Eating like a local: a mouth-numbing encounter

Food has a magical way of bringing people closer together. It’s a universal language that everyone understands. When you visit a foreign country, there’s no better way to dissolve the language barriers than to eat with the locals and appreciate the delicacies that they serve with so much pride. You don’t need to speak the same language to bond with others over good food. Whether it’s a smile, laughter, a handshake or a ‘cheers’ – there are so many ways to communicate the appreciation and gratitude for the food you share and it’s a real honour to be invited to learn about someone’s culture through the medium of food.

When I’m abroad, I usually rely on personal recommendations or look for a place that’s busy and full of locals. Some of the best meals I’ve had haven’t been at Michelin-starred restaurants, instead, they’ve been at foreign street stalls and small family-run restaurants where the locals have been loyal customers for years. Unlike a lot of packed restaurants where uninspiring dishes are left standing on a hot-plate until the busy waiter has a chance to pick them up, street food is often fast, fresh and cooked to perfection.

One memory which stands out of finding great food in a surprising place was during my trip to China last year. My family and I arrived at a tiny restaurant on the outskirts of Chengdu which was bustling with locals. The appearance would not enchant you – the restaurant itself was nothing more than a handful of plastic tables and low stools set up on a dusty back street. Cars and motorbikes roared past our tables, and we could see construction workers labouring away across the road. There was no menu – you simply walked up to the open plan kitchen and placed your order; choosing dishes from the arrangements of fresh ingredients in front of you.

The rich aroma of spices and the warmth of flames tempted us to pause and watch as the chef began to prepare our feast. His blade skilfully sliced the vegetables beneath it and a perfectly diced rainbow of colours flew into the wok to the applause of the sizzling oil.

When the food came out, we were all mesmerised. Dish after dish of culinary perfection. The vegetables were so fresh and crisp, I’m sure they must have been picked that morning. The tender caramelised aubergine with fresh chilli and garlic was so succulent that it dissolved immediately on your tongue, leaving you instantly craving another bite. The shredded potato with green peppers was the mildest of all the dishes, but tasted exquisite when dipped in a special Chinese vinegar. I had never seen or heard of some of the vegetables before, such as a lime green bitter vegetable (ku gua) which caught me by surprise because of its sharpness. I soon learnt that it is the perfect accompaniment to take the edge off the spicier dishes and is widely praised for its antioxidant qualities. The fried tofu remained crispy on the outside yet somehow managed to soak up the juices of the pork and mushroom broth that accompanied it – a sponge of oriental culinary heaven!

The meat and poultry dishes ranged from melt-in-the-mouth pork with a sharp and zingy accompaniment of chilli peppers and Sichuan peppers (hua jiao) to tender chunks of chicken in a rich and flavoursome broth.

The Sichuan peppers seemed to sneak their way into several of the dishes and were like nothing any of us had every experienced before. Once you try a dish with Sichuan peppers in it, you will never ever forget it! They’re called peppers because they look like peppercorns, but they are actually the outer husks from the crimson berries of the prickly ash bush.

You might imagine them to be hot and spicy but the reality will shock and startle you. As soon as you start chewing, the peppers create an intense tingly and numbing sensation, almost as if there’s an electric current in your mouth. Your mouth feels tingly and charged; a weird combination of pins and needles, electricity and memories of your mouth being anaesthetized in the dentist’s chair. Apparently it’s the bioactive ingredient of hydroxy-alpha sanshool in the peppers that creates the mouth numbness and some people still use Sichuan peppers as a natural cure for toothache.

The taste is a cross between citrusy/minty/soapy/metallic – a bizarre flavour that’s difficult to put into words. None of us were sure whether we liked it or not, but because the buzzing sensation was so unique, it provided endless laughter whenever one of us encountered one of these hidden weapons! Apparently once you get used to the strange numbing sensation, the spice is actually very addictive and is as popular as salt and pepper in the Sichuan province. Chinese chefs are masters when it comes to combining spices, and Sichuan peppers are often combined with chilli to create a sensation called  “ma lawhich means both numbing (ma) and hot (la).

The Sichuan province of China is most well-known for having the spiciest food in China. I certainly experienced this eye-watering reality with a couple of the dishes. The intensity of the chilli can make you feel like your mouth is on fire, but again, this is something that you get used to over time. A great way to cope with the spicier dishes was washing them down with an ice cold Chinese beer – absolute perfection.

There was a non-stop flow of new courses at our table and we were all absolutely astounded; firstly at how cheap the restaurant was (it cost less than £5 per head), and secondly how incredible the food was. The local chefs in China really take pride in their cooking by using local natural ingredients. There are no preservatives or artificial flavourings – instead they get their supplies from local markets and stick to traditional herbs and spices to add the extra dimension to their cooking. When one of my Chinese relatives came over to the UK, she was actually shocked at how much sugar is used at Chinese restaurants over here. Our most popular dishes with sweet syrupy sauces such as ‘sweet and sour’ or ‘lemon sauce’ don’t exist in the authentic restaurants in China.

Food is at the heart of social get togethers in Asia and a real time for friends and families to connect. People care more about food than fancy furnishings and they’ll keep coming back if they know the cuisine is consistently good. My dining experiences in China ranged from street stalls to 5* hotels, but I quickly learnt that the best places to eat are those you would least expect. Never has the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” been so true.

The golden rule is this: Follow the locals, and you’ll never be disappointed.

This is a concept I also used whilst I was in Berlin. Street food is particularly popular in Germany and the food stalls at the Christmas markets attract tourists and locals alike. As you stroll down the street, the scent of cinnamon from freshly baked gingerbread biscuits fills the air, and it’s impossible to resist the delicious bratwurst roasting over open fires.

The food is excellent quality and the people behind the stalls are often local chefs and restaurant owners who take great pride in their creations. From Bratkartoffeln (fried potato with bacon and onion) to Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes served with apple sauce), to Sauerkraut (fermented shredded cabbage) to Schweinshaxe (roasted pork hock), there are so many tasty offerings at the German Christmas markets. The soup was so good at the Schloss Charlottenberg market that a dog even stood on its hind legs in the queue for a portion!

It’s always nice to experience dining perfection and 5* service, but good food shouldn’t always be judged by the places with the most exotic menus, the finest decor or the longest wine list. It’s more about the core values that a restaurant has, and in particular keeping the food local with the best quality ingredients, making use of seasonal produce, and having a sense of pride in taking the best that nature offers and creating something that’s distinctive and flavoursome.

There’s something so very beautiful about the way food unites people, regardless of what language they speak or what nationality they are. Wherever you are in the world, you can always respect and appreciate a good meal and share the happiness that it brings.