China - Exploring China though Adventurous Cuisine  
By Dian Thomas

BEIJING, China — On my first trip to China, which was about ten years ago, I was told that the Chinese people eat everything that has legs except a table. Long ago, the people were so poor that they ate anything they could find that would keep them alive. Eventually they developed a taste for the food they were eating.

After being here for a month, I believe the part about eating anything with legs except a table. The Chinese people eat and savor many things that we would never think of putting in our mouths.

One of the new items that I tried on this trip was chicken feet. I am still scratching my head to figure out what they like about them.

The author tried chicken feet — once. (All photos by Dian Thomas.)

Children who travel to China sometimes have trouble figuring out how to get the food from their bowls to their mouths. I was fascinated by one young Utah boy's befuddlement with chopsticks. Eventually he just decided to take all the noodles and go for it.

Many of us may think noodles are noodles, but in China they come in a variety that ranges from flour noodles to very thin rice noodles. No matter what shape they are in, noodles provide some familiarity to American tourists.

A young tourist gives up and inhales the whole thing.

One of my favorite Chinese meals, which is available in many Chinese restaurants in the United States, is dim sum. You can get it in China both for breakfast and lunch. It is much like ordering a lot of appetizers. The small appetizers come on a plate or in a bamboo basket. There are usually 3 to 4 small samples. Several varieties consist of a meal.

This week I was the guest of James Liang, a partner in Shenzhen Shenhua International Travel Service for Dim Sim at the Sunshine Hotel in their Seaport Restaurant in Shenzhen, China. One of my favorite dishes is the steamed bread and the barbeque pork in a bun. See the variety in the photo. We ended the meal with a lovely coconut heart.

An assortment of dim sum dishes.

American food is alive and well in China. The hamburger has made it way to China, big time. McDonalds seems to be leading the way, with long lines in Hong Kong. While I was in Hong Kong, I went to the same McDonalds two mornings in a row. On both occasions, people were stacked five deep in each of the seven lines.

McDonalds in Hong Kong — not as healthy as chicken feet, but perhaps more appetizing.

KFC seems to me to be coming in a close second as far as popularity with the Chinese people. I have also seen a Burger King, Starbucks, and a Papa Johns.

Americans who are guests in China aren't limited to fast food if they want to stick to American cuisine. During the month I have been here, I have stayed in several hotels. Each of them has their version of a western breakfast. This is really a full menu of breakfast, lunch, and dinner — all rolled into one.

The breakfast omelet bar that is featured in many hotels offers food that is familiar to American tourists.

Here is food that Americans can recognize.

My favorite breakfast feast was at the Holiday Inn in Shanghai. It was divided into different sections that included a variety of breakfast cereals, fruit bar, sushi bar, omelet bar, dim sum bar, and a variety of rice, and vegetables. The breakfast comes with your night's stay. If you eat the breakfast and take a roll with a little meat and cheese for a snack in the middle of the day, you are good until the evening meal.

Although Americans aren't used to eating vegetables for breakfast, the breakfast vegetable bar offers the opportunity for Americans visiting China to have a breakfast salad.

Whenever you dine with a group of six or more in China, you are going to find a very special table. It is a round table with a round glass that is in the middle, like a lazy Susan. As you sit down, there will already be a few starters on the glass. These could consist of small plates of appetizers such as cucumbers in soy sauce. Today we saw a plate of apples with a dressing on it.

A table set for dinner, with appetizers on the glass tabletop.

Once you are seated, the dishes begin to come. Tonight we had 12 at the table, and by the end of the meal I counted 13 dishes of food that came out. The dishes can range from a dish of rice, dishes of noodles, two or more different meats (one of them is usually a sweet and sour dish), along with several mixed vegetable dishes.

But when small wedges of watermelon arrive, dinner is over. I am not sure that I have ever been to a meal in China where watermelon was not served. Watermelon is the only kind of dessert I have ever seen in China, but it is always present. When I attended a Chinese wedding there were 23 dishes before the watermelon arrived.

A Chinese wedding — 23 dishes, plus watermelon.

Watermelon — it's what's for dessert.

Street food is a real adventure in China. In many traditional Chinese fast food eating places, you will be greeted with roast duck. That's the whole roast duck, including the duck heads. Or if you can prefer you can buy roasted duck heads without the rest of the duck attached.

In China you can get roasted duck heads, with or without the ducks attached.

One day we walked down an alley that had so many surprises I just could not count them all. I think that best it to let the photos show you the variety.

Squid on a stick.

Mystery meat, with chilis.

One thing about the food in China is that you can never expect to see anything. Just know that sooner or later you will see things that you can not believe people put in their mouths. I am sure that if you were raised here, you would think that these foods are delicacies.

Ten years ago I was served rat and snake. I figured that it would be the only time I would have such a meal — and yes, I lived to tell about it. One day on this trip I saw dog on the menu. Besides the chicken feet that I tried I also ate turtle and saw one man eat and savor the eyeball of a large fish head. I tried the cheek of the fish, but that was as far as I was going.

Forget about turtle soup made with the meat of the turtle. Turtles are consumed in China in their entirety, as this picture shows.

Just remember — Chinese people eat everything that has leg but a table. I must say they do very well on this diet. One sees very few overweight people here, so their diet must be agreeing with them. Come to China someday, and you can experience things you never thought you would see people eat. Eating in China is a great adventure.


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