Starters and desserts in Chinese cuisine
Talking about starters and desserts in Chinese food, in Northeast Chinese cuisine… I think I should start with an embarrassing story, well, one of them.
My first Christmas dinner with my in-laws and the whole family in Spain a few years ago. The dining table was full of tapas and bread. I thought the dinner would consist of a tapas feast, and especially given that my lovely mother-in-law kept on putting my favorite food in my plate, and I kept on eating, thinking that it was the main meal.
But later, when we finished most of the dishes on the table (I was very full already), the empty plates were removed from the table, and … there you go — the main dish was just served! I looked around, then realized that I just had too many starters! And there was no room left for the second course anymore. Didn’t want to show my embarrassment, I kept on filling up my stomach, well, at that point, it was up to my throat. :) Then fruit, dessert, coffee/tea, more dessert….
— Ha… Probably you already guessed that in Northeast Chinese cuisine, we don’t really have proper starters or dessert. Well, saying it is an eating custom is probably not exact, it is more like a culture thing.
If you have to categorize the food into three courses, I would think the
‘little dishes’ at the very beginning function as starters. We call them ‘Kaiwei Cai’ as in the dishes to open up your stomach.
These starter dishes are normally cold vegetarian dishes, more like salad, commonly served with vinegar — the sour taste, like pickles. It is a common belief that this kind of sour ‘salad’ dish can physically open up your appetite.
If you have been to some claimed ‘Beijing and Sichuan’ food restaurants in UK, once you sit down, there are always a few very small plates brought on, like sour and spicy Chinese leaves, pickled radish, and fried peanuts.
Sweet and sour appetizers
In contrast, in the North East of China, we always order a few salad dishes with sharp sweet and sour taste to start with. Sometimes, some restaurants would give a free dish like this.
With sourness opening the appetite at the beginning of the meal, the ‘dessert’ is always ‘sour’ as well. Well, saying that, again, we don’t have proper dish that would qualify as ‘dessert’.
In Western cuisines, the goal of dessert is to leave a nice sweet taste in the mouth at the end of the meal. In China, we would eat fruit first and then something sour, like ‘Haw’. Haw is a very sour fruit, and no matter made into what form, it has always been considered as the best for digestion.
These last few years, I completely fell in love with Spanish ‘Membrillo’ (‘quince cheese’ in English). It tastes very similar to Chinese “Haw jelly cake’ — I have ‘Membrillo’ as a nice substitute. Every time when I come back from Spain, my the most lovely, kind grandpa (my husband’s grandpa) would buy me 1.5kg Membrillo to take back to England. So I can taste Chinese and Spanish at the same time:))
Here you go, these are the Chinese starters and dessert. Despite I am learning how to bake cakes or make tiramisu, I am still not used to the idea of having something ‘sweet’ after main meal, especially if it is a cake.
And as for starter, whenever we have friends here, I would just shout, ‘I am going to bring everything up, just eat then!’