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The Daily Tar Heel

In China, look before you eat

Chicken feet. Eel. Pigeon. It’s barely been three days since I landed in China, and I’ve already had the pleasure of tasting these delicacies.

They’re not new to me — I’ve had them before. Eel usually comes in a dark brown sauce with scallions sprinkled on top. But yesterday, the eel I had for lunch was served with bacon and lima beans.

Each time I make my annual summer trip, China seems to have more surprises for me. My welcome dinner was presented atop a lazy susan at a countryside restaurant in Taicang, located in the Jiangsu province, just north of Shanghai. Many restaurants in China use fancy lazy susans, or tables with round glass trays in the middle. Diners take turns rotating the tray in order to reach the dishes.

As I sat at the lazy susan table, one of my hosts gestured over at the neighboring tureen, filled with small, circular shellfish marinated in some sort of blood-red sauce. My host smiled and told me to have one; “a must-try,” he said. I picked up a spoon, but after looking closer, I saw that it wasn’t shellfish. It was snails.

In China, to refuse — even politely — would be considered rude. I scooped a single snail and plopped it into my bowl. I’d never had snails before; aren’t they supposed to be a French delicacy? It took me a full five minutes of observing other snail experts around the table and sucking on my own snail to get the meat out. Chewy, but not bad. Not bad at all.

China is known for being an international player, and it certainly reflects in the food. The morning after my hotel stay in Taicang, I went to the breakfast bar on the lobby floor, where they served “Chinese western food,” which consisted of breakfast sausage, Italian fried noodle, corkscrew pasta in a bed of tomato sauce and onions, and German potato, which looked like pieces of regular hunks of boiled potato. I had to laugh. Surprisingly, all three dishes were pretty tasty — though whether they truly represented their respective countries is another matter.

You never know what to expect when it comes to Chinese food, but perhaps that’s what makes dish sampling such an adventure. I’ve got three weeks left here, and at least two other provinces to explore. There’s no telling what savory dish will be next.

There is something about Chinese food that always manages to play a crucial role in culture shock, especially for those who are first timers. Heck, I’ve been visiting China for years, and I still get that cultural foodie shock.

In every major province or city of China, the cuisine is different and the locals are proud of their distinct flavors. Shanghai is known for its underplayed, sweetened tones. Yunnan province is all about the spices, and Beijing is the city of salt. In every major area, there is a different way to cook eel, prepare kale and serve bacon.

Food serves as an outlet of expression and a symbol of friendship. It lets people bond over that which is universally enjoyed and shared by all while taking pride in something totally unique to their province. Here in China, food is culture.

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