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Sara Naumann

Preparing, Cooking & Eating Chinese Food: Thoughts from Two Experts

By November 5, 2012

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Last Friday evening I went to a talk hosted by the Shanghai Studies Symposium, Rockbund Art Museum and NYU Shanghai. Their talks and lectures (on Friday evenings, contact info@shanghaistudies.net for more information) gather a range of people from all kinds of professions to discuss different aspects of creativity in Shanghai. Dumpling stand, Shanghai

Friday's talk brought Austin Hu, chef and proprietor of Madison restaurant in Shanghai together with the illustrious Fuschia Dunlop, a China food expert who spent years not only studying Chinese in Chengdu, but also learning the art of Sichuan cooking from masters there. She has traveled all over China and written many books and numerous articles, one of which I've talked about inspiring my trip to the Dragon Well Manor a few years ago.

There were a number of interesting threads discussed but what I found interesting was a discussion on the industrialization of Chinese food in China and the slow disappearance of hand-crafted dishes using methods passed down for generations.

Fresh seafood, QingdaoWhen you walk down the streets of any city, especially in an area where street food is made, you imagine grannies in the back of the kitchen hand-making dumpling wrappers and mixing ingredients for special sauces by smell and magic. But as both Austin and Fuschia discussed, more and more of China's hand-made products are going the way of mass-production. Small and large restaurants alike can order pre-made dough for dumpling wrappers and have it delivered daily. If they don't want to hand-knead the dough, they can even order pre-made wrappers ready to stuff.

And of course this makes sense. But the loss, as Fuschia pointed out is that you have a generation at home: the grandfathers and grandmothers who know how to cook, feeding the children who aren't learning to cook while the moms and dads are out working. The paradox is that while food and eating is integral to China's culture, cooking - becoming a chef - is not a profession to which anyone in this developing country wants their children to aspire.

So what does that mean to you, traveler? I'm getting deep and to foodies here in China, Austin and Fuschia's themes are of great import. But to the visitor, I say simply: come and eat. Enjoy the fancy restaurants, but get a bowl of street noodles. Make sure to find a stall on a wintry Chinese night and saddle up with the rest of the late night crowd to a bowl of steaming inexpensive hundun. Go on a mission and find the best dan-dan mien in Chengdu. Eat. Eat. Eat.

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Photos: top - making all those dumplings is tiring work (Shanghai dumpling stand); bottom - fresh seafood for sale on the street in Qingdao. Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.

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