On Saturday nights, I often find myself on the floor of my dorm room, holding a take-out box of leftover Sesame Chicken…by myself. Being completely honest, I LOVE Americanized Chinese food, and for quite a while, I thought that was what real Chinese food was. But then I actually went to China and realized what they serve at Panda East, among other notorious Chinese restaurants in the States, is not at all what they serve in the motherland. I don’t know exactly how to describe the difference, but I’ll let the pictures do the work.
We had just about every body part and organ you could imagine: throat, liver, intestine, belly. We had snail, fresh lychee, foie gras, and coconuts filled with mochi. We had Chinese food from just about every region – from Cantonese at a restaurant called the Canteen, to Peking Duck of Beijing at the number one restaurant in the city called Da Dong (my friends told me that the people who rank these tend to be insiders…so people who decide that Da Dong are people who run Da Dong. The same goes for calling Beijing one of the best cities in the world – it’s people who live in Beijing who deem it so). We had authentic dumplings, which I had been dying to try – although the different fillings depend on different regions. We even went to a westernized restaurant called Capital M, which is a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Forbidden City, where I had a Mediterranean meal topped off with Turkish coffee. It was so fun to eat at all of these different restaurants because it just reminded me of how the cuisine differs geographically – based on climate, taste, and history.
But I would say, more important than the food, was the tea. The tea culture has been around China since the very beginning. There are teas that date back to 1965, and teas that are so strong that on an empty stomach, they can upset the digestive tract. I also learned that a tea is not technically a tea unless it’s from a leaf.
So I would drink tea in the morning, the afternoon, at night, for dinner, at the temple. The squat toilets became my best friend. Just as a piece of life advice – tea is a great way to sit and talk. It sounds simple, but it’s a great community building ritual, whether that be a large or small group of people. My family and I had the privilege of drinking with the head monk at the Longevity Temple.
In fact, my absolute favorite meal was at the Longevity Temple. The monks there follow a vegetarian diet. And most importantly, they do not waste food. So we got a bowl of rice, vegetables, tofu, and other pickled goods, and we were told to be careful of how much we put in our bowl because we would have to finish it all. To be honest, I put a little too much into mine, but because all of the ingredients were organic and fresh from their gardens in the country side and mountains, my body processed it very quickly. We also topped it off with, you guessed it, tea.
There was such a large variety of foods I ate, but this was confined to only Beijing. There is SO much left to explore in China, so my belly and I hope to visit again soon, maybe this time trying Szechuan or Hunan style cuisine!! It was a gastronomical marathon, so I’ll make sure to starve myself before I go though.