food gifts from china?
my parents are visiting china next month. is there anything you would recommend on the food side? i'm thinking tea (and perhaps a small tea set), but don't really know what to ask for, and what travels well. any ideas? thanks!
For tea, there is a widely popular (and expensive) loose leaf brand called "jing xua ming cha." The costs for the tea vary depending on the stage the leaves were picked.
Other than that, I think most foods are perishable. We once had friends mail us pretty tea cakes, but we didn't eat them since we were afraid they were spoiled. Even if they weren't, they were probably transaturated in hydrogenated oil to keep from spoiling.
Oh, and a non-food tip: Advise them not to buy jade there. We and others were utterly swindled by propositions that certain items were real jade. Upon return to the states, a jeweler told us they weren't. Fortunately, we returned them.
It really depends where they're going to be, so find out and repost here, or just have your parents ask the locals what the region's known for. A lot of the best things are illegal to bring back, but tea, spices, jarred sauces, and tea sets come to mind.
Just remember most everything in China is a potential swindle. I don't say this to bad mouth the Chinese (I'm Chinese!). It's just that the merchants you'll meet in your day to day shopping are going to try to make as much off you as possible, and you need to be ready to retaliate.
Buy things because they're worth it to YOU ($1US for a cup of tea is a rip off in China, but when are you going to get it again?). Don't pay a premium because you're promised that it's valuable. Pay what you would be willing to pay for something that you think is pretty but might be otherwise worthless. You might come back to the states and realize you've paid more than you would have here. With tea sets, I would do some research into how much it would cost you to get a beautiful set here that you love, make sure your parents know what that looks like, and then set a price range above which it wouldn't be worth it for them to lug it home. Go there ready to haggle.
And do your research into what makes a Chinese tea set worth keeping. I don't know a lot about them, but the traditional clay that they're made from is very rare and expensive.
One thing I know to look for in a tea set is that when you turn the lid to the teapot (clockwise or counterclockwise), the lid and the pot should stay very smooth with each other, meaning that both pieces are perfectly symmetrical and flush with each other. It shouldn't feel bumpy at all. Checking for that might help ensure the entire set has good craftsmanship.
My uncle, who used to travel to China often on business, told me that if there is an opportunity to swindle, they will take it. Even a carton of eggs may not be what it seems: on one trip there he saw a local attempting to buy some eggs from a vendor -- and the buyer deliberately took one out and threw it to the ground to check it was real. Apparently, the vendors have been known to mix some material (cement?) and mold into the shape of eggs to fool buyers.
I'd ask for some liquor or wine. Kweichow Moutai Liquor Co. makes some very nice Cognac Brandy.
Stuff my wife and I like to bring back for family and friends from Shanghai (other than some odd and sometimes urecognizable dried and tinned cooking ingredients) are:
5-spiced roasted broad beans (wu xiang dou)-- I call these "Chinese Corn Nuts"
Peanut nougat candy
honeyed black walnun pieces (yum)
Exotic flavors of White Rabbit Candies (I couldn't find the tomato flavored ones, though)
Buying tea is a crap shoot, especially young green teas like long jing or bi luo chun, because you never know if they are being truthful about the vintage and plantation, unless you buy it at a government-run store like the "Number 1 Provisions Store" in Shanghai. For red or black teas, they should snatch up a bargain if they know it is.
And believe it or not, my wife can fill up half a suitcase with packets of McCormick Mapo-tofu Seasoning (the dirty little secret of half the housewives in Shanghai;-)
She buys the little packets the size of a taco seasoning packet or whatever. There's nothing special about it; Shanghainese tend to dumb down Sichuan food big time. (They even always refer to it as "ma la doufu" when it's neither "ma" nor "la".)
These and a bunch of other seasoning packets are available at evry good-sized supermarket; they are similar to what you can find in Chinatowns here, but a fraction of the price.
Hopefully they have something more local and potent in Chengdu. I do know there are some nice fiery hot-pot stock bases from Sichuan; you just have to be careful not to get the ones that are mostly tallow (sometimes quaintly labeled as "cattle oil" in the ingredients).
Well, tea can be hit or miss. Are your parents very knowledgeable? Are they on a tour? If they are on a tour I wouldn't advise them to buy anything, cause most of the stuff they try to foise on tourists are way over-priced. They may want to buy one of those clay tea pots. But again unless they know the stuff, stick to the inexpensive ones. A friend of mine once bought a whole cured ham, which he lugged through the entire trip (down the 3 Gorges).