I was recently reminiscing how the stories about our (sometimes hilarious) culinary experiences in China were most appreciated by our family and friends back home. And I was thinking how, almost always, what burns in your memory is not necessarily what you saw in a museum, but what made your taste buds give themselves a high five. That is, if in addition to an insatiable traveller you are also an unrecoverable foodie.
China made sure to show me that I can fall in love with this beautiful country if I leave my prejudice aside and if I taste the local colour; that, as Romanians say, love passes through the stomach.
Really now, I knew all this beforehand, my trip in China would not have been as charming as it was. I’m sure most of us are accustomed to Chinese restaurants in the western world. We know that, if we go to one of these places and we can’t figure out how to eat with chopsticks, we’ll also get a set of cutlery if we just ask. It won’t exactly be the same experience, but at least you are comfortable.
Chen Yan, our Beijing guide, wanted to give us a novel experience and took us to a local restaurant where the working people in the area eat. Imagine the most modest restaurant, filled to the brim with people. In fact, it looked more like a cafeteria than a restaurant, by our standards. Chen Yan insisted that I should try the noodles, but he wouldn’t force me until at least I saw what else was on the menu. The menu in Chinese, mind you – I can’t imagine a greater punishment for him than translating for me the description of every. single. item. that caught my eye. And we keep on going back and forth in this “aaand what’s that? aaaand what’s this? and what does this mean? it looks so good” dance for about 15 minutes until finally, I decided on his original suggestion, which is what he was getting as well: the noodles! I’m a dear, I know.
So 15 minutes later, each of us gets two large bowls: one like a teapot, with the water in which the noodles boiled and the other with the rinsed noodles. Okay, weird. Plus, a few other smaller bowls with all kinds of vegetables and spices. It seemed complicated and I was telling myself this whole eating thing seems to be like an art, but apparently, I skipped the class where they taught it. I was subtly watching Chen Yan to figure out his technique and workflow. Monkey see monkey do. I eventually figured out I was supposed to pour everything over the noodles and by the time I was getting that done I hear Chen Yan slurrrrping next to me.
Without me uttering a word, he starts laughing and explains to me that if you’re not audibly slurping when eating your meal, the cook might be offended and think that the food is not good enough. So he continues eating. And slurping. And slurping some more. He stops only to tell me: The louder you eat, the happier the cook. And there I was wondering, What cook? He’s not here, he’s back there in his kitchen, there’s no chance he can hear us from here. Eventually, I decided I would not be copying his loud eating technique and ate as European as possible, only for him to ask me when I was done eating: so did you like the noodles? you were very quiet!
In Xi’an, our restaurant experience was entirely different. It was an establishment specifically designed for tourists – but don’t be mistaken: it was not for us, it was for Chinese tourists which outnumber Westerner ones. To my great delight, they had cutlery available for those with two left hands, such as myself who would starve to death if I had to eat only with chopsticks.
I had a similar experience in Shanghai, in another local restaurant. They brought me a fork without looking at me like I fell from the moon, probably because I was smiling so nicely at them. Even though we did not have Chen Yan around to school us into slurping our food, my ears were delighted to hear everyone around us having dinner, slurping and chewing loudly. I obviously stood out like a sore thumb. Obviously.
The magic of street food
In Xi’an, we discovered a Muslim quarter – a real gem where street food was absolutely amazing. Our guide initially took us there to see it for a couple minutes, just to get acquainted with it and know that it exists and was really surprised when we told her she can leave us there so we can properly explore it in our own rhythm. Initially, she thought we were joking, but insisting on it she figured out we were very serious about it and gave us a little piece of paper we could show to the taxi driver to take us back to the hotel when we’re done.
I saw a lot of street food markets across Asia, but never encountered one like this. Everything smells so incredibly good and it looks amazing and the to-and-fro is energizing. I don’t remember seeing so many smiling happy people together in a single place in Asia, loving what they do. There were a plethora of cooked meats in all shapes and sizes, all kinds of animals I couldn’t even name and tons of fruits – sliced up and presented to the prospective buyer as creatively as possible. The photos below should speak for themselves – unfortunately, I don’t even know what most of them are, I would have loved to find out but there was nobody to answer my questions there.
My struggle with the hotpot
What I liked in the Shanghai restaurants – which I did not encounter in the Beijing or Xi’an ones – was the way you were supposed to place the order. When you got to the entrance you were given an order sheet (sometimes translated to English, but most of the times just in Chinese) where you were supposed to mark up what you wanted to eat, give that to the employee at the entrance, receive an order number and take a seat waiting for a table to become available. When your order number was shown on screen, you could enter the restaurant and take a seat at the table. A waiter would then approach you, you would hand over the order sheet and that was it. There were no mistakes or useless discussions about something you ordered and they didn’t bring you.
While I was in Beijing, Chen Yan kept insisting on going to a hotpot restaurant and even though that sounded tantalizing, I successfully avoided it. During our last day in Shanghai, our flight out was late at night so after checking out of the hotel we set out on our last exploration of the metropolis. My feet were tired and my body was drained of energy. At lunchtime, after taking a sightseeing bus, we entered one of their shopping malls and we saw this restaurant with a line of people waiting outside – we said to ourselves well then it just has to be good.
So we get to the greeter and this is where the adventure starts. We ask for an English menu and an order sheet. The menu was in English, but the order sheet wasn’t so here’s what we did: figure out what we wanted to eat. Then, take the order sheet and compare the Chinese characters to the ones on the English menu going like “little house”, “bird?”, “bicycle”, “little tree” until we’re done marking up what we want to eat.
Now picture the scene: you were eating at a bar-like table, with tall bar stools and in front of each stool, there’s an electric hob.
Once we’re seated, an employee drops by with two medium-sized pots, filled with water and some spices, places them on the hobs, turns them up and leaves. A few minutes later we get the raw tofu, raw sliced potatoes and some salad leaves (apparently what we ordered). So far, so good. We were ready to eat them raw because we had so much trouble communicating with the employees because we didn’t speak Chinese, they didn’t speak English, it was great…
Eventually, we wave to one of the waiters passing near us and ask, through hand gestures and pointing at the pots, what is going on here? what are we supposed to do with these?. He smiles, turns the hobs to 10 and gleefully walks away. Great! We did it!
What could we do then, other than looking around to see what the others are doing? Monkey see monkey do, part two. So we throw everything in the pots and a few minutes later, we have a soup! I was intrigued by the idea of a hot pot, but apparently, I missed all the signs including the one that said hot pot soup on the English menu that this is what we were supposed to do in the first place. All in all, it was an authentic experience, especially since I saw first hand what it’s like to eat a soup with chopsticks (spoiler alert: you first eat the contents, then you drink the liquid).
Technology almost saved me from starving
Another refreshing experience was right after visiting the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. Stepping out on the glass platform (mostly with my eyes closed, mind you) 259 meters in the air turned my stomach quite a bit so we entered the first restaurant in our way. It was a Japanese themed one, with the added bonus of having menus in English. Great! The fact that the waiters spoke no English was less than great, but we figured we’ll just manage. So, we order – some traditional drinks, soup and some chicken. A few minutes later the waiter’s back with our order and I see, of course, that he only brought chopsticks so now I need to ask him for a fork.
Since we couldn’t understand each other, I figured why not use this wonderful device in my pocket and draw a fork and a knife with it, that should make it abundantly clear to anyone what I am asking for. The good news is that the waiter understood my drawing just fine, the bad news is that he laughed, shrugged, gestured a “NO” and took off.
What can you do in such moments, with the food in front of you, but you lack the capacity to use the chopsticks so you can properly enjoy it? You clumsily eat your soup with your chopsticks, stabbing whatever you can, slurrrrping the remaining soup (eeek, transformation complete!) and then eating the chicken using your bare hands. It’s useless to tell you my boyfriend’s reaction, who happens to be a bit of a germ freak when we’re abroad, when I picked up that chicken. Eyes wide open, his expression saying That’s it! Nice to have shared with you so many beautiful travel memories, honey. You’re in God’s hands now!
Adventures in international fast food restaurants
6-7 years ago when we were travelling around Europe with a very strict budget, it sometimes happened that we ate at known fast food chains such as McDonald’s, KFC or Burger King. We were fooling ourselves that we took it upon ourselves to empirically compare how the taste differs for the same product across different countries. Joking, or not, we were referring to this as “poor man’s meal”.
In Shanghai, after so many hilarious experiences, we were convinced we could find some similarity in a McDonald’s restaurant, that at least we will be able to communicate with the employees. Not even in our darkest dreams did we imagine that we will have another linguistic AND technological barrier to pass at McD’s. The employees spoke no English and after multiple failed attempts, we saw that there was an automated order booth where you could input your order, pay with a card and be done with it. Just that Visa or Mastercard was not accepted by the machine, only AliPay. Pay in cash at a cashier’s, or starve to death.
So we search our pockets for any cash or change we have, gather together enough for two cheeseburgers and finally order! Those two sad little burgers made our day (and yes, the taste was wholly different than what you would encounter in Europe for a cheeseburger).
Local delights which make you fall in love with China
The two traditional meals from Beijing and Xi’an were incredibly interesting.
The one in Beijing took place immediately after leaving the airport, in a small restaurant located in a neighbourhood of crammed together communist style buildings. The lady who welcomed us at the restaurant was very friendly and talkative, too bad she only spoke Chinese and it made absolutely no sense for us what she was saying. I think she was just happy to see us.
The Peking Duck was the centerpiece during the meal and we found out a bunch of very interesting things about it. It’s a traditional food which is very important in the culture and tradition of a Chinese family, especially in the Beijing area. It’s like a birthday cake for us – present in their lives at birthdays, anniversaries and all kinds of special occasions.
The cook brought out the duck on a rolling table and showed us how to slice it – in thin slices, with or without the crispy skin, drenched in orange juice. The waitress lady was explaining to us how to eat it: either on puffed rice pads or in a wrap of rice tortilla, assorted with vegetables and various sauces. It’s an art, like everything that relates to this country’s culture, the slice of meat with crispy skin goes only with certain veggies and sauces, while the one without the skin needs something completely different.
This was a good bonding moment with the rest of the people in our group and the Peking duck has an unforgettable, I-want-more taste.
The second traditional dinner was in Xi’An, the city with the terracotta warriors, during a dancing and folk songs show. La pièce de résistance were dumplings! It was more like a tasting of dumplings, because we were served about 8 kinds of them in total, either out of dough stuffed with vegetables and meat, or using shrimp meat as dough, with various fillings. It was a lot of tasty food and the traditional drinks were just right (tea and an alcoholic drink made out of fermented rice).
What should I tell you now to wrap this up other than how dear to me were these culinary experiences. We got home thinner when we got back (I lost 3-4 kilograms), both from the food and because of how much exercise we were getting. My feet were busted at the end of each day. However, now that I think back, I think I’m satifisfied the most that I did not hurt anyone with the chopsticks. I actually set a goal for myself to try and eat only with chopsticks once I get back home until I develop some dexterity using them, but somehow I managed to avoid getting that to completion.