But food in China was completely different. Chinese cuisine is complex, has a huge variety, and like India, each province has a cuisine that’s entirely different from the other. Here are 10 things I learned from observing how people eat in China:
- There’s no desserton the menu in most restaurants and it’s not eaten in homes, either. If at all, slices of watermelon or some fruit are served. The traditional sweet dishes (such as dumplings or buns stuffed with bean pastes)are much less sweet than Indian or Western desserts and are eaten at teatime, for breakfast or as a snack. The ice cream I tasted was also much less sweet as were the sesame, sunflower seed or peanut brittle (like chikki).
- Vegetables are main courses by themselvesrather than side dishes, and most meat and seafood dishes include vegetables.
- The main courses are not necessarily eaten with rice or noodles. Rice is not served automatically at restaurants. You have to ask for it and it comes in small bowls.
- Soup is served for both lunch and dinner in most Chinese homes. Soup that is nutritious and made from scratch. Soup fills the stomach, helps to curb the appetite and also satisfies.
- There’s very little dairy in Chinese cooking. They use fresh soya milk, fresh tofu and other fermented soya products in different ways. I ate soymilk porridge with toppings and a tofu pudding for breakfast.
- The popular methods of daily cooking are steaming (as in all kinds of baos/buns and dumplings), stir-frying(for veggies and meat/seafood dishes) and boiling (as in rice congee, soups and soupy noodles). They do deep fry food occasionally of course, and these are popular in Chinese banquets, where the rotating innertable is laden with around 20 plus dishes.
- The principle of “food is medicine and medicine is food” is central to Chinese cuisine, as is a yin yang balance. Yin food is cool, fresh and moist while yang food is warm, dry and crisp. The food is also balanced by taste —sweet, sour, hot and salty. One of my favourite foodsthis trip was a breakfast dish called Jianbing – Chinese crepe (exactly like a huge dosa) made with millet and bean flour, spread with a layer of egg, sprinkled with spring onions and pickled radish, folded and spread with sweet soybean and chilli pastes. Finally a deep-fried wonton sheet was placed in the middle for some delightful crunch and it was folded over again. It was a complete yin yang well balanced and most delicious meal.
- Green or black tea is drunk through the day. I loved that all the water dispensers I encountered only had 2 options – warm and boiling hot for tea. Chinese carry flasks with dried tea leaves in them and these are refilled through the day as needed. Green or black tea made with leaves can be re-used 4 or 5 times. During a visit to a tea shop, we tasted many varieties of delicious fruit and flower teas. Fruit tea was a mix of chopped dried fruit/berries and dried peel. Flower tea was real dried flowers- jasmine, rose, chrysanthemum etc. No milk or sugar is added to any tea.
- I sampled all kinds of nutrient-dense snacksfromthe markets (both sold loose and packaged). These included different kind of beans (fried/roasted and spiced black soybeans and broad beans), sunflower and pumpkin seeds, honey-roasted almonds in their shells and peanuts. All high protein Omega 3 and 6 EFA-filled snacks. I bought some of each and they kept me going through out my trip.
- Eatingwith chopsticks and out of small bowls and plates helps one eat slowly and to savour the food. As a result you feel full but not stuffed. Small plate sizes help with portion control. And at the end, there is no feeling of richness from oily and sweet food.
Not related to eating, my other major takeaway from observing the Chinese was that of movement and exercise. Most people seemed lean, fit and healthy, especially the elderly, and I discovered why. It was spring when I was in Beijing and Shanghai and all the many parks were filled with people dancing(square or ball-room dancing or traditional sword dancing), doing tai chior playing chess or cards.Dancing was the most popular. All through the day in good weather, groups of mainly elderly men and women meet in the parks, put on a music box and dance with each other or free style. What a great way to keep fit, healthy and happy.
Needless to say, the impact of western fast food is also being felt in China. KFC has over 5000 outlets in China, McDonalds has over 2000 outlets and the rates of obesity and lifestyle diseases like diabetes among the youth, especially, are rising rapidly.
In final analysis, as the world is realizing slowly but surely, the message is that traditional eating habits are the best and if we go back to these, plus cut the junk and processed food, we will be all the better for it.
Indo-Chinese Hakka Noodles
Hakka noodles or chowmein presumably originated with the Chinese of Hakka (Han) origin who moved to Kolkata over a century ago.Thisversion is my go-to noodle dishthat is quick and easy to toss together in the morning before school/office or for a quick lunch/dinner. You can use whatever vegetables you have at hand. Toss in a cup of soya-marinated and cooked chicken, prawns, paneer or tofu for some added protein.
200g veg/egg noodles
1 teaspoon + 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion (50g) or 5 spring onions, sliced
1 teaspoon crushed garlic or ginger-garlic paste
2 cups sliced vegetables of choice (carrot, beans, capsicum, cabbage, peas, mushroom etc.)
¼ teaspoon salt, or to taste
1-2 beaten eggs (optional)
1-2 tablespoons soya or fish sauce
1-2 teaspoons red or green chilli sauce (optional)
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
- Bring 1 litre or more water to boil. Cook noodles as per directions. Do not overcook or you will have a sticky mash. Mix in 1 teaspoon of oil so the noodles don’t stick.
- Heat a tablespoon of oil in a kadhai/wok, sauté the onions, then stir in the ginger-garlic paste and cook for a minute.
- Toss in the sliced vegetables, sprinkle the salt and stir-fry on high heat for a few minutes only, until the vegetables are cooked but crunchy. Or cover and steam the veggies for faster cooking, retaining the crunch.
- At this stage, you could move the vegetables to a side and scramble an egg (with a pinch of salt) in the middle or make an omelette, cut in strips, and toss in at the end. At this stage too, you canadd ina cup of cooked protein of choice.
- Add in the sauces, sugar, and pepper to taste. Toss in the cooked noodles and mix well. Taste for salt, and add some more if needed.
Food Fact: Instant (2 minute) noodles are a highly processed junk food with little nutrition. The noodles are pre-cooked and then flash fried in oil. The seasoning is very high in sodium/salt. If you do use these occasionally (we all doJ), doadd inlots of vegetables and avoid or reduce the amount of the seasoning mix you use.