By: Sachin Rao
Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai is clearly a Nehruvian-era relic. The world’s two most populous countries exist in close proximity but the Himalayas, as much as political and linguistic differences, keep us apart. There is, however, one notable exception: food.
India and China possess two of the greatest culinary traditions on the planet. It’s no surprise that cuisine is probably both the countries’ best-known cultural export worldwide. Taste buds being mightier than the sword, past military misadventures have been forgiven, and lurid orange “Schezwan” chicken is now as much a part of Indian cuisine as palak paneer.
During my college years in Chennai, my weekly doses of Indian-Chinese grub were courtesy the oddly-named Deep Top, a sizzling, clanking food truck that churned out greasy, spicy, undoubtedly unhygienic but ridiculously addictive noodles and chilly beef. Today, living in London, I still keep those tastes within arm’s reach: next door to my flat is a cheap-and-cheerful Chinese joint whose tempting aromas regularly make me pick up a quick chow mein on my way in. When I’m not being quite as lazy, the Chinatown in central London has some great options, such as Dumplings Legend for excellent soupy dumplings, or Baozi Inn for magnificent shoulder-pole noodles.
But for me, the holy grail was to eat what the Chinese eat every day. Last month, I finally set foot in the People’s Republic, having mapped out a food trail from Beijing to Hong Kong by way of Xi’an and Guilin.
For maximum sensory load and bang for the buck, a food market is a great starting point. Beijing’s Wangfujing Road night market is a hit with tourists seeking new profile pictures — the backdrop is provided by stalls selling skewers of fried scorpions, starfish, seahorses and larvae. Ignoring the wiggling claws of the still-alive skewered scorpions on display, I tried one of the cooked ones. It was, um, crunchy. Moving on, I went through a carton of pungent stinky tofu, rubbery octopus tentacles on sticks and creamy yellow sea urchins in their spiky shells, before conceding defeat and washing it all down with the omnipresent local lager, Tsingtao.
Another popular food street in Beijing is Nanluogu, a bit more upmarket with its designer ice cream shops and little mojito bars. But here, too, you can have your fill of batter-fried squid, spread open like a fan, or steaming tripe doused in a delicious spicy sauce.
Five hours by high-speed train to the east, in Xi’an, is another food market. The city’s origins as a terminus of the Silk Road live on in its Muslim quarter, where a grid of narrow, teeming streets in the shadow of a mosque is lined with tantalising food joints run by people from China’s Islamic-influenced periphery. Noodle pullers stretch bands of dough, butchers’ apprentices expertly trim goat carcasses in minutes, and spicy smoke fills the air as hundreds of people eat and shop for meat, fruit, chilli paste, discs of bread, and innumerable assorted trinkets. I tanked up on juicy mutton skewers, and local specialities such as a pita-like sandwich filled with shreds of fatty lamb, and a huge bowl of lamb broth poured over crumbled-up, dense local bread.
It wasn’t street food all the way, though. As in India, some of the most satisfying meals are to be found in tiny alleyway restaurants, the kind with menus entirely in Chinese and only locals at the handful of tables. Places where you point at other people’s dishes, or mime your way through food names, and nod vigorously and smile. I made the right choice with chilled lotus root or tangy black fungus salads, and scratched my head at random gelatinous meat or thick green stalks that smelt of stale pond-water. But the one thing you can’t go wrong with is noodles. Soupy or dry, flat or round, thick or thin, made of wheat or rice, topped with meat or egg — it’s a warming, filling favourite. All across China you see people hunched over bowls of noodles, slurping merrily. And steamed pork buns and dumplings are a surefire win too.
Sometimes, though, you want a nice table and advance knowledge of what’s coming to it. At a Beijing courtyard restaurant with a 60-page menu, I had some fine Peking duck. I’d have much preferred the fatty roast meat with some garlicky rice, instead of the traditional accompaniment of thin pancakes, sweet hoisin sauce and julienned cucumber. Never mind, some strong rice wine balanced things out.
“Oh, so you want spice?” asked Fate, and led me to the jam-packed Old Chongqing hot-pot restaurant in Xi’an. You choose a variety of foods — slices of meat, mushrooms, vegetables — and then flash-cook them in the giant conical pot of bubbling broth at the centre of your table. The “heaven and hell” variety has a bland broth as well as a spicy one. The latter, loaded with Sichuanese peppercorns and flaming red chillies, was like eating lava, but still enormously enjoyable. A sweaty affair that benefits from sound chopstick control and an asbestos tongue, a hot-pot dinner is like going to the gym — only it’s lots of fun.
Another notable meal was in Guilin, at one of the live-food restaurants lining Nanhuan Road. From big red plastic tubs of fish, eels, turtles, crabs and prawns in oxygenated water, or little cages with chickens, ducks and rabbits, you choose your food in all its fresh glory, and watch it taken away, flapping or fluttering, to the kitchen. My curried fish stared back at me all through dinner, and I averted my gaze to the karma-free steamed Chinese broccoli beside it. But, man, was it tasty!
On the last night of my trip, I snagged a table at Hong Kong’s exclusive China Club, a colonial remnant full of quaint decor, starchy waiters and an expat crowd. My thousand-year-old eggs (relax, they’re not actually that old) tasted more normal than their dramatic translucent black appearance suggested, while the marinated duck’s tongues were cartilaginous curiosities. The stir-fried milk with crab was like tasteless scrambled egg, but the excellent stir-fried diced beef provided reassuring comfort.
On the flight home, I confess I had recurrent thoughts of dal and rice. But as I entered my flat, I paused — and got a chow mein takeaway.
Sachin Rao is a travel writer in the United Kingdom