Trip to China food market brings to new meaning to sweet and sour

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When it comes to cooking, I'd like to think I'm somewhere between the skill levels of my mother and my father. I'm not yet able to whip up a three-course meal of any number of ethnic cuisines before 3 p.m. on a Sunday like my mum, but my culinary knowledge extends a little further than slices of celery into ramen noodles.

I'm certainly no chef, and I'm rubbish at baking, but I do enjoy cooking, or at least that's what I tell myself while I suffer through humiliating experiences in the kitchen - like using a cup of corn starch in cheese sauce instead of a teaspoon or forgetting to put grated potatoes back into water and serving up a nice plate of gray hash browns.

I grew up not eating meat, and I am still skittish of cooking it today. Because the traditional Anglo-American cuisine has such a dearth of authentic vegetarian recipes, I frequently have to search through cook books from countries like India or China, where a thriving Buddhist culture produces some of the world's best vegetarian food.

One of the reasons I was so excited about visiting Beijing was learning more about this type of Chinese cooking, as well as other foods, and how it compared to the Chinese food we are served here in America.

While I anticipated I was probably not going to be able to order a #37 vegetable chow mein with a side order of spring rolls and a fortune cookie in every restaurant I visited, I was still surprised by what I stumbled upon in the back alleys and marketplaces of Beijing.

It was near the bottom of my list for types of food I expected to eat in China, but Beijing had some of the best roasted corn on the cob and sweet potatoes I've ever tasted.

While our free hotel breakfast was exactly the same seven days in a row, nothing wakes you up in the morning like eating a plate of slippery salted kelp and a boiled egg. I tried using chopsticks but gave up on that pretty quickly.

Like any vacation in a foreign country, a week in Beijing will produce some moments of culinary bliss and some moments that will leave you frantically trying to figure out how to say "Pepto-Bismol" or "Imodium" in a foreign language, although I was fortunate enough to avoid any serious gastrointestinal persecution.

However, I doubt that would have been the case if I had sampled some of the products at one of Beijing's most popular open air food markets. Spread throughout two or three city blocks, and nestled between a busy bus route and a neon-illuminated pedestrian shopping zone, the amazing Wanfujing Snack Street contains hundreds of stalls, with merchants on hand who offered us starfish, seahorses, flayed and fried snake, skewered scorpions whose legs were still moving, and large bubbling pots of suspicious looking meats that were shaped a little too much like eyeballs for my own personal liking.

However, among the shock value and the stench (Beijing has a near inescapable smell of pork mixed with exhaust fumes) there were many gems to be unearthed from this cavern of culinary mystique, including some delicious cheese and spinach wraps, deep-fried banana pastries, some type of chicken, candy-coated cherries with a bizarre number of pips in each tiny fruit, a deep-fried egg sandwich with two "buns" made of French fries, and something pretty weird that looked like a burrito and tasted like sweet and sour stir-fry.

Somehow I managed to navigate the crazy, incredible food maze without stepping on the remote control car being demoed directly beneath my feet each night by a teenage merchant boy, without getting run over by the garbage man with a whistle that cleared a path through the customers as he hauled away foul-smelling trash, and without contracting food poisoning or acquiring a parasite from the meat that freaked me out so much.

It was a relief to return to the Buddhist vegetarian restaurant on the other side of Beijing near the end of our trip, after three or four nights at the snack street. Not because I didn't enjoy the open-air food market, far from it, but the Buddhist buffet had that extra level of safety and comfort, and most importantly, very few snakes and still-moving scorpions.

But, as I perused what I thought was the salad bar, and before I could pick up some mushrooms to compliment my tofu, I was told by a waitress who spoke in broken English that the mushrooms and other items on the table were all poisonous if we did not prepare them properly and pointed to some equipment I had no idea how to use.

I stuck with the tofu.

This is the third and final column about a visit to China by Walla Walla University student Martin Surridge.

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