In summer 2015 I impulsively joined two faculty members and 10 other students on the UK Sponsored: Studio Chinese Art at Shanghai University for Fine Arts. We successfully journeyed to China by a 12-hour flight. The change of scenery was not only breathtaking but so was the food. Take that with a grain of salt, though. Literally. China’s cuisine is high in sodium. Looking back, I came back a bloated version of myself from retaining so much water. The Chinese consume twice the recommended amount of sodium, which my body was not used to.
As a foody what I looked forward to most about China was the chance to have real Chinese food. I admit that I’m a fiend for American “Chinese food.” When my funds are looking ideal I’m quick to hit up the local Chinese place and order crab rangoons and general tso’s chicken. I’ve always heard the remarks that it’s nothing compared to its elders. For starters, we Americans are greedy and prefer not to share our food. The Chinese, on the other hand, eat in smaller portions and eat meals communally. Of course, they use chopsticks and more logically cut food into smaller sizes so as not to over eat. One thing I noticed was the ratio of meat to starches and vegetables. Meat seemed to be a luxury. A lot of dishes were composed of overwhelming amounts of rice and vegetables. The spiciness of the dishes also caught me off guard, seeing as though Chinese food is Korean influenced, too.
The Chinese have a tradition to dine at a round table with 13 seats. The Lazy Susan rotating table, invented in the 1950s, was the center of every meal we shared. Eventually we caught on to who would happily dominate the rotation of the table while everyone picked out of the bowls. Having done no prior research, I happily copied my newly acquired friends’ etiquette and carefully listened to their tips on proper etiquette. I greatly feared being unintentionally disrespectful. I refused to use a fork, so I attempted to master chopsticks. Of course, I couldn’t quite grasp the concept and was always last to finish my plate. Our professor Hui Chi Lee was given the seat of honor and we filled the surrounding seats. Every day for lunch and dinner we would meet at the round table and be presented with 13 dishes of our choice, 2 which were always plain white sticky rice. We sopped our rice with unfamiliar yet intriguing cuisines. I was embarrassed by the size of our American plates compared to that of the Chinese, which was significantly smaller.
I begged my professor and peers not to reveal any of the foods until after I’d tried it. I vowed to try everything that was put in front of me, regardless of how awful it smelled or looked. Regrettably, I was convinced to taste pig’s tongue and seaweed. Among other things were 100 day old boiled eggs. Century eggs are fresh chicken, duck or quail egg often preserved for several weeks in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime and rice. I personally refused to eat it when my classmates failed to withhold its description from me. They were grayish and pungent smelling. It was nauseating; nonetheless, I’m sure I would’ve disrespectfully vomited.
On the other hand, I did discover a version of eggs from the Chinese I did love. Although we switched hotels every few days, they each had a continental breakfast of sorts. Most of them had tea eggs. A common snack from street vendors, these eggs were first boiled then cracked and boiled again. This time boiled in tea, soy sauce and the Chinese five-star spices: ground cinnamon, star anise, fennel seeds, cloves and Szechuan peppercorns. Dauntingly, these eggs are called Marble eggs because of their resemblance to marble. Once the eggs are shelled seemingly intricate lines are revealed, traced with the stain of tea leaves. I found them to be beautiful and flavorsome. I ate 2 every morning, alongside another recurring morning snack: dim sum fried sesame balls. I greedily ate at least three every chance I got. The buns were joyously crisp and chewy and coated with sesame seeds, while mysteriously hollow. Some versions of these same buns were filled with the typical Chinese bean pastes. I was always curious as to how they managed to prepare them with such round, empty perfection. I would go back to China any day solely for the fried glutinous rice flour.
Atlanta is an Education Abroad Peer Ambassador studying art history and visual studies at the University of Kentucky. She studied abroad in China in summer 2015.
Sources for images: http://www.chinasichuanfood.com/sesame-balls-jian-dui/ the sesame balls