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16 May-8 June 2018.
You know all those articles in magazines and on the Internet that sing the praises of the food of a particular country? You know – the ones that tell you the best places to eat, and what you must try, and what all the ingredients are, and what all the subtle flavours are, and why it’s a traditional food of the country, and how important food is to your cultural experience, and how you must try this, and you must try that?

This is not that.

This is more about what it’s like to be eating “foreign” food for weeks on end, what it’s like to be served every day, almost every meal, with things that are somewhat or totally unfamiliar, and what it’s like to miss your own food.

Food is inescapable. We need it. We crave it. We have ingrained habits around it. We generally know what we like and what we don’t like. And then suddenly you find yourself in a different country where all the normal things to you are not normal to the local people and what you thought was up is actually down, and even if things taste good, it’s just not the same.

This is more like that.

Two things:
1. I am not a foodie. Not remotely. I guess that’s obvious from the first couple of paragraphs.
2. I always used to say that Chinese food is my favourite food in the world. I now know that what I meant was that Cantonese food is my favourite food in the world. Or perhaps I meant that Westernised Cantonese food is my favourite food in the world. Well I must say that Japanese food rates pretty high up there too.

I’m not brave with food. I’m brave with lots of things, but not food. I don’t like spending money on food only to discover that it doesn’t taste good, and when most of the food I’m looking at is unfamiliar I’m afraid I’ll choose the wrong thing. It’s nuts really. I’ve done so much travelling and eaten every day in so many different countries, adjusted without problem to pho (soup) for breakfast in Vietnam, or fried rice for breakfast in Cambodia, or the worst pizza in the world in Peru, or an entire plate of one enormous fish for dinner in Italy, but still I’m kind of fussy. I like what I like. And inevitably there are times I’ve chosen the wrong thing. And there are times I’ve chosen something familiar like prawns only to find them overcooked and tough. And there are times I’ve chosen something completely unfamiliar and it’s been delicious.

I guess I regard food when travelling as a bit of a crapshoot, with the operative word sometimes being oh crap!

So. Some food stories from China. My favourite food in the world.

Most of the meals in Beijing are delicious, except for that one time when Peter, our guide, walks into the wrong restaurant by mistake. It’s next door to the one he meant to go to, a pretty down home place with the usual variety of dishes. The one we follow him into is new, and trying to be modern or hip or something. Chinese food is eaten communally. Each dish is generous enough to be shared and the idea is to share them all. This place we’re in serves tiny tiny portions, one by one. The service is very slow. I don’t remember what we eat only that the service and portions are bewildering, and none of us, including Peter, quite know how to get a full meal.

Mostly we pick up street food for breakfast on the way to the outing for the day – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the hutongs. Often it’s delicious dumplings that are being cooked at stalls on the sidewalk.

I’m loving Chinese food, as I expected to do. And then we go to Xi’an.

Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province, right next door to Sichuan. Xi’an is also my first encounter with central China’s love of chilli. Of course I’d heard of Sichuan food being spicy but the reality hits like a fire-breathing dragon.

We arrive in Xi’an after a long overnight train trip, drop our bags, and go to the Muslim snack street

for “Chinese hamburgers” for brunch. We watch as the vendor uses a cleaver to shred well-cooked lamb into mincemeat. Meanwhile he’s heating a bun in something similar to a panini press. Hot from the press he slices the bun through the middle to form a pocket and throws in some sauce and the lamb. And chilli sauce. Hmmmmm. The whole thing is a bit dry and the chilli is killing my lips and mouth. This is just the beginning of what I come to think of as the burning mouth meals.

That night though there is relief. Of a sort. Most of us go to the dumpling dinner. Dumplings are a specialty of the region and Peter encourages us to go to what is essentially a dumpling restaurant set up for tourists. It is huge. And packed. And we’re the only westerners there. The Chinese are roaming their land in huge numbers these days and in Xi’an they’ve all come for the dumpling dinner. We’re served sixteen different kinds of dumplings. Sixteen! They taste good, but they’re all a bit underdone. We get better dumplings from the street food vendors.

The next morning we’re off to see the Terracotta Warriors and as usual we stop first to get street food for breakfast. I don’t know why but I buy a lot: a deep fried pastry with chopped up greens and bits of egg inside, which is really good, and a hard boiled egg, and a pocket bun filled with finely chopped carrot, potato, and pickled cabbage. I save the bun and egg. The deep fried pastry is enough for me.

When the Terracotta Warriors were discovered the government reclaimed the land and began the biggest archaeological dig in the world, and a village was created to house all the displaced people. We go to a small family-owned restaurant in the village for lunch. Poor Peter: every meal he orders Thea is putting a bug in his ear to make sure there are some dishes with no meat, and I’m putting a bug in his ear to make sure there are some dishes with no chilli. Fat chance. This is the aftermath of that meal.

Chilli chilli everywhere, and never a bite to eat. I eat tiny tiny amounts of a couple of the dishes stirred into big mounds of rice to dilute the chilli.

That night we go back to the Muslim snack street for dinner.

I can’t see anything that appeals to me, so finally I settle on a skewer of some kind of meat. One touch to my lips and I know instantly that it’s covered in chilli. Ouch. But I have a solution. Luckily it just happens that in this hotel I have a fridge in my room where I’ve stashed the egg and the bun from breakfast. I wash the chilli off the meat in the bathroom sink. I’m very thorough. I don’t remember if I actually use soap or not, but I may have. Anyway I rinse it really well, pat it dry with toilet paper (I don’t want to destroy the hotel towels), use my little travel knife to chop it up into small pieces, and stuff it into the bun with the vegetables. Then I climb onto my bed and eat it while I look through the day’s photos. It’s delicious.

I don’t know what I ate on our last night in Xi’an before we took the overnight train to Emei Shan. All I know is I made a note in my journal that we had a banquet dinner and that it was the best meal yet. Presumably there was no chilli. And then the next day another note in my journal: another banquet dinner. Almost all the dishes have chilli – again! There was just no escaping it.

At Emei Shan (or Emei Mountain) we trek for three hours up the mountain to a small isolated monastery, hidden in the forest, and situated at the top of 1200 stairs. We stay there overnight and hike out again the next morning. There are no dining facilities at the monastery except for the handful of Buddhist monks who live there (we hear them chanting at five in the morning), but there is a small café hanging of the edge of the cliff at the bottom of those 1200 stairs.

We have dinner at the Hard Wok Café. It is a feast of several dishes without a chilli in sight, and for breakfast there are banana pancakes.

Every single thing for this little café has to be carried by hand up the mountain, from all the drinks and food to the propane tanks to run the burners and the fridge and freezer.

At the bottom of the mountain we check into Baoguo Monastery, one of the biggest Buddhist monasteries in China, and have a simple vegetarian lunch in their dining room. I remember a lot of rice and cabbage and washing our own dishes in a big communal washing area.

Of all the food in China this is one of my strongest memories: we’re in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. We have a free afternoon and Peter has pointed out various places where we can go find ourselves some lunch including a huge modern mall close by our hotel. I’m not sure what I’ll find there but I wander around inside and then I see it! A Häagen Dazs outlet! I get a scoop of vanilla and a scoop of coffee in a bowl and sit at a little chrome and glass table in that air-conditioned chrome and glass mall and savour every last spoonful. I am in heaven. Two scoops. Twelve dollars! I don’t care. It’s worth every penny. A bit later I run into some of the others and they’ve found their way to Starbucks. I also go to Starbucks and get myself a sandwich for dinner. We are all happy.

We follow Peter along the streets of Chengdu.

He’s looking for a hot pot restaurant that has separate areas for chilli and no-chilli broth, unlike this one,

which has only one broth bowl with the heat source in the middle.

Eventually he finds one and I have my second hot pot meal in China. It’s good but not as good as the first. The thing I remember about this meal is becoming aware of a couple of the guys having a kind of unspoken competition as to who could stand the most and the hottest chilli. It was fun to watch.

One night in Chengdu we go to Jinli snack street for dinner.

I get myself a steamed bun with hamburger in the middle. It’s quite good but after just a couple of bites Thea offers me a taste of her spiralled potato on a stick.

These are spiralled potatoes that I photographed in Japan.

The one in China is identical except it has first been dipped in batter and then fried. I have one bite and am immediately transported back to my childhood in Melbourne.

Every Friday night dad would come home with fish and chips for dinner for the whole family. It would come as a huge bundle wrapped in newspaper. We’d sit around the table and unwrap all this steaming deliciousness. There would be chips of course, (fries to you Americans) and fish (usually shark) dipped in batter and deep fried, and some scallops for those that liked them, and these things we also called scallops that weren’t scallops at all. They were big (but not thick) slices of potato dipped in batter and deep-fried. I loved them. We all did. I had not eaten them since I was 11 years old, and here I am eating the exact same thing again in a walking street

in the middle of China. Of course I immediately ditch the bun and buy a batter-dipped deep-fried spiralled potato for myself.

One of the others buys this pineapple and rice dessert which I taste. So good!

We embark on a three-night cruise on the Yangtze River. The food on board is fantastic! There’s a long buffet

down the centre of the dining room.

For both lunch and dinner there is always salads, rice, noodles, several dishes of green vegetables, several meat dishes, delicious seafood dumplings, and desserts like cakes and caramel flan. And so many dishes without chilli that I barely even have to think about avoiding it. On the final night we are served the Captain’s Banquet at our table.

I wish I could tell you what all these dishes are but I haven’t got a clue. All I know is it’s all really good.

Frequently we have huge meals for lunch and dinner. I eat so much that even though we walk miles and miles almost every day I still gain a couple of pounds. There are days I skip lunch and eat only a piece of fruit and some yogurt. There are a couple of nights I am just too weary to go out for another meal and buy a take-out dinner of noodles from a pop-up restaurant close to the hotel, and take it home to eat in my room.

Despite the chilli, despite getting mildly sick a couple of times, despite the language barrier, despite being homesick, despite being on the move almost all the time, I never go hungry, and enjoy almost all of it. China is many things, not least of which is the food. What a trip!

Next post: Xi’an, China’s ancient capital – cycling the city walls, the Muslim Quarter, and the Han Yang Ling Mausoleum.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.