Iâ€™m currently in Shanghai, after the end of my first gastronomic tour with WildChina! I spent ten days or so introducing a small group (ten guests) to the amazing diversity of Chinese cuisines. We began in Beijing, where we tried famous Shandong dishes, Beijing folk cookery, Mongolian hotpot and Peking duck, and then flew to Xiâ€™an, where a trip to see the Terracotta Warriors was bookended by slap-up feasts of local specialties. In Chengdu, we sampled xiao chi (â€˜small eatsâ€™), hotpot and many traditional dishes, enjoyed a glorious formal banquet and attended a hands-on cooking class; and in Shanghai and Hangzhou we scoffed fabulous dumplings and many local delicacies. All in all, if you count street snacks, we tried over 300 dishes. By the end of the trip, I was exhausted, but exhilarated! Yesterday I checked out of my hotel and into a friendâ€™s home, vowing to eat only salad for several days â€“ but then another friend who is briefly inÂ town insisted on going out to eat hairy crab! I have to admit that my appetite was a pale reflection of its usual self. Today, Iâ€™ve just lazed around in aspa, being covered in cucumber, steamed, scrubbed and massaged, and Iâ€™m finallyÂ feeling calm and rested.
My job as tour leader has been to choose restaurants, arrange menus and talk about the food â€“ and, more importantly, to try to ensure that everyone has a wonderful time. This, of course, involves gauging and accommodating the limits of peopleâ€™s adventurousness when it comes to eating â€“ and in this case, there werenâ€™t any. Every single person said they were willing to try anything. So I was able to order exactly what I thought was most interesting and representative of each regional cuisine â€“ even in a Sichuanese hotpot restaurant, where it is customary to eat a fair amount of offal and rubbery delicacies. The son of the owner joined us for dinner, and couldnâ€™t believe it when he saw a bunch of Westerners tucking into tripe, goose intestines and rabbitâ€™s kidneys. He told us we had totally changed his view of what was possible for foreigners dining out in China â€“ which means, I hope, that he will extend his translated English menu to include not only the meatballs, sliced beef, mushrooms and vegetables, but also the offal and other stuff that an increasingly number of Westerners might be keen to try. Actually in several restaurants I had to argue vociferously with waiters who assured me that foreigners would not eat this or that, and urged me to order just sweet-and-sour fish and boneless stir-fries. When even someone who speaks Chinese and knows how to order has to battle to get beyond the traditionally acceptable stuff, you can see how tough it might be for an ordinary tourist, speaking no Mandarin but hoping to eat the most Chinese versions of Chinese food. Anyway, I hope we have beaten a track along which others will follow!
Weâ€™re planning another tour for October 2013, and discussing the possibility of further food tours focused on specific regional cuisines. Watch this spaceâ€¦
By the way, if any of the tour group are reading this post – thanks you all again for being such fantastic travelling companions and enthusiastic eaters!
P.S. After a couple of weeks of Gargantuan eating, and three weeks after I was last here in Shanghai, I arrived at my friend’s flat and one of the first things she said to me was: ‘Fuchsia, you’ve lost weight’. And the extraordinary thing is that I think she may be right. Which all goes to suggest that, however hard you try, it’s much more difficult to get fat on a Chinese diet than a Western one. Is it the lack of dairy products? The relative lack of sweet things? Less snacking between meals?