Listening to the pre-trip food-poisoning, bug-eating horror stories, I expected to lose weight. But far from the miracle Dexatrim solution I’d envisioned, my recent vacation in China proved to be an incredible culinary adventure.
China is far more modern, clean and sophisticated than I ever imagined, at least in the cities. Its citizens are warmly hospitable and enthusiastically curious about Americans. But they don’t drink wine. Beijing and Shanghai had wine bars, but I didn’t spy many Chinese filling the seats; beer is the alcoholic vice of choice. Since you can’t drink the water and many restaurants on the tour (we opted for a guided trip) offered it gratis, I downed more beer in two weeks than I have in a year. Tsingtao mostly, but the city of Chongqing brews an eponymous wheaty grog that I miss.
I attribute most of the lackluster enthusiasm for wine to exorbitant prices of imported bottles and the underwhelming (and often undrinkable) quality of Chinese wine. Here’s hoping the recent influx of foreign wine consultants and China’s expanding Shandong wine region will change that.
Like bustling ants with an agenda, the tour group checked off all the predictable tourist sights: Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven (my favorite —people hang out and play music on traditional instruments, practice tai chi and dance for exercise), the Terra Cotta Warriors and, of course, endless cattle-call shopping areas (the Chinese encourage you to spend lots of money). Mostly, everything was cheap, by our standards, including the food. In a tiny noodle shop in Beijing —packed with locals speaking woefully unfamiliar words —Husband and I joyfully stuffed ourselves with pork dumpling soup, Tsingtao and heavenly stir fried beef, veggies and noodles. For $8.
My first morning in Beijing, I tasted my first fresh lychee fruit. Juicy and exotic, it smacked of German riesling blended with New Zealand sauvignon blanc. I also ate scrambled eggs sautéed with woodear mushrooms in sesame oil, a seaweed and red pepper salad, steamed bok choy and pork stuffed bao. And lots and lots of tea.
At a dinner in Xi’an (central China), the group tried 15 different steamed and boiled dumplings, served in courses, stuffed with everything from shark’s fin, abalone and shrimp to cooked and slightly sweetened walnut. On a cruise down the Yangtze River, the chef taught us how to make these painstaking potstickers, and I gained newfound respect for Sunday morning dim sum.
Unlike the sanitized farmer’s markets here at home, local fresh markets in China sell live eel and many species of fish, head-on chicken and duck, every green vegetable and fungi imaginable, lotus root, and an exotic variety of local fruits. But mingled with the staid stuff, the horror flick items emerged: duck and goose webbed feet, breathing bullfrogs and pig intestine. Nothing goes to waste.
Hankering for something more, er, familiar, we ended our 12-day adventure at a “western-style” restaurant called M on the Bund in elegant Shanghai. Five or six different languages peppered the chatter in the dining room overlooking the financial district across the Huangpu River. Splurging on foie gras terrine, duck breast in black pepper and mushroom sauce, seared Wagyu beef, and almond/caramel soufflé, we toasted our good fortune and an outstanding vacation’s end with a luscious bottle of Australian white. Our last, and first, good bottle of wine in China.