For starters: yes, the Chinese eat with chopsticks. They also use spoons for soup, and their hands when chopsticks would be too unwieldy. Dishes are always shared, and if a host takes you out they’ll keep ordering more dishes until you stop eating. Don’t finish anything if you want to cut down on waste (and the bill)! Beijing is the Manhattan of China, and you’ll find a dozen restaurants on every block serving food from all regions of the country.
Cantonese cuisine, from the nation’s southern coast, resembles American Chinese food most closely. Ingredients are a variety of meats and vegetables, usually stir-fried, with flavor concentrated in sauces that combine sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. Fish steamed whole – bones in, heads and tails intact – are astonishingly delicious. Use rice to sop up those gloppy sauces.
Sichuan cuisine, from centrally located Sichuan Province, is renowned for being very spicy. Many Sichuan dishes seem to contain more chiles than edible food, and they’ll make your lips tingle for hours after. Whole fish is less of a thing, but you’ll find species like monkfish cut into chunks and stewed. Common vegetables include okra and mustard greens. Rice is the preferred accompaniment here too.
Traditional Beijing cuisine reflects its northern location, where fresh produce is less reliable. The local delicacy is Peking Duck, carved tableside and served with paper-thin pancakes, julienned scallions, and sweet bean sauce. (Dip your crispy skin in sugar crystals for an extra treat.) Starches made from dough, like noodles and dumplings, are more common than rice. A favorite for social gatherings is Mongol-influenced hot pot, where a bowl of broth steams center stage at your table and everybody dips in their chopsticks to catch slices of lamb and beef.
And then there’s the street food. At any time of the day you can find a sidewalk stand selling fresh yogurt, dry-rub chicken wings, Beijing crepes, tiny candied apples, or a thousand other snacks. The streets are where Beijing comes alive, and I’ll write more about those streets tomorrow – the good, the bad, and the ugly.