Willem grew up in an international family, where he learned to cook from two kitchens. His father is Dutch and his mother is from China. This meant a traditional Dutch dish one evening and a Chinese meal the next. According to Willem, Chinese cuisine in the Netherlands has a major misconception. “In the Netherlands, in particular, Chinese cuisine is known for its classic Chinese-Indonesian restaurants. Although you have good food here, it is not authentic at all.”
Not only does Willem have wonderful memories of China from his vacations and travels, but also of the times he came home to his Chinese grandmother. “The first words when my grandmother saw me again were always: 'You look thin, are you eating enough?' After which a plate of food was promptly placed in front of me. This could be dumplings, wontons or any of the many other delicious things my grandmother could cook.”
“The first words when my grandmother saw me again, were always: You look thin, are you eating enough?”
When you think of Chinese eating habits, you think of eating with chopsticks. Eating with chopsticks comes from a purely practical point of view, according to Willem. “When ingredients, such as meat and vegetables, are cut in smaller pieces, it takes less time to cook. This saved, certainly in the past, a lot of valuable time and heat (fire). When eating smaller ingredients, you don't need a knife to cut things.” By the way, not all food is eaten with chopsticks. Willem explains: “Spoons are of course also used for soup. Also, these spoons look different from the spoons we know in the Netherlands. In addition, you can ask for Western cutlery at almost all restaurants in China, but you will not find this at my grandmother's house”.
Besides eating with chopsticks, Willem also mentions that the Chinese cuisine is known for using uncommon ingredients. “In China, people don't mind using their mouths and teeth as eating utensils. By this I mean that 'chewing' is not uncommon at a Chinese dining table. For example, in chicken feet (not the chicken legs, but really the claw) the tendons and cartilage are eaten, as you can't just cut them out.” This dish may be seen as remarkable to foreigners of China, but it has a logical explanation. “From the past, the Chinese are used to eating the entire animal and avoid wasting any piece, which is sometimes caused by poverty. A similar circumstance occurred in Europe during wars or famine disasters. And to the Chinese this was also a collective practice to prevent waste. Purely from a practical and sustainable consideration.”
Willem answers the question of how to describe the taste of Chinese cuisine with an 'in your face' taste. “It is anything but subtle, but intense and eccentric. I rarely think after eating a Chinese dish “if only it had more of the flavor it has”. You also have more subtle dishes, such as vegetarian bao bun, but here again a lot of dark vinegar, soy sauce and sesame oil is used for the taste explosion.
“Chinese food is anything but subtle, but on the contrary intense and eccentric”
It is difficult to name a typical Chinese ingredient, such as specific vegetables or spices, because the country is so huge and diverse. The ingredients and dishes vary by region. Willem says that he is mainly familiar with the ingredients and dishes of the region where his family lives, 'Tianjin'. He tells hungrily about the other delights that Tianjin has to offer. “You have Guozi, this is a kind of fried dough stick, a savory variant of the Spanish churros. And Jianbing is also eaten a lot. This is a kind of egg crepe with savory toppings, which is often filled with a Guozi.” In addition, one of the best-known dishes from Tianjin is Goubuli: a kind of steam bun, or Baozi. This name has a special meaning. “The literal translation of Goubuli is 'the Boazi who is not ignored by dogs'. This name originated because the maker had the nickname 'Little Dog'. He was so good at making Baozi that he didn't have time to talk to his friends and customers, so he ignored everyone.”
Finally, we wondered what a typical Chinese breakfast is. “Always the leftovers from the day before,” says Willem with a smile on his face. “But… maybe I only do that myself…, so that can differ per household and this is not a Chinese tradition everywhere”.