It’s long overdue to start digesting my culinary experiences in Asia in 2018. Last year I was lucky enough to visit China, Korea and Japan in one go. This happened to be the perfect opportunity to compare these amazing food cultures. So, the first thing I want to share with you is a reflection on taste and the composition of meals. This is what I call a phenomenology of taste: A reflection on the experience of eating and tasting during a meal. What happens on your tongue? How are tastes combining, intersecting or merging?
A Peek into Shanghai Cuisine
My journey started in China, in Shanghai. The Shanghai cuisine is known to be quite mild. Some dishes don’t have much flavor at all. For example, beware of steamed chicken feet. They taste if at all like the barn the chicken was raised in. No umami whatsoever. In other dishes however, this is really nice: like a sweet rice soup with mochi-like rice balls swimming in it. Still, it’s China. That means for a typical more festive dinner like the ones I got invited to, there is a huge number of dishes. These will usually be an assembly from the most popular flavors. Here even the mild Shanghai cuisine awaits you with abundant umami flavors! All is served on one of those amazing turning tables.
The assembly of flavors in such a dinner is overwhelming. The majority of dishes have a strong taste combined of sweetness, fiery wok-flavor and saltiness. This is what creates the typical Chinese umami flavor or better: an umami attack. Every single dish combines these elements in the most unique way. Imagine the sweet soy glaced roasted pork belly (Hongshao rou (红烧肉). The softness of the pork belly cubes, the crispy crust and melted fatty parts in a rich sweet’n salty soy glace combines all goodness in just one bite. Similar, though more healthy is the Shanghai style braised eggplant (红烧茄子).This soft wonder of a hearty veggie dish should also be listed in the world’s most yummy foods.
During a Chinese dinner, you look at roughly 10-20 different types of dishes turning in front of your watering mouth. Most of them combine strong umami, grill or frying flavors. Also, the textures have subtle differences that seem to merge in the most delicate way. Even the 100 year old eggs, a plate that many westerners are a bit afraid of – they also develop a strong hearty flavor.
Gimme a Break
Spoiler alert! Your taste buds won’t get a break from that multiorgasmic experience. Given the number of hearty umami flavors in such a choreography of food, the mouth cleaning simple flavors are little. There is rice, obviously. And there is mild steamed egg custard. Sometimes a form of porridge or congee finds its way to the table. The only food that works as mouth cleaner, that resets your tasting buds in between are some veggies like Shanghai Bok Choy (上海白菜) or Chinese Broccoli (芥兰). But in my experience, they can’t prevent your taste buds from a certain feeling of being completely overwhelmed. After a few of these dinners I caught myself craving heavily simple food like Italian pasta or just a piece of grilled chicken.
The abundance of flavors is characteristic for Chinese more festive cuisine. Even in the mild Shanghai version this means umami until you drop. Chinese flavors are mergers of of sweet, salty, crispy, soft and chewy. They are absolutely amazing for a while. But my German-Italian tongue soon ask for time out. Which I had in Japan. Stay tuned for a blog on Japanese flavors!