OK – so I seriously need to get something off of my chest, and that is Chinese food. Tell people that you live in China, as I have done for the last 12 years and one of the first things they say (particularly when you are in the UK) is how great the food must be. This is something I usually grin and nod to, but in reality, day-to-day Chinese dining can be a bit shit.
Chinese cuisine is rightly one of the most celebrated cuisines in the world, with a dinner in a good Chinese restaurant being unbeatable, but lunches are often so-so, and breakfast? Jesus don’t get me started on breakfast, it like they didn’t even turn up (McMuffin anyone?).
“Chinese Food” is also a pretty misleading term in itself, coz you know what? China is fucking huge! I mean like really big, like Canada or Russia big, but unlike those colder places there’s a shit-ton of people here. That means Chinese food varies a hell of a lot depending on where you are. Rice here being a prime example; rice is a southern thing, whilst noodles tend to be a northern thing, with some obvious crossovers.
Also “Chinese Cuisine”, or rather the stuff we think of as Chinese food, tends to be what normal Chinese people would eat at the higher end of the scale, much like Scousers in the UK, who might only have dead rat once a month as a treat. Chinese folk aren’t Beijing ducking it every night. I digress, but you get the point.
Lunch tends to be one of the toughest meals of the day for me, particularly if I’m not in the mood for noodles, dumplings, or the hell that is a rice plate.
It was then that I discovered the regional variety of mala tang in Dandong. If you’ve not heard of Dandong, it’s a small city (by Chinese standards) that borders North Korea, and thus YPT have a house here. It’s also an absolutely fabulous place for street dining, medium scale dining, and fine dining (not to contradict the first 4 paragraphs of Chinese food rants), with great Korean, Chinese, seafood and street food markets that could rival anywhere else in China. The food here, as a rule, is good.
One lunch saw us go for mala tang, something that would happen frequently over the next few days. So what is mala tang? Aside from awesome? Basically, it’s boiled BBQ, or Kao Rou as the cool kids call it. You go up to a big display of meat, fish, noodles, eggs, and if you are of the sick variety, even vegetables….
You then take up your mixed bowl of goodness, tell them how spicy you want it, and they boil it up for you. 10 minutes later, voilà: lunch is served.
Spicy meat cooked up and eaten with chopsticks whilst drinking cheap Chinese beer; Mala tang is the kind of simple Chinese food that I truly love, not the fancy Western crap that’s claimed to be Chinese in the West!
That’s how I roll on lunches in Dandong. Next stop, dinner.
Gareth Johnson is the founder of Young Pioneer Tours, a published writer, and all round entrepreneur. He enjoys street food, and encourage others to get paid to travel the world.