Insect eating alert! Do not proceed past Number 8 if you’d prefer not to think about deep-fried crunchy things. Keep going all the way to Number 10 if you’re OK with that.
Insects aside, we survived our first week of camping and from the beaches of Qingdao to the rocky mountain of Tai Shan and Qufu, birthplace of Confucius, Shandong Province has some great eats and is considered one of China’s Great Eight Cuisines, also known as lu cai. I’ve eaten some incredibly delicious and some incredibly challenging dishes this week, yours to share.
Restaurant dishes 餐厅菜肴
1. Seafood 海鲜 hǎixiān
Since Shandong forms part of China’s east coast, fresh seafood is in overwhelming abundance. In Qingdao you can eat at a seafood restaurant, choosing your fish, clams or shrimp with care from the rows of tanks outside, or you can get an impressive choice at the fish market and take it to a nearby restaurant for cooking in any style.
Shandong seafood dishes tend to bring out the sweet clean flavour of the seafood without overpowering sauces, as in these shrimp fried with garlic and a little chili, and these tiny clams.
2. Slow-Braised Fragrant Spiced Pork 香辣肉丝 xiāng là ròu sī
With meat literally falling off the pork bones, we tried a tiny neighbourhood restaurant full of hungry diners for our first lunch in Qingdao, and this was their specialty dish. Slow cooked, fragrant, tender and so, so delicious with star anise and specks of numbing sichuan peppers in the juices. Bones were being sucked clean at tables all around us.
3. Three Fresh Flavours Tendon 三鲜烧蹄筋sān xiān shāo tí jīn
As foreigners who don’t read Chinese that well this dish was very unfamiliar to us and we spent the whole dinner trying to identify the long white pieces with the slightly chewy, spongy texture.
“It’s some kind of mushroom” said one daughter, not very confidently.
“I think it’s squid…or something…” said the second.
I thought the pieces were made of slightly chewy sticky rice.
The other components of the dish were easy to see – plump shrimp, squid, and clams. Finally we asked the waitress to tell us what the mystery ingredient was.
“Beef tendon!” she said. Well, that was certainly a surprise to us.
4. Confucius Tofu: 孔夫子豆腐 Kǒngfūzi Dòufu
Like many things in the overcrowded, overpriced and over-touristed town of Qufu, the food has only very tangential and suspect connections to Confucius – Kongfu. There was Confucius Duck, Confucius Soup and Confucius Fruit Platter.
We did try the Confucius Tofu – cubes of smoked tofu stir-fried with mushrooms and green peppers, and it was very passable too. But worthy of the world’s greatest sage? I don’t think so.
5. Nine Coil Large Intestine 九曲大肠 jiǔqū dàcháng
Sometimes, though not often, I wish I didn’t feel compelled to eat something I’d really rather not eat just for the sake of being able to write about it afterwards. Intestine is not high on my list of favorite foods but in Shandong they love it. So I had them cook some up for me in a street market last night in Qufu, and it was really very good with a strong taste of sausage – I guess that tells you a lot about what goes into making sausages.
Street Food 路边小吃
6. Corn Cakes With Fried fish 玉米糕 Yùmǐ Gāo
Corn grows in every single field in Shandong, and freshly steamed corn cobs are a popular street snack. This was a little different though – soft corn cakes made from either yellow or black corn fried on a griddle, and served with tiny crispy fried fish. Winning combination!
7. Boiled Peanuts 水煮花生 shuǐzhǔ huāshēng
Peanuts are plentiful in Shandong and most meals are accompanied by a plate of boiled or fried peanuts. Here they’re mixed with boiled edamame and served as a cold appetiser. I love the texture of these – soft but still with some bite.
8. Crisp-fried Cakes 煎包 jiān bāo
Little fried parcels filled with chopped scallions and vermicelli noodles, these are just the right size for when mid-morning hunger hits.
9. Fried Grasshoppers 炸蚂蚱 zhá màzhà
I just closed my eyes and popped one gingerly into my mouth. There was some salt, and a deal of lightweight crunch with very little substance and no aftertaste. And an audience of several interested fellow diners crowded around the table, who really wanted to know what I thought of their local specialty.
I’d eaten insects before, but never grasshoppers, so it was a bit early to form a considered opinion – although when the waitress asked if I’d like to take the remainder of the plate away with me I politely declined. One of the grasshoppers escaped during the cooking and sat on the table watching us eat his cooked friends, which was distasteful and insensitive of him.
10. Deep-fried Golden Cicadas 炸金蝉 zhá jīnchán
This local Shandong specialty is hugely popular. My husband loves eating them every time he comes to Jin’an on business and he was keen for me to try them too. I managed one, mostly by imagining I was eating eating deep-fried shrimp instead of cicada nymphs and that helped, but I didn’t have seconds.
Home Cooked Dishes 家常菜
After just over a week on the road I’m slowly getting into a rhythm with cooking. Part of the process has been getting to know what food I can buy fresh in the small villages we pass through, many without shops. This always turns out to be whatever is in peak season – long snake beans, juicy red tomatoes, and some things completely new to me like these broad flat hairy beans.
I just asked the farmer I bought them from how to cook them – “sliced finely and fried with garlic and lots of lajiao!” she told me, and she was right – they were delicious.
Eaten any other memorable Shandong dishes? Tonight I tried Dezhou’s famous roast chicken, which falls tenderly off the bone at the slightest tremble.
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