Having grown up in Southern California, I was raised on the notion that Chinese food meant everything on Panda Express’ menu: Orange Chicken, Broccoli Beef, and Kung Pao Chicken. While these sugar-drenched and soy sauce soaked dishes perfectly suited my stringent eating habits, I was light-years away from eating true Chinese cuisine such as cong you bing, Peking duck, and xiao long bao. This is the Chinese food history and tradition birthed. This is true Chinese cuisine.
I was introduced to this authentic side of Chinese food 4 years ago when I moved to Hong Kong. What’s truly disheartening, though, is that most people never get the chance to visit China. This exquisite style of cooking and these traditional recipes therefore go untapped and die in their minds under the façade as being Orange Chicken and Broccoli Beef. However, hope is far from lost. There are some people who have yearned to obtain a deeper understanding beyond what textbooks and websites can provide and have moved their lives overseas to experience this fruitful culture and indulge in this cuisine for themselves.
Gweilos (guh-why-lows): Hong Kong slang for foreigners
While this term has been slashed with racial deprecatory, it has healed slowly over time – now to the point of being playful jargon. I view being a gweilo as an honor in disguise. It allows me to help pioneer a way for fearful foreigners to take charge of their curiosity and travel abroad to understand misunderstood cultures. By traveling and experiencing these cultures myself, I am able to indulge in history, tradition, and cuisine. I encourage them to slurp up the broth of xiao long bao alongside new Chinese friends, to joyously press their fingers into a soft cha siu bao, and experience the unique texture of Phoenix Claws for the first time. Eating these beloved dishes will give them a glimpse into how China ticks.
For the adventurous and the modest, these are some great starter dishes to help you set foot on your culinary odyssey.
Xiao Long Bao (see-ow-long-bow)
Also known as Shanghai steamed soup dumplings, these little satchels of broth and pork filling warm you from the mouth down to the stomach. Their delicately thin dumpling exterior encompasses a warm stock and floats a morsel of pork and vegetable filling.
Cha Siu Bao (cha-shoe-bow)
Resembling a generous dollop of whipped cream, these steamed barbeque pork buns are lighter than air but as filling as pound cake. Their sweet interior is coaxed perfectly by the fluffy white bun it is nestled in. Filling, but not overwhelmingly so, these are a perfect way to balance out other oily dishes commonly found in Chinese cuisine.
Siu Mai (see-you-my)
These dumplings are filled with either pork or seafood and vegetables are wrapped in a distinct, thin yellow noodle and garnished with crab roe, or sometimes even a diced carrot. Dabbed in soy sauce, these dumplings bring a salty and acidic taste to your palette. With no overwhelming seafood taste, they are a great way to wean onto other seafood dishes you will find in China.
Steamed and folded into rectangular packets, shrimp and chopped herbs are presented to you wrapped in moist noodles laid one on top of another. These dense and somewhat slippery noodles make them difficult to work with for first-time chopstick users, but the reward is worth the battle. They are mild on flavor but full of satisfaction.
Here is when having an open mind and adventurous spirit come into play. Phoenix Claws, also known as Chicken Feet, are a customary delicacy. They are slimy in nature and you must spit out the bones when consuming. Apart from its texture, the dish possesses robust undertones of aniseed and fennel to give it an unmatched unique taste. Their texture is widely loved by the Chinese whom value texture over taste. Consider this a 4 out of 5 ranking on the scale of adventurous eating.
For the diner with a sugar inclination, these street-side treats are worth finishing off a delectable dim sum meal with.
Egg Puff Waffles
Like a regular Belgium waffle, but with round bulges instead of square coves. Served by its self or drenched in condensed milk, peanut butter or chocolate, there is something to love for everyone with a mild to severe sweet tooth.
This famous dessert is known for its flakey pastry shell and sweet egg custard filling. Baked in the oven, these gems come out of the oven with a heat scorched top and a thick custard middle. After taking a bite of both shell and filling, an explosion of moderate sweetness from the egg custard and buttery slivers from the shell melt together and coax your mouth into a silky delight.
Originating in Taiwan but loved throughout Asia, bubble tea helps wash down even the densest of foods. Its light tea base is originally mixed with milk and poured over ice and tapioca balls. It is a fun way to indulge on the hottest of summer days and keep it nostalgic on the coldest of winter nights.
Chomp through these dishes & you will be well on your way to understanding Chinese cuisine!