breakfast buffet had hot, fresh soy milk. I usually had a cup with breakfast. Very strong beany flavor, which made me realize how de-beaned our commercial soy milk is here in the States. This was like warm edamame juice. But I liked it.
"Amey, did you get to eat anything cool and exotic in China??"
Yes! I was constantly searching through the fruit stalls for cool goodies to try out. My friend Cindy tipped me off to these mangosteens! Check out EatnVegn's cool pictures... I didn't get a chance to take such nice pictures. However, I didn't bother with the knife... I just peeled 'em. They've got these cool, slimy little segments inside that have a delicious, unique flavor. Unlike anything else, so I won't be any good at waxing poetic about it. All I can say, is that if you get a chance to try one, don't hesitate!
I've bought the dehydrated rambutans at Trader Joes, so when I spotted these spiky little babies, I instantly recognized them from the package. Fun! Weird! Crazy looking! Tasty! Crunchy! Eye-ball-y! They have these soft funny red spikes, and a pretty soft skin. You can easily peel them with your fingernails. When you open it up, there's a big white eyeball of a fruit in a little bit of juice. There's a seed inside that I didn't eat, it's pretty sizeable. The texture is very similar to that of a lychee - a little bit of crunch, but a very moist fruit. A neat, mild, sweet, flavorful taste.
How cool is that? I went to a juice bar that had so many great offerings - guavas, dragonfruit, apples, star fruit... how could I pick??
Well, I picked dragonfruit. They peeled 2 giant dragon fruits, and tossed 'em in the blender - turned it into liquid and stuck a straw in it! Yeah! I loved it. I also loved the big fatty straw. This juice bar was on the floor level of the world's 4th tallest building. We went up to the 88th floor on our last night in China and looked out over the view of Shanghai's beautiful city lights.
One neat place we went was a tea growing valley near Hangzhou. It was so beautiful! All these neat little hills and valleys with rows of green tea bushes. It was such a lovely and enchanting spot. We had a neat tour of how they dry the leaves, and how to assess quality... and they gave us each a lovely glass of fresh fresh fresh green tea! I'm not a big tea person, but this was a special experience and a nice cup of tea. Plus, I knew for SURE that it was vegan! ha ha.
Don't we look happy?? My friend Claire purchased an AMAZING yam from a street vendor, and -very- graciously shared it with me. This was the single tastiest thing from the whole trip, and I would practically fly back to China for another one. This guy had a really cool metal oven contraption with many different tube/drawers. Each tube had about 3 yams inside. This yam was insanely great. How many times could I tell you? It was pretty much caramelized all the way through. It must have been cooking at 500 degrees for 2 hours or something. MAN! it was good.
And finally, our last meal in Shanghai. Dinner at the JinMao tower, on the 87th floor. We ordered a few dishes that didn't make it to the blog, but pictured here are our seasonal vegetables (the colorful one on top), herbed fava beans (i love favas), and these very cool little tiny fresh herb/greens rolled in very thin bean curd sheets. Those little guys were tiny, flavorful, and adorable. I think they were my favorite part of that fancy meal.
So! I can't believe you made it to the end of this monster post! I've been cooking up a storm since being home - SO happy to be back in the kitchen. I promise more posts coming soon, and shorts ones, darnit!