We asked Mirra Fine, Perennial Plate co-founder, what she enjoyed most about China during filming of their video for the Real World Food Tour. It seems she had trouble narrowing it down to one thing…
“I loved China. I loved everything about it. I embraced the toilets, the spitting on the streets, the vegetarian dumplings sitting next to the donkey meat sandwiches. I appreciated the waves of Chinese tourists in matching yellow hats, the bustling markets full of crazy food and innards I had never seen (and never particularly wanted to see), the crowded streets, the stinky tofu, the public dancing (there’s a lot of it).
I think I would have appreciated the smog (though it didn’t show up during our visit). Even the staff at the Beijing Airport who treated me like I had just insulted their mother. I loved them too. I was taken with the mystique and unpretentious air of China, and nothing, it appeared, could change my mind.
But I do think your experience has a lot to do with the people who surround you. Thats the great thing about working with Intrepid Travel. In each part of the country we were set up with a specific guide who moonlighted as a translator and new friend. The guides were perfect for each location.
In Beijing, we had a badass hipster foodie who had lived in the city his entire life and was thrilled to show us – from a culinary sense – all it had to offer. The only thing he wouldn’t eat was carrots (he later informed me) – everything else was fair game, and consumed with excitement and curiosity. Meaning stinky tofu, chicken guts and pig skin were normal fare. This was perfect for Daniel, who also has that same zest for the unordinary and was open and eager to try the craziest stuff available.
It was ideal for me, because that love for all foods meant that Intrepid Allen also had a handle of the veggie options in the city and he was quick to take me on a culinary expanse of that specialty area. He picked us up upon our arrival in China wearing shades and a tshirt, and whisked us off to a random street vendor in the city for some late night noodles and (veggie!) fried rice. What followed was 2 full days of traversing the city, taking in all the foods and sights we could handle. From a morning breakfast next to our hotel which consisted of steamed buns, tea eggs and fried bread dough, to a day at the Forbidden City followed by a lunch of Jian Bing (the Chinese crepe stuffed with egg, scallions and crispy fried cracker), to – my personal favorite – an overnight at the Great Wall followed by a morning stop at a street stall for steaming vegetable dumplings.
Yunnan Province in all its beauty and spice brought a completely different experience, and with it, came the perfect guide: LJ. I guess it is fitting that our guide in the tiny villages and crazy beautiful rice terraces in southwestern China, would have grown up in a poor village herself. Her family still farmed rice in southwest China. But you would never have guessed that from meeting her.
A self made woman who left school when she was in junior high (so that her younger brother could attend), LJ made it through adversity and struggle to learn English, start her own restaurant and tourist agency and become the incredible, intelligent and crazy cool person she is today. At the same time, she fit in with the village people as though they were lifelong friends.
She walked along the steep rice terraces like a tight rope walker, with grace and ease (while I was doing my best not to fall into the impending doom that was the deep pits of manure and mud that lay below). And she brought us to the special gems of the village life (the outdoor markets, the morning soup stands), and introduced us to the wonder and beauty of the Hani people (through the dirt road villages, and ducks, buffaloes and chickens roaming the streets. And to top if all off, she knew her way around the culinary delights of Yunnan province and was excited to share. But not without an early warning – “we eat things pretty spicy around here, so if you want something mild, let me know way ahead of time”. What followed was ham and cheese (not the way you think), fried bees (exactly what you think), friend banana leaf and bamboo shoots, and the most amazing chinese eggplant I have ever eaten.
And then in Hong Kong, we were paired with Anita – a mother of three grown children who was a retired nurse, and actually wasnt a tour guide at all. She simply had such a love for her country that she wanted to share it with others. She was lovely and kind (and after 4 weeks on the road, provided that much missed maternal care).
She picked us up from the airport and we went straight to a Hong Kong street stall decorated with ducks hanging in the open doorway. Right away, I knew this wasn’t the place for me. But I could see the joy in Daniel’s eyes as he watched the bare-chested man at the front (that’s right, shirts were optional) grab a bird and chop it to pieces in under 30 seconds before packing it into a Styrofoam container (with some sauce) to the awaiting customer.
Daniel left full and happy, and I left eager to try some vegetarian fare, which Anita happily introduced me to the next day at a meal of Vegetarian Dim Sum – steamed dumplings with mushrooms, eggs and cabbage, fried dumplings, steamed buns and of course noodle rolls. This was followed by a trip to Victoria’s Peak to see Hong Kong from a birds eye view. Before checking out the night markets, the Hong Kong escalator (which is the longest escalator in the world and the daily commute for many people in the city), and of course our trip wouldnt be complete without some serious fancy coffee from Rabbithole.
There’s one thing to visit a country as a tourist… and a whole ‘nother thing to visit the country with a friend. I think that’s what Allen, LJ and Anita did for us. They were true locals who wanted us to truly see their country – not the flashy tourist traps, but the real, local side of life. I loved China, and I’ve got them (and of course, Intrepid) to thank.”
In partnership with Intrepid, Perennial Plate are taking us to delicious destinations on their Real Food World Tour. To see their latest videos please visit theperennialplate.com, but be warned, you shouldn’t consume on an empty stomach!
* photo by ByronDearing – Intrepid Photography Competition