Monday, November 4, 2013

Eating in China

Probably the biggest question I get about China, maybe after questions about pooping, is what we ate in China.

My answer is bland: Chinese food.  That sentence would have still been true without the colon.

The Meals

As I mentioned before, we were on a tour, wrapped in a little safe cocoon of western company and a tour bus.  Almost every lunch and dinner we ate was scheduled in advance and provided to us by Rewards Travel China.

When you go to a Chinese restaurant in the U.S., it's like every other restaurant.  You pick what you want: chop suey with a side of pork fried rice and an egg roll, and you get it delivered to your table.  It's a little different when you eat in China, although you can find some restaurants that will serve you this way in the states (Mapo restaurant in Naperville is one place I've been that does this).

For every lunch and dinner, we sat down, eight or ten to a table.  Tables were all round, and pre-set with silverware and plates.  In the middle of the table is a large lazy susan.  Often, there was a pot of green tea on the table when we sat down.  Then the waiter comes by and sets a dish of food on the lazy susan.  This could be anything on the menu, really.  Sweet and sour pork?  Breaded fish?  Celery with eggplant in a light glaze?  Mostly what you'd expect from a Chinese menu.

The person it's in front of generally takes a spoonful and lets the susan spin to the next person, who in turn takes a spoonful.

Then a giant vat of white rice gets set down.  Then a bowl of soup.  People generally take a little of each.

Then it gets interesting.

Dish after dish gets placed on the lazy susan, until it is completely filled.  Beef, chicken, pork, fish, veggies, and combinations of them in a dizzying array choke out the available space on the spinning apparatus.  It becomes hard, depending on the number of people at the table, to get to the dish you want, since people are always spinning it left or right to get a little bit more of something.

What's interesting was how much variety there was at every meal, but how much, by the end of the trip, the food all started tasting and smelling the same.  It got to the point where we were tired of the same food and were dying for any kind of food that wasn't Chinese.

This may be because the food was designed for a western audience.  On more than one occasion our tour guides told us that they carefully guarded our tender tummies because they'd had groups that ended up with a long visit to the People's Republic of Diarrhea.  And in a country where many of the toilets are squatters and paper in the potties is not plentiful (more on that some other time), this is not a fun situation.  It's possible that the meals were designed with that in mind.

Could also have been that these were the cheapest meals on the menu, and they were keeping costs down. As I pointed out, the price for the trip didn't even cover the apparent cost of the flight, let alone the hotels and meals.

One interesting tidbit is that these meals never came with any sauces.  With the dishes being tasty, but on average somewhat bland, I got in the habit of ordering soy and some spicy chili garlic paste so that I could spice things up a bit.  And they'd bring out a little dish of each, only about a half ounce, almost as if the stuff was more valuable than gold dust or unicorn farts.

And then the fruit shows up.  Sometimes it's a plate full of oranges, but most of the time it's not-quite-ripe watermelon slices.  That's dessert, and it's refreshing.  Oh, and no fortune cookies anywhere.  Or egg rolls.

By the end of the meal, there are plates everywhere.  Because we're part of a tour group and it's all paid for, that's when the tour guide shows up and we're whisked away.

Of course, that was just the meals we sat down for.  Sure some of them had different twiddles like the time we got to go to a place for great Peking duck, but overall, those were pretty same-samey.

The Wangfujing Snack Street

No, the real variety was in the street food.  In Beijing, you can visit the Wangfujing.  This is a street with major name stores that's been closed to automobile traffic and set up as a giant outdoor mall.  The main street is kind of Times Square-y meets a typical American outdoor mall, but alongside the main shopping area lies some real treats.

Wangfujing Snack Street is an extremely densely populated walkway chock full of street food vendors.  It's probably a quarter mile of vendor after vendor serving different kinds of local snack food. It is so crowded that the claustrophobe in me felt very uncomfortable navigating it.  This was home to some of the most interesting culinary sights in China.

There were produce shops down this alley, some with fruits of all kinds piled high.  The cantaloupes in China are oddly elongated, so I had to snap a picture:
I've got a cantaloupe.  Go long!
A lot of the food in Beijing comes on sticks.  At least the snack food in the market.  Imagine a six to ten foot wide table set with large serving pans of sticks of raw meat.  Now imagine these placed one right after another for a quarter mile, each vendor serving something different.  When you order these foods, they are cooked immediately in a vat of hot oil nearby. The prevalence of gutter oil may be the reason that our tour guides sternly warned us not to eat any street food.

And some of it is food you wouldn't want to eat anyway.  Never mind that the smell of this narrow snack street was a pure assault on the senses, but this street is home to food that even the Chinese only eat on a dare.  Some of these foods include sheep's penis, larvae, starfish, centipedes, spiders, seahorses and live scorpions. On a stick.
Yes, starfish.  PATRICK!

The seahorses weren't moving, but the scorpions wiggled and wriggled, very much alive
On the north end of the Wangfujing is what's called the Night Market.  It's a bit more roomy than the Snack Street, though they have largely the same things.  I had planned to try to eat something at the night market, but the reviews of the taste (scorpions taste like egg shell; crunchy but not much else) and the warnings of our guides kept me from doing it.

There was only one bit of street food that I did eat.  When we visited the Bird's Nest and the Water Cube from the Beijing 2008 Olympics, there was a street vendor that had these sticks with nine little candied balls on them.  I had no idea what they were, and the people couldn't describe them to me, but I'd seen them everywhere, and I was feeling adventurous.

I bought the stick and bit into one of the candied balls, and inside was a little piece of fruit.  It was as big around as a quarter, and it had three little seeds in it.  The candy on the outside was crunchy, though it looked like a little candied apple.  Deciding it was OK, I shared it around and brought the empty stick on the bus with me.

I showed the tour guide and asked what I just ate.  The look of concern that came over him took me by surprise.  He shook his head and said, "No, no," and patted my belly.  He said that I shouldn't eat any street food or I will get sick.  He also said that the fruits were called Haw.  In looking them up, I found that I had eaten BingTanghulu, a popular street treat in China.  And yes, they were hawthorn fruit.

So that's my experience eating in China. There is one more tidbit and some photos to share with regards to eating, but the experience in the Market in Suzhou overlaps with the shopping details I'll share, so I'll save that tale for another day.

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