When I move to new area one thing I always look for is a chinese food place that has two items in a style I like. It's very important that I can get these comfort foods quick and easy. The first, an americanized dish which is far from healthy but super tasty, (depending on the style) egg foo young. It's a dish I used to order frequently from Dragon Chef, the low brow take away chinese food spot in my hometown of Needham, MA. The second dish is hot an sour soup. I love chinese style hot and sour soup but as anyone who's ordered a lot of hot and sour soups can tell you, there are many different styles and versions of this soup. Some too spicy, some too vinegary, some with too much msg and some that just plain suck.
When I lived in NYC, my budget survived on eating a lot of either wonton or hot and sour soup for dinners. for $2.50 I could buy a quart of either soup and it had flavor and nutrition. (moderately) Hot and sour soup will have lots of veggies, mushrooms, tofu and sometimes a meat or two. So there was protein and vitamins mixed in with other oddities that only chinese cooking can bring.
Ordering food has been pretty hard for me in Beijing. I can't speak or read a lick of Mandarin and menus are mostly just the characters and no pics. I rely on either pointing at other peoples food or being lucky and finding a picture menu.
The other day I wandered into a spot close by to where I am staying and to my delight, they had a picture menu. Actually I walked into three restaurants before this but none had menus I could read. I spotted what looked to be a bowl of possibly hot and sour soup. Pictures are pictures and you still don't know fully what everything is or what you may get. But it was 8rmb (roughly $1.20) and I figured I could at least pay to find what it was.
Instead of a bowl for one I got a bowl for like 8 of whatever this concoction/potion may be.
And what was it???
It was indeed a hot and sour soup. Only, using the peppercorns I've heard so much about in the states. It had this heat that only a nice peppercorn can offer, mixing with the tofu and mushrooms flavor and a bit of vinegar (thankfully not too much). But for the most part, special pepper excluded, it tasted like hot and sours I've had back home on both coasts.
I've heard over and over that chinese food is different in america than it is in it's original country, but not this dish. This dish is a classic no matter where you go, and why mess with a classic?