A plate of sea slugs in garlic sauce in the fishing village of Tai Po, Hong Kong (photo by Simone Cannon)
One of the many surprising things for me on my first trip to Asia was how different the food was from the North American versions. I shouldn't have been that surprised as I had experienced the same thing in other countries such as Mexico and Italy. Once you leave the tourist areas, the food becomes almost unrecognizable as what I had thought of as "Mexican", "Italian" or "Chinese", and I must say, much more diverse and delicious than I ever imagined. The difference is that in most countries that I've visited, even though I may not understand a lot of the language, some of the words are more or less recognizable, so I at least have an outside chance of picking something I've heard of. Not so in China. Generally, the authenticity and tastiness of the food was inversely proportional to the amount of English (and I use the term very loosely) that appeared on the menu. Consequently, when aiming for the truly authentic, I would inevitably end up in a restaurant filled with locals and waiters who spoke no English and whose only menu was a wallboard of mysterious Chinese characters. Generally, I would just point at two or three items, nod enthusiastically whenever a waiter asked me a question and hope for the best.
A variety of snacks-on-a-stick at a Beijing market including scorpions and giant silkworm pupae (photo by Simone Cannon)
Occasionally, what appeared at the table was something I knew from the Chinese restaurants at home, items such as steamed crab, plates of noodles or rice with seafood or duck or fried pork balls. More often than not, though, I had only ever seen the particular lifeform lying on my plate at the zoo or aquarium: jellyfish, starfish, scorpions, the pupae of giant silkworms, sea slugs or sea snake. Whenever anything in bird-like pieces appeared in front of me, I would try to ask the waiter what it was and usually received as an answer the only English food word he seemed to know: chicken. Oddly enough, when I tried to reassemble the "chicken", it never quite measured up to standard chicken size and usually came out looking something like an emaciated sparrow. Like I said, better not to ask questions sometimes...
I only started to learn what I was eating when I began meeting fellow travelers in China who would join me for dinner. Just as well, since I might have hesitated to try some really delicious foods. Jellyfish, for example, tasted nothing like I thought it would. I imagined a slimy, gelatinous heavily-flavored creature, but in fact, it was delicate and sweet with a fresh sea flavor and a texture similar to caviar, that burst in your mouth when you bit into it. Starfish was easily identifiable and had a crunchy, fishy flavor.
Bags of sea snake and dried starfish for sale in a Hong Kong food market (photo by Simone Cannon)
My favorite (aside from my all time favorite Chinese food, Peking Duck) were the sea slugs. Despite the off putting name, they are wonderful, similar to a large tender clam, but with much more flavor. Sea snake was another surprise. It can be served grilled, steamed or sauteed and is very similar in taste and texture to eel. Most of these foods are also available at street market stalls if trying to order in a Chinese restaurant becomes too intimidating. The version of Chinese food served in Beijing is a combination of the styles imported by immigrants from other parts of China such as Hebei, Shangdong, Lower Yangzi River area, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. Lately, there have also been influences from the Americas, Japan and Europe, driven largely by tourists and expatriates, but also by the Chinese themselves as international travel has increased greatly in the last thirty years. In Hong Kong, the food leans toward the Cantonese style, but with many of the same international influences as Beijing. Seafood and fish dishes are more prevalent in Hong Kong, due to its location on the South China sea. Chinese food is one of the most diverse cuisines in the world, albeit unfamiliar to many Westerners. When visiting China, the best way to have a true culinary adventure is to take a deep breath and jump right in...you may be pleasantly surprised. At the very least, you'll have daring food stories to share with your friends and family when you get back. For more on Chinese food and Asian cooking in general, see the wonderful blog Hunger Hunger (A Daily Obesession), complete with interesting commentaries and gorgeous photos of authentic Asian food : http://hungerhunger.blogspot.com/
Fresh bok choy drying in the sun, Tai Po, Hong Kong (photo by Simone Cannon)