Discover real Chinese food while travelling

When you’re travelling, there’s nothing like a trip to Chinatown to get acquainted with Chinese food, the real one!


Tonight in Malacca, Malaysia, it’s a night market. The streets of Chinatown are crowded with street vendors and tourists. Street food is everywhere and the terraces are full. As its name suggests, Chinatown is the Chinatown. 
Full of Chinese, therefore, who speak, eat, decorate and sell Chinese. Only the advertised prices are readable, as for what is sold, you have to guess because it is Chinese. 
The camelots don’t speak much English and don’t like to take the time to chat because they are too busy for that. They don’t smile either, they fill bowls, plates, boxes mechanically without even looking at the customer and don’t hesitate to send the curious traveller to graze on unexpected flavours. Food here is above all business. Which reinforces my belief that all these culinary shows from the other side of the world in front of which we salivate are extremely well acted and scripted. You order, you pay, you eat and you have to quickly leave your place to the next one, otherwise you risk being shamelessly dislodged by the salesman. You’ve been warned, but don’t let that dissuade you from doing a blind test, it’s very exotic!

Ice creams look like eggs, eggs look like pâté, pâté looks like a cake and cakes look like rusks…


Here we pass sugar cane stalks through a machine that makes them give back their juice, there we make funny thick, white and soft breads like snow eggs, there again we put in bags something that looks like caramel, hard as caramel, the colour of caramel, that sticks to the teeth like… but it doesn’t taste like caramel. Normal, it’s Chinese.


In a Chinese grocery shop, where the food is not yet cooked, it is even more surprising

A visit to a famous Chinese grocery shop in Chinatown will offer its share of surprises but unfortunately, photos are not allowed. The owners do not leave me alone in my exploration and are not at all friendly, on the contrary. It’s a bit like trying to investigate a clandestine nuclear site. I don’t understand what they are afraid of like this, yet I only look closely at food and cans. This mistrust doesn’t make it easy for me because it’s very difficult to get a description of what’s inside those funny white cakes or those little plastic bags, those containers where strange unknown creatures are dying. In jars straight out of a medical laboratory, strange creatures are marinating in strange colours… surprising and with a very… unsettling smell.
I recognize sea cucumbers of all sizes, black, grey or brown, stunted fish, scallops, mussels and dried mushrooms, some well-known dried fruits but for the rest I am puzzled. Crumpled berries, fruit or vegetables cleverly cut up and marinated in a fuzzy liquid, things like pieces of expanded polyurethane will remain mysterious.

The colour of the food for my European eyes alarms me about the freshness of the product: it is greenish as mouldy

As for the smell, it warns me about the time I will spend at the doctor’s after swallowing it because it smells musty! To describe the taste, we should use the learned words dear to oenologists and perfume creators, as it is so complex. It’s so mixed! Strong, disgusting, woody, rooty, heavy or nervous. Impossible to find a simple, easily identifiable flavour.

In Chinese cuisine, each sauce, each dish is made up of a hundred or so ingredients

I taste the bitter soy sauce with hints of dried mollusk, which is a bit dubious and has a very strong, unpalatable smell. Then comes the caramelised meat in which I find melon (but is it melon?) not sweet and an aftertaste of banana all simmering in a thick, silky black sauce.
I try some tempting little cakes that are strong but made of butter and flour, fat in the mouth and not very fragrant, so not very interesting… but nicely decorated.
I then realise that what we know about Chinese cuisine in our home countries is very suitable for our western taste buds. What we taste in a Chinese restaurant in New York or Frankfurt has little in common with the dishes I see on the tables and stalls in Asia. All the more reason to try it, the trip is also a great gastronomic adventure.
It would be unfair to paint a rather unsavoury culinary picture. There are also delicate steamed ravioli, the famous Dumpling, very good, but they don’t have the same flavour at all as those we buy in Europe. Each try is surprising.
In the absence of a translator, of a cook ready to share his know-how to make his initiation, in Asia, you must have a strong stomach because to be sure of it, you have to taste it! So courage and bon appétit!

Travelling gives life a taste... and what a taste!

Sometimes gastronomic nostalgia can win over the most seasoned traveller! What do you want, the French are too spoiled by French gastronomy!

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