”Aur sunao, China me cockroach khaye?” (“Did you eat cockroaches in China?”)
I cannot recall how many times I was asked this question after I returned from China two years ago. If you ask this question to anyone from China, first, they will laugh and then tell you that it is true.
I went to China in 2015 for my Master’s degree from a university in Beijing. Like many others in Pakistan, I had a perception that Chinese people eat everything present on the Earth. It is a common belief not only in Pakistan but also worldwide.
My mother had stuffed my suitcase with different spices, lentils, and Basmati rice. I even had a packet of instant noodles to eat in a land known for noodle-making. With this heavy suitcase and a much heavier heart, I left Pakistan.
I arrived at Beijing Capital International Airport in the early morning. It was a different world. Mesmerised by the building, I took a taxi and reached my university, where registration took half the day. I was hungry and tired. I did not know any place I could go to eat. I took out instant noodles from my suitcase and prepared those in a bowl I borrowed from my Vietnamese roommate. That was my first dinner in China.
I did not eat anything other than instant noodles for the next two days. On the third day, a senior took me to a nearby Halal restaurant. It was a small place. My senior ordered stir fried beef with noodles for himself while I ordered beef fried rice. That was the only item on the menu card that looked familiar to me.
Ordering food in a restaurant in China can be tricky if one does not know Mandarin. Most of the restaurants have now added pictures to their menus, which has made the whole drill a bit easier.
Our food was served in 10 minutes. The noodles had all colours — yellow, green, brown and red. Those were hand-pulled noodles served with stir fried beef, peppers, lettuce and tomatoes. I’ll order that next time, I decided.
The fried rice was looking challenging though. It had onion, small pieces of fried beef and green pepper. The rice grain was short and round, unlike Basmati rice. Keeping my concerns aside, I took the first bite. The taste was not bad but complicated because of the rice. I had been eating Basmati rice all my life, I surely needed more time to adjust with the taste and texture of Chinese rice.
China has a variety of rice — short, medium and long. Here, long does not mean the long length of Basmati rice grain; the long-grain rice available in China is half its size. Rice is mostly eaten in southern China while noodles, buns and bread are more popular in the north.
After a few months, I knew places I could go to eat — some became my favourites too. There were at least six Muslim restaurants in the neighbourhood and out of four cafeterias inside the university premises, one was for Muslim students. Only Muslim students could eat there.
Payment at these cafeterias is made through the campus card, which can be topped up using automated machines installed inside the cafeterias and administration block.
Muslims make approximately 1.8% of the entire population of China. Every year, thousands of Muslim students from all around the world come here for higher studies that make Halal food a big market in China.
Halal restaurants are found throughout the country and are marked with a mosque drawn on their exterior as an identifier. Some also have “Halal” written either in Arabic or Chinese.
I went back to the same university in Beijing this September to do a PhD. A lot has changed in the past two years.
Three of the Halal restaurants near the university have moved. I also noticed that the remaining restaurants have moved their outdoor Halal signs inside. Some still have the signs outside, but in a smaller size.
This is most probably in alignment with China’s crackdown on its Muslim population.
The four traditional cuisines
Chinese cuisine is very diverse and has a long history, and people always have a long story to tell about each dish which shows their pride in their culture.
Each region has its own cuisine depending on the available resources, weather, geography and cooking techniques. The four traditional cuisines are Guandong, Shandong, Sichuan and Huaiyang. These cuisines represent West, North, South and East China.
My most favourite cuisine is from China’s Muslim majority province Xinjiang, home of different ethnic groups including Uyghurs, Han, Kazakhs, Tibetans, Tajiks and others. Its cuisine refers to the cooking styles of all of these ethnic groups but the Uyghur style is the most dominant. It is influenced by both Chinese and Muslim cooking styles, which makes it different from the other cooking techniques.
Migrants from the region have opened restaurants in almost every big and small city. These restaurants have typical Xinjiang décor and serve Halal food. The most famous dishes of these restaurants are Da Pan Ji, Polau or polu and Kao Rou.
Da Pan Ji
Da Pan Ji, or “big plate chicken”, is a spicy hot chicken stew cooked with potatoes and dry red chili. The one standout ingredient of this dish is Sichuan peppercorns, which leave a numbing sensation in the mouth with each bite.
One serving of Da Pan Ji is enough for four to five persons. It is usually served with wide, flat hand-pulled noodles which are added in the plate after the chicken has been eaten.
Da Pan Ji gained popularity with Uyghurs in the late 1990s. There are different stories about how it was invented. The most popular origin story is that a migrant from China’s southwestern province Sichuan added a handful of dried red chilies with chicken and potatoes in a pot to recreate a dish from his hometown.
Little did he know that years later his invention would become a festive dish not only in Xinjiang, but all across the country.
Polau or polu
This rice dish is just another variant of the traditional pilao. Uyghurs adopted it from Central Asia and gave it a Chinese touch.
Polau is made with lamb meat, which is cooked well in a pot before it’s mixed with carrots and rice. Some restaurants top it off with fried raisins and walnuts. Normally, it’s common to eat plain boiled rice as part of the meal.
Not many restaurants have fried rice or Polau, but Xinjiang restaurants often make this dish.
Kao Rou is spicy lamb kebabs cooked on charcoal. These are mostly eaten as a starter.
The kebabs are made of small pieces of lamb meat. These are put on a skewer alternating with fat pieces. These skewers are then sprinkled with salt, red chili powder and crushed cumin. In the final stage, the skewers are cooked on coal until the meat is soft and brown.
Kao Rou is eaten directly from the skewers as the Chinese do not like to touch their food with bare hands. They always prefer to use chopsticks, and if food cannot be eaten with chopsticks or a spoon, they use disposable gloves to eat with their hands.
For this reason, pizza shops in Beijing give out disposable gloves with pizza.
How is Chinese food served?
Chinese cuisine is served in a particular order. First comes the tea.
Tea is mostly complementary in restaurants, but it is a basic one and you can order one of your choice too. The tea is served with a flask of hot water, which the host keeps adding to the teapot as it empties.
Cold dishes are served after the tea. These may include salad, pickles, sausages or cold soups.
Next is the main course, which also follows an order: first meat dishes are served, then vegetable dishes and finally rice, naan bread or noodles.
We normally drink soup as a starter, but in China, it is served after the main course is finished. Chinese cuisine does have some desserts but most people prefer to eat seasonal fruits as dessert.
Like Da Pan Ji, there are a few more dishes which have become equally popular in all parts of China. Hot pot is one of them.
Hot pot is a traditional cooking method that has its origin in the Han dynasty. It is more popular in ChengDu and ChongQing because of their cold weather.
A simmering pot of broth is placed in the centre of the table. It is surrounded by different raw ingredients: meat, mushrooms, tofu, meatballs and green vegetables, thinly sliced so they can cook quickly when dipped in the broth.
The taste of a hot pot is determined by its broth, which can be spicy or mild. Restaurants usually have pots with two sections to serve different types of broths to diners on a table. The food from hot pot is commonly eaten with a peanut sauce or sesame oil.
To eat hot pot, pick up an ingredient from the table and dip it into the pot with your chopsticks. Let it cook for a few seconds. The rule is to count to three before taking it out of the simmering broth.
The Peking duck from Beijing is the national dish of China. It is characterised by thin and crispy duck meat served with julienned spring onion, cucumber, sweet bean sauce and very thin, small pancakes.
The meat and vegetables are wrapped inside the pancake on the dining table. It is then eaten with sauce.
The Spring Festival is a celebration of New Lunar Year that starts at the end of January. It is considered the most important festival in China, and no matter where people are, they go back to their hometown to welcome the lunar new year with their family.
On the eve of New Year, the whole family sits together and makes dumplings.
Chinese dumplings typically consist of minced meat and finely chopped vegetables wrapped into a piece of thinly rolled dough. The dough should be well-kneaded and soft. Dumplings are boiled in water and served with black vinegar. Some kinds of dumplings are shallow fried in a pan, while others are steamed.
Mid-Autumn Festival is also very important on the Chinese calendar, traditionally celebrated to mark the fall harvest. Now, it remains just a symbolic event.
Small, round-shaped moon cakes are eaten during this festival. These cakes have a rich, thick filling usually made from red bean paste in a thin, lightly sweet crust. Some mooncake fillings also have yolks from salted duck eggs.
Blood tofu is also very popular in some parts of China. It is made with blood of either pig or duck. The blood is congealed before cutting into rectangular pieces. These slices are tender like tofu. In some parts of China, these are added into soup and in others into gravy which is either eaten with rice or noodles.
Virgin boy eggs
Virgin boy eggs are a traditional dish from Dongyang in coastal Zhejiang province of China. These eggs are cooked in urine of young boys, preferably below the age of 10.
Local people believe that these eggs have many health benefits such as improved blood circulation and ability to decrease body heat, but there are no scientifically proven medical benefits.
It takes a whole day to prepare these eggs. First, the eggs are soaked in young boys’ urine, and then boiled. After that, the shells of the eggs are cracked. Finally, the eggs are left to simmer in the urine for hours.
Eating insects is not unusual, and some kinds are eaten in Pakistan too. Locust, a kind of grasshopper, is eaten in Tharparkar, Sindh (it was suggested as a solution to the recent swarm in Sindh too).
On an official trip to a village in northern China, I was served a plate of insects as a starter. We were told that this type of insect was very popular in that area.
What is behind the misconception of “Chinese people eat everything”?
The great Chinese famine that began in 1958 and lasted until late 1961 affected eating culture in China widely. It was not the first famine in China’s history. A large population and an unstable agrarian economy had previously caused two famines, between 1916 and 1949, and the last famine was deadlier than both combined.
During this period, the Chinese developed some eating etiquettes which they still follow. When they meet others, the first question they ask after the greetings is likely to be “Have you eaten anything?” It's a sign of how horrific that time had been, when anything that was available and could keep one alive was eaten.
The causes and results of this famine are debatable. The Chinese government called it a natural disaster but critics think communist policies worsened the situation. The death toll is also contested. In my own experience, the great famine is one of the topics which is still taboo to discuss in China, especially with foreigners.
Other than this, Chinese cuisine is definitely much more than Manchurian and hot and sour soup which I never found in any restaurant here. If you ever get a chance, do visit China and explore its cuisine yourself. It will not disappoint you.