It’s lunchtime, I’m starving, and I have very little work to do…so why not reminisce about food?

1. Sugared tomato I ate this a while ago, during my very first week in Shanghai. A friend-of a friend-of a friend had invited me out to a lavish, mouth-numbing, mind-blowing lunch at an authentic Sichuanese restaurant. Camouflaged among the crimson mountains of fiery hot peppers was another red dish, this one much sweeter and friendlier—a peeled and sliced tomato, arranged so that it appeared whole, glazed with coarse white sugar. You can actually see it in the photograph at the top of this blog. We always joke that tomatoes are a fruit, and yet in both American and Chinese cuisine they are somehow exclusively savory, soaked in salt or boiled with meat or served with cheese and basil. Here, for the first time, I saw a tomato pushed unabashedly over the line and into the “sweet” category. I felt a little proud of it, somehow, as if it were coming out of the closet with a bang and revealing its true nature at last.

2. Floss pastry at Bread Talk Bread Talk is a pseudo-Western-style bakery chain found all over China, so I naively assumed that anything I ate there would taste safe and familiar. Buying breakfast in the train station one day, I watched the other customers and ordered what was clearly the most popular item: the floss pastry (that was its English name). It looked like a large, oval bun topped with a stringy layer of what I supposed was a fried bread crust, or maybe toasted coconut. Then I took a bite. Huh, interesting. I was right about the bun part—it was soft, sweet, and eggy, like most Chinese bread. But the stringy stuff on top could only be described as some kind of fishy-tasting dried meat, glued to the bun with a thin but eternally greasy layer of lard. I ate it anyway (because what was I going to do, through it out??), but let’s just say I won’t be buying a floss pastry again.

3. Fresh lychees (荔枝) I’ve had lychee-flavored candies and bubble teas before, and even a lychee martini last year in Beijing, but until this summer I had never eaten a fresh, raw lychee. The outside is greenish-red and knobbly, and it fits comfortably in your hand like a rough, dry golf ball. Once you peel through the wrapping, the glistening white interior is smooth and wet like a peeled grape (or, perhaps, an eyeball), and inside that is a hard brown pit. The juicy white flesh is sweet, lightly floral, and extremely refreshing on a hot day.

4. 锅巴Guōbā Picture a plateful of plain Quaker rice cakes, broken up into large chunks. A waitress pours a steaming bowlful of tomato and vegetable stew over the plate, and the rice cakes crackle gleefully like rice crispies in milk. In China those rice cakes are called guōbā, and I tried them for the first time at a restaurant in the touristy area around Nanjing’s Confucian temple (夫子庙). Apparently guōbā is traditionally made from the scorched rice stuck to the bottom of the cooking pot, but in today’s age of automatic rice cookers, it is usually mass-produced. Served with that mild and refreshing vegetable stew, it made a delicious meal.

5. 菊叶Júyè In the same restaurant near the Confucian temple, I tried a local specialty called júyè, lightly steamed and simply seasoned. It looks like parsley or carrot greens, and it tastes strangely cool and refreshing, almost like peppermint. It was called菊叶júyè on the menu, which means “chrysanthemum leaves,” but apparently the greens are known by many other names as well, including 茼蒿tónghāo, 土三七nqī, and “garland chrysanthemum” in English.

6. 空心菜 ngxīncài (literally “hollow vegetable,” sometimes called “water spinach” in English) A couple of weeks ago I learned the name for the simple vegetable dish I was eating: ngxīncài. It was delicious in a spinachy, soy-saucy way, and I resolved to remember the name. What’s strange is that once I learned its name, I began to see ngxīncài everywhere. It was served in almost every restaurant and cafeteria, and I realized that I had in fact eaten it hundreds of times before while I was studying abroad in Hangzhou in 2011. The taste is unremarkable, and it is almost always cooked in a simple, delicious, but easily forgettable stir-fry. Because at the time I didn’t know what it was called, I didn’t even realize that I was eating it. Without a name, it didn’t exist to me.

7. 粥 Zhōu (boiled rice porridge, also called congee) Simple white zhōu is nothing special. I ate it for breakfast a lot in Hangzhou, where a bowl cost about ten cents in the university dining hall. Recently, however, I began to discover zhōu’s full culinary range. There is a restaurant near my office that is devoted to nothing but fancy zhōu, with options ranging from sweet plum and red bean all the way to expensive seafood. I discovered the true benefits of zhōu this week, when I got sick after eating a lavish buffet at the fancy hotel in Shanghai where my company had a weekend event. It figures, doesn’t it, that what finally made me sick wasn’t street food, uncooked vegetables, or even the sketchy sushi I bought in the subway station—it was an expensive buffet in an upscale hotel. Anyway, after two days of eating nothing but yogurt and crackers, I decided to try a bowl of salty zhōu with chicken and peanuts. It was mild, warm, and comforting, like the Chinese version of chicken noodle soup—in other words, it was perfect.

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