XIAMEN, China — Forget everything you think you know about Chinese food when you travel to mainland China. Even if orange chicken is on the menu, it won't look or taste anything like the sweet, gooey, fried stuff you're used to picking up at your local takeout place. Chow mein? What's that? Spicy Sichuan dishes? OK, but be prepared to put out a five-alarm fire in your throat. Fortune cookies? Get serious.
Dining anywhere in mainland China — even getting a quick bite — is an all-in sensory experience complete with rituals and etiquette expectations. The food can range from grab-and-go snacks to works of culinary art so beautifully presented you don't know whether to eat or take a photo. Choosing among the options is simply a matter of the size of your appetite and the tolerance of your palate.
Street food: It is virtually impossible to walk the byways of cities in coastal Fujian province without getting hungry. In Xiamen or on the island of Gulangyu, entire streets sizzle like a "chopped" marathon. Piles of shrimp and cubes of meat, exotic fruits and colorful vegetables surround vendors grilling their specialties. First you'll feel the energy, hear the food buzz and see kiosk chefs at work, but within seconds, the seductive aromas emanating from woks and grills draw you in. Even if you can't read the menus, you can get what you want by pointing, knowing that everything is fresh from the source in this food mecca on China's southeast coast.
If you are out and about in Xiamen in the morning, head for a stall where the local version of Egg McMuffin is served. This specialty is a hollowed-out dumpling filled with a fried egg, spicy sausage and cilantro. At lunch, grilled chicken or squid on a stick will satisfy. You can walk while you eat or sit at tables provided by most vendors.
On Gulangyu, various raw products are available for take-home from seafood vendors who spread out pans of aerated sea water in front of their kiosks and fill them with live, ao long xia (blue spotted lobsters) and other delicacies. Piles of mangos, cherries, mandarins and other produce are sold by the kilo. Need herbs and spices, dried shrimp or candy? There are stores that specialize in those items too.
Casual dining: Though we stayed in hotels with a Western connection, the breakfast buffets were an education. Fresh fruit was abundant at all of them, but the similarities stopped there. At the Kempinski in Xiamen, we could choose from steamed dough, congee, fish and pickled vegetables, then supplement with Viennese pastries, eggs cooked to order and individually blended smoothies spiked with "magic" health-promoting powders.
At the Zhangzhou City Hotel, we stuck with toast, jam, fresh fruit and tea even though there were dozens of Asian staples, including eel, on the buffet table. At the Millennium Harborview in Xiamen, we eschewed the soups, vegetables and stuffed dough for sausages and bacon, and tried the coffee but switched to juice after one sip.
Many of our meals were orchestrated by friends, whom we met for dinner at Motomi, a mall restaurant that features an all-you-can-eat-and-drink spread of sushi, meats, salads, tempura, beer and other delights for $20 a head. But it was the sushi that stood out, impeccably fresh and bursting with flavor.
A few days later, we dined with another friend at Orange, a Korean "hot pot" restaurant where meat, seafood and veggies are prepared on a grill sunk into the table. Beverages weren't included in the fixed price, but we still got out for less than $25 per person.
Another night we went to "The Temple," where we munched on semi-Western-style burgers and chicken breasts in a restaurant set in an abandoned Buddhist temple near Xiamen University. It clearly is a favorite college hangout.
In the Xiamen suburb of Zhangzhou, we dined with laowai (foreign) teachers at Hua Xiao Chao, a mom and pop restaurant where the table was set with sanitized setups shrink-wrapped in plastic. An elderly Chinese woman brought each dish to the table in a beat-up cooking pot, and we dived in communal style. The bill for nine meat-and-seafood entrees and a case of beer: less than $40.
Our most enlightening dining experience in China was a banquet given in our honor at our friends' place of employment, Zhangzhou University, about 30 miles west of Xiamen. We were honored guests at a traditional Chinese celebration meal that included 15 people sitting at a round table equipped with a huge lazy Susan. The rotating platter overflowed with regional specialties such as whole baby crab, whole fish (with bones), soups, peanuts, rice and hunks of chicken (also with bones). Our only utensils were chopsticks, a ladle for the soup and a few serving spoons. We had to grab items from the moving target with chopsticks, get them onto our plates and then into our mouths without catapulting them into another diner's lap. Everyone seemed more adept with chopsticks than I, but I excelled at grabbing peanuts. I never managed to get the meat out of that baby crab, though.
My lack of chopstick agility aside, our friends had prepped us for the banquet with etiquette advice so we wouldn't embarrass ourselves. Among the tips: When anyone at the table says ganbei (gahn-bye), everyone has to chug the contents of his glass, which likely is filled with bai jiu (bye-jhew), a potent rice wine. In China, it is considered improper for women to drink more than one glass of wine in public, so all I was expected to do was touch the glass to my lips. Good thing, because a toast was called a dozen or more times during the meal.
Fine dining: As our dining splurge, we chose the elegant Yue Fu restaurant in the Xiamen Kempinski hotel. The view was magnificent. The room and service were the epitome of elegance, and the 17-page menu was beautifully illustrated. But for us Westerners, the English translations of the dishes read like entries in a witch's potion. Deep-fried chicken cartilage, double-boiled scorpion and pig's lung soup just didn't sound tasty. Luckily, we brought a friend with us to help us find what was lost in translation. The lotus root stuffed with rice and covered with strawberry sauce was surprisingly refreshing, but it was an appetizer, not dessert. Spicy lettuce salad with peanuts and red pepper was just the right mix of heat and cooling. Everyone wanted more of the crispy chicken in grapefruit sauce, and the shrimp curry had us slurping up the sauce like soup after the shrimp was gone.
Tea culture: Fujian province is the center of China's tea production, so tea is serious business here. Every hotel room, every shop, every home has a tea set, and activity stops at least once a day to prepare and sip a fragrant brew. Tea shops abound, and no one buys without sitting and sampling. We spent nearly two hours tasting and learning about various teas in the refined Heng Pin Tea shop in Xiamen, where it is considered rude to have fewer than three cups. Our biggest dilemma was trying to figure out how we would get one of the gorgeous tea sets (complete with hand-carved teak serving board) back home.
Western food: A day or two before it was time to leave, we were desperate for Western alternatives to stir-fry and curries. We settled on the Paulaner Brauhaus, the only brew pub in Xiamen. There is nothing like roast chicken, schnitzel, strudel and riesling to clear your palate.
U.S. chains such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and KFC are wildly popular in China and all over Xiamen, but we didn't try them, though they offer a few twists on stateside fare, taro pie and shrimp and pineapple pizza among them. We did frequent Starbucks, though, and Xiamen boasts the largest outlet in the province, a 250-seat, multistory shrine to java. The menu gives a nod to local tastes — mango tea and macadamia-coconut latte — but otherwise it serves up authentic double tall lattes. For us it provided a taste of home.
10 tips to ease the way
"Don't act surprised or offended if people on the street openly stare at you," a friend living in Zhangzhou told me. "They don't see Westerners often, and they are curious!" This was just one of his tips about what to expect in this part of China, Fujian province, where he has lived for two years. His warning turned out to be spot-on. Pedestrians regularly froze in their tracks as we walked by. So here are 10 tips to help first-time visitors acclimate to the pace and peculiarities of mainland China.
1. Learn to use chopsticks before you go. Everyone comments on the miracle of foreigners who are skilled in using them. Forks and knives might not be available.