This week we've hosted a group of American farmers on a market study tour through China. We began last Friday in Beijing and are headed toward our final destination, Hong Kong, tonight.
This mission, in part, is to learn about Chinese marketing opportunities. We're learning about what China eats, and boy have we gotten an education.
China has four distinct food cuisines: Beijing food, from the north, is generally more salty with more meat; Shanghai food, from the eastern region, is more sweet; Szechwan food, from the west, is known for being very spicy; and Cantonese food, from the south, is known for being fresh with wide variety. It's the Cantonese who will eat "everything with four legs except the table, and everything with two wings except the airplane," our guide told us.
The Cantonese region, where we are now, is famous for so-called wet markets. Housewives come here every day to pick up fresh meat and fish...and frogs, snakes, eels, even turtles, for lunch of dinner that day. They also have incredible vegetables, fruits, and flowers. The refrigerator in most homes here are mainly just for leftovers and beverages.
Our farm crew's eyes were popping as we walked through one yesterday. The lady fishmonger at one stand was clearly enjoying the shock on our faces as she literally whacked a carp over the head three times, then cut it open and tickled the still-beating fish heart.
"It was stunning," remarked Kansas farmer Vince Hostetler. "Until today I didn't know there was a market for fish intestines. Nothing hits the trash can."
Yup - we're not in Kansas anymore.
The fruit and veg displays were unbelievable - like a U.S. farmer's market on steroids. Some stands had 20 different kinds of greens. Others had what appeared to be 10 different kinds of rice. "They had a much better produce selection than most of our stores," added Hostetler.
Wholesalers bring fresh meat and live animals to market in early morning. Even during midweek this place was full of Chinese customers. Vendors must be certified. "It was much cleaner than I anticipated," adds Hostetler.
Later that day we visited an upscale Chinese grocery store where foods were imported from all over the world. Again, this store had a wider variety of products than most American stores. Prices for meat were significantly higher there, but that store was unusual as it catered to China's newly-minted rich. The vast majority of Chinese could not afford to shop there.
Chinese food in China
One of the great benefits from the trip is sampling China's widely varied cuisines. It's far from the typical Chinese takeout you would find in America.
At a recent dinner stop at the Aomen restaurant in Guilin, we started out with small cold dishes as appetizers, like pickled Chinese radish or seaweed (better than you think). Generally speaking groups like ours sit at large round tables with Lazy Susan dials in the middle. That alone is something we had to learn to navigate. If there was a dish on the other side of the table you wanted, you just turned the Lazy Susan, but you had to be mindful that someone else wasn't helping themselves or you might 'dial' the dish out from under them! Often it was easier to use the 'western' way and just pass the dish ourselves.
Our American farmers were gamely handling chopsticks pretty well by this time. (My theory has always been that the Chinese are thin people because they use those chopsticks and eat more slowly so their food will digest better).
Drinks and tea were served. Each of us had a small plate, a soup bowl and soup spoon. A small side dish of spicy tofu or soy sauce was available to add more flavor to your food. I never once saw an actual bottle of soy sauce, and we never ordered off a menu.
One by one the dishes started coming. First, roasted duck, with bone, carved into small pieces; then green beans roasted with small bits of pork, snow peas with clouds ear mushrooms, and short ribs with steamed broccoli. With eight or ten people around a table we tried to make sure everyone got some sampling of each dish, but eating this way is another example of the communal feel of China. You can't just mind your own business.
Next we had fish cooked in the 'local way,' with a bit of spice, then sautéed eggplant, stuffed rice noodles and deep fried greens. By now you're asking, what about rice? Rice is usually served near the end of the meal, in case you are not yet full. Dessert consists of some fruit, such as sliced orange or watermelon. In all we had 11 dishes to pass and everyone went home happy.
The consensus on Chinese food, as far as I could tell, is a big thumbs up. But at this point I'd say many of us secretly wish we could sneak in an old-fashioned hamburger!