Have you ever traveled to a location where you can’t speak the language, but all of a sudden realize you can read a word or a sign? Or expect not to hear your native language, so when you do it catches you completely off guard?
This experience has happened to me several times while I galavanted around this summer, but particularly in China. After being in the country for about a week, where there was very limited Roman writing, we arrived at our last destination of Zhejiang Normal University in Jinhua. We were exploring the central business district just north of the campus when it happened: “Cheese”. It’s really startling when you recognize that you can read something (especially after a prolonged period of time of walking around in ignorant bliss). But to top it off, it was a word that is not in the Chinese diet. Dairy is just not a thing in China (well maybe for the exception of ice cream – which was everywhere).
Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of my traveling companions, “Cheese” did not have the coveted dairy product in stock. As soon as you walked in, the entire place smelled as though you were in a French bakery – buttery, sweet, rich desserts line the tray tables. And while it was lacking in dairy, it did have something that I remembered all too well – the egg tart. Back in 2017, after a visit to Japan for work, I met up with one of my grad school friends in Hong Kong. Within hours of landing, she led me to a small shop that only sold egg tarts. It was hands one of the best desserts I have ever had. With a flaky, buttery crust, the egg tart itself is a smooth, slightly sweetened custard with the slightest hint of vanilla. About the circumference of a muffin, you may be able to eat it in two bites. But why would you want to?
This is often how my trip went in China – you went in, thinking you understood something and then you come out of the experience with more questions than answers. Food tended to be the only constant. Almost every meal was served family style, with at least 15 plates placed on a large lazy susan for all of us to share (my favorite style of eating). The dishes tended to be sauteed, incorporating a form of protein with vegetables. Every meal was accompanied by at least one whole fish dish (which is a part of the diet in southeastern China) and rice (a food staple in Chinese cuisine). And as we moved from Shanghai further into the countryside, the sauces got slightly thicker and darker.
What surprised me the most was the freshness of the cuisine – which means I was naive to think that there would be a resemblance of American Chinese food in China. While we may have sampled a fried dish, most of the food was on the lighter side (which meant I was constantly refilling my plate). It also struck me how some of the staples that I often cook with and associate more with European food at home – garlic and onions – was prominent in multiple dishes regardless of the location.
While parts of the trip were incredibly challenging (perhaps some of the most challenging that I’ve experienced to date), the food provided comfort and excitement. The combination that appeared each meal may have seemed familiar but was often slightly different from something we had in the past.
The missed opportunity is that I don’t know if I could even ask for half of what we ate there – or know what to look for – in a restaurant in Philly (or elsewhere in the U.S.). The language barrier was so severe it made it difficult to know the names or details of any of these dishes (except for the pork belly – which was the most tender and succulent pork belly I’ve ever had). So while I don’t have words to describe these dishes (besides the painfully obvious), the photos throughout this post highlight the vibrancy and diversity of each meal.