Best Chinese Food!
Among other classic travel cliches is the "I can never eat American (insert ethnic food) again" after living in Italy, India, Mexico, etc. Until you slowly slide back into it, trying in vain to recreate an experience that's in your rearview mirror. You stare down at the pitiful counterfeit and swallow sadness. When I leave China, it's going to take an extraordinary amount of time for me to reach this point. American Chinese food has - keep in mind that I'm from Greensboro, NC, not NYC or LA - simply been ruined for me. Here are five culprits from a list that I have painstakingly narrowed down to my ten absolute favorites.
1) Guōbāoròu (锅包肉)
A Dongbei classic, this stuff will get you hooked faster than crack. It's basically slices of pork that are battered, deep-fried and coated in a sweet and sour sauce. The dish usually arrives at a table surrounded by expats ready to fight to the death for the last piece, adorned with thin slices of carrot, ginger and green pepper. If it's done correctly, you have just the right amount of sauce so that the pork maintains its delicious crispiness. Soggy guōbāoròu is an abomination.
2) Gōngbǎo Jīdīng (宫保雞丁)
Do you like Kung pao chicken? Then don't eat this, because you'll never be able to eat the American bastardization again. The ingredients remain roughly the same - chunks of chicken, chilies, peanuts and veggies - but there are different variations depending on the restaurant and season. My favorite comes in a sweet and sour sauce that isn't quite as sweet as guōbāoròu, with a few pieces of spring onion/leek mixed in. This dish is famous throughout China and a good introductory meal if you want something a bit familiar.
3) Xīhóngshì chǎo jīdàn (西红柿炒鸡蛋)
Literally "tomato egg", this simple dish is a hangover cure from the gods. No flowery foodie language here, it's just stir-fried tomatoes and eggs. This is another classic favorite of Daqing expats and I usually have it for lunch over rice, maybe with a soup. Just the right amount of food for dirt cheap. If I'm hungover and don't want to spend the exorbitant amount on McDonald's, this does the trick. Fun fact: eggs contain an amino acid that improves liver function, so those nasty toxins from the night before will be broken down more quickly.
4) Jiǎozi (饺子)
You're not doing Dongbei right if you haven't eaten enough dumplings to absolutely despise them, fall in love with them again and then eat them begrudgingly every once in a while. We ate so many dumplings in my first couple of months here that we needed to take a long break. We're just now starting to eat them again, sparingly. Your options are basically limitless in regards to the fillings you can get in these raviolli-like starchy rice-flour pockets. My favorites are pork and Chinese cabbage, corn and egg or simply beef.
5) Chuànr (串儿)
Charred pieces of meat on a stick are nothing new, and are widely available throughout the world, but chuànr must be mentioned. It was originally introduced from the Muslim minorities throughout the country (yes, it's basically just kebab) but is now widely available anywhere, from restaurants to the sidewalk right outside of my apartment. I don't think I've ever eaten it sober, and good thing. When you read the stories, you'll grab the nearest bottle of baijiu in an effort to kill the stuff that just hitched a ride into your gastrointestinal tract. It might be there for a while. Here's a tale of a girl from Guizhou that was found to have 200 - 300 tapeworms wriggling inside her after existing on a chuànr-heavy diet. I'm so sorry.
6) New Mart noodles (新玛特面条)
I can't dote on China's food without saying something about noodles. My girlfriend and I probably eat these at least four times a week. I searched high and low for the actual name, but to no avail. They can be found inside New Mart's food court (so the Chinese is literally "New Mart noodles") and we've been there so often that we chat with the two ladies making them. These particular noodles - and there are many - are made from whole wheat, simply mixed with bean sprouts, onions, some other type of bean and parsley. How spicy they are depends on the day. Super healthy and truly one of those dishes that if I was faced with the decision, I could eat it every day.
7) Ròujiāmó (肉夹馍)
The Chinese burger/sandwich. Another great hangover cure, these have their origins in Shaanxi Province but are now common in restaurants and streets throughout China. The one served below my apartment is filled with slow-cooked pork and, as you can imagine, reminds me of some good ole fashioned North Carolina pulled-pork BBQ. Because the specific bread for ròujiāmó can be traced back to before 200 BC, historians consider it the earliest ancestor of the burger. Enjoy that delicious history.
8) Di san xian (地三鲜)
This is a great vegetarian classic from Dongbei, literally translating to 'Earth Three Fresh". As in, three fresh vegetables from the earth, if you couldn't connect the dots. Toss some potatoes, green peppers and eggplant (aubergine) into a wok and you've got something fried and delicious that perfectly compliments your guōbāoròu. As with most things in Dongbei, a shitload of garlic makes this one work nicely.
9) Pāi huáng guā (拍黄瓜)
Imagine a cucumber. Nothing spectacular, really. Take the cucumber, smack it with a knife a few times and chop it up. Then add garlic sauce, salt and sometimes chili and you're left with what is quite possibly one of the most refreshing dishes on the planet. This cucumber salad is the perfect compliment to the strong, meaty taste of chuanr or anything that is particularly spicy. The huge amount of garlic used in the dish also makes it a great first line of defense against vampires.
10) Baozi (包子)
Meaty and bready is probably one of my favorite combos of all time, so it's no surprise that baozi became a quick favorite of mine. These buns are made from rice flour and steamed after a meat or vegetable filling is added. My personal favorites are beef with onions and pork with celery and cilantro. We've actually made a few before, or rather our Chinese friend showed us how and we screwed up a few of them. I'll post the recipe sometime.
I could go on.
There's pretty much an endless amount of the wonderful, the strange and the downright addictive to put into your belly here, depending on how adventurous you're willing to be (chicken/duck heads are off the table for me, personally). It was difficult to make this list, and I'm sure there will be another in the future. For now, enjoy eating at Peking Wok or Golden Dragon after reading this.