To continue a previous post I wrote that was purely about food, here’s another list of some of the new, delicious, strange, or otherwise memorable things I’ve eaten in China.

1. Vacuum-packed Squid

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Okay, so I’ll start with the strange. This is exactly what it sounds like, and exactly what it looks like. A whole little squid. Preserved in salt and vinegar. Wrapped in plastic. It wasn’t bad actually, if you are into things that are fishy, pickly, vacuum-packed, and have tentacles.

2. 炸酱面Zhájiàng miàn (preserved black bean noodles)

Those of you who have seen the South Korean film Castaway on the Moon may remember this as the dish that drives the main character to the brink of insanity, before ultimately becoming his sole reason to continue living. I have now had zhájiàng miàn at three different restaurants, and while I can’t say it has haunted my dreams, I will admit that it is very delicious. It comes in a lumpy, salty heap next to your noodles, usually topped with cilantro and sliced raw vegetables. When you mix it all together with chopsticks, it makes a delectably greasy, cheesy little sound that makes my mouth water just to think about it.

3. Mangosteens (山竹)

Mangosteens are one of the strangest fruits I’ve ever eaten. They have a hard, purple shell that stains your fingers with bright red juice when cut. Something so juicy looks as if it should be sweet, but the shell is in fact too bitter to eat. Inside the shell, there is a collection of little white wedges that are very sweet and mild—unless you get a bad one, which I did, in which case this bitter yellow resin stuff from the shell bleeds into the white part and makes the whole thing rather disgusting. I have heard that a fresh, perfectly ripe mangosteen is very delicious; unfortunately, I have yet to find one.

4. 山楂卷shānzhā juǎn (hawthorn rolls)

When I was little, I spent my summers attending various nature camps, farming camps, and sports camps. All of these required me to pack a lunch. Whether I was covered in sawdust and chicken feathers from Shelburne Farms, hot and muddy from mountain biking at Catamount, or mosquito bitten from running around in the woods at the Audubon camp in Huntington, I always reached into my squishy insulated lunchbox hoping to pull out a fruit leather. Do you remember fruit leathers? They were fruit roll-ups’ healthier cousins, thick and chewy and made with real fruit. When I bit into a hawthorn roll in China, it was as if I was back in the woods, sitting on a wooden bench and reeking of organic bug spray.  Hawthorn fruits look a little bit like crabapples, and hawthorn rolls have the exact texture and tartness of an apple-berry fruit leather, one long strip rolled up into a little cylinder of nostalgia. Best of all, when I gave one to my Chinese-American coworker, she exclaimed that they reminded her of her childhood as well. I grew up eating fruit leathers, and she grew up eating shānzhā juǎn.

5. Red Bean Popsicle

I already knew that Chinese people like to incorporate red beans into every single sweet thing they eat—cakes, buns, candies, and even milk tea—but I was a little surprised to see a red bean popsicle. It was actually quite tasty, in a slightly pasty bean-y kind of way. Next I have to try the green pea popsicle, which my coworker assures me is really good for cooling off in the heat.

6. Black Rice Yogurt

To continue the theme of Chinese-foods-that-are-always-sweet-for-some-reason, I bought some black rice-flavored yogurt once because there was a three-for-two deal at the grocery store. Black rice is known to be very nutritious; just mention black rice to a Chinese person, and he or she will almost certainly reply that it is rich in nutrients. In yogurt form, however, I think some of the health benefits were probably canceled out by the massive amounts of added sugar; I would classify this more as a liquidy pudding than as traditional yogurt. Nevertheless, it was delicious. It was light purple in color, and had a rich, nutty flavor reminiscent of sesame. The texture was just slightly grainier than plain yogurt, and I had to restrain myself from licking the container clean when I was done.

7. 鸡蛋灌饼 Jīdàn guàn bǐng

There is a tiny little roadside shop near my apartment that sells something called Jīdàn guàn bǐng. It’s never very busy, but every single time I walk by, no matter what time of day, there is at least one person waiting by the little cart for what looks like an eggy pancake wrapped around lettuce and meat. One day, I decided to try it. First, I had to look up the character灌 so I would know how to ask for one. It turns out 灌 guàn means to pour or to fill, so 鸡蛋灌饼 means something like “egg-filled pancake.” The pancake’s taste was actually not very remarkable; it was rather bland, with just a touch of brown sauce and some lettuce that quickly wilted with the heat. How they made the pancake, however, was quite interesting. First they stretched out a circle of dough like a little pizza and plopped it flat onto the griddle. Then they flipped it a few times, adding oil as needed. Finally, an air pocket formed and the dough started to inflate. They poked a hole in the bubble with a chopstick, and before it collapsed they quickly poured a beaten egg inside, where it cooked almost instantly. Then quick as a flash, they scooped the thing off the griddle, wiped it with sauce and hot peppers, layered it with lettuce and meat to order, folded it up, and put it in a plastic baggy. Done.

 

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