Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Chinese Food: Sweet and Sour Pork 糖醋里脊 and Home-style Tofu 家常豆腐

A nearly unanimous favorite dish among foreigners in China is sweet and sour pork, known as tangcu liji around here. It goes by other names in other parts of China, probably with variations. It is one of the few dishes in northern China that resembles American Chinese food (though it reminds me more of the "General Tso's chicken" than the "sweet and sour pork" at home), and is also simply delicious. It is a little unusual for a Chinese dish as it is all meat and has a very sweet taste. Most Chinese meat dishes actually have quite a bit of vegetables. And the meat is always in small bite-size chunks because, of course, you must eat it with chopsticks. You never cut anything in a Chinese meal and generally don't eat anything with your hands.

I can't remember ever eating tofu in America, and it definitely never tempted me. It sounded like something you would only eat out of vegetarianism and/or desperation. But the tofu dishes in China are great, so I've come around on eating it. I also never realized the word "tofu" comes from the Chinese word doufu, meaning "bean curd." My favorite is probably the jiachang doufu, or "home-style tofu." It's more solid and has a milder taste compared to other tofu dishes.

Eating out in a restaurant in China is a little different than in a Western country. We often eat at simple and cheap family-run restaurants like the one pictured above. The street in front of our school is full of them. The meal for two pictured above was probably around 15 yuan, or about US$2. Unlike in the West, where everyone orders an individual meal, in China you order for the table. We typically order one dish per person eating, but we might get a little more or less depending on our hunger.

The dishes come out one at a time, whenever they are finished cooking. Because they are stir-fried it only takes about five minutes for the food to start coming out, so there are no appetizers or bread, and salad is rare in China. There is also no dessert. The dishes are all placed in the middle of the table, and everyone at the table shares all the dishes. Everyone has an individual bowl of rice (or sometimes noodles), and grabs some food from one of the dishes with their chopsticks and brings it to their bowl to eat it with the rice. Germ-conscious Westerners are sometimes uneasy with this at first, but it doesn't take long to get used to it and actually prefer it when eating Chinese dishes.

Instead of water, the default drink is tea, which is usually free and served automatically. Soft drinks are usually unavailable and if they are will be unrefrigerated, so I always stick with the tea. Beer (also unrefrigerated) is always available, in extra-large bottles that are meant to be shared.

I like the small, family-owned restaurants. Besides being cheap the food is excellent, and the small staff is usually quite friendly and happy to see you. Nissa and I have learned to cook a small number of Chinese dishes, but it really isn't much cheaper than eating out so it is difficult to work up the motivation to cook for yourself. Many aspects of life in China that were once novelty now seem routine, but eating out is one thing I can always get excited about.


Matthew said...

Your area sure is cheaper than mine. That meal would cost at least double in my neighborhood.

Since I don't eat pork, my mother-in-law decided to use beef and chicken for the tangculiji. Quite good. As for tofu, I'll admit to trying it at home a few times... and it was terrible. My vegan friend is jealous about the quality of it in China.

spambait9876 said...

Mathew lives too close to Hong Kong and is paying for it.

If you want to get tofu with fuller soya taste, get firm tofu in North America as well as in China.

The "liji" is actually pork tenderloin. Good stuff. Chicken is a good substitute. All of the taste is in the vinegar/sugar sauce, with some soya sauce and other spice to taste.