by Jim Gibney
One of the first things a Westerner notices in China is the incredible number of restaurants and the endless variety of food available from them. From the smallest village to the megacity of Shanghai it is hard to find a street that does not have a place you can eat. There are so many different kinds of places to eat in China.
It would be hard to find someone who would not be happy with the food in China. The restaurants cater for everyone. I am a vegetarian but I rarely have trouble finding something delicious at any kind of restaurant even if it has pictures of dogs, ducks, or donkeys on the billboard outside. I can enter with confidence almost any kind of eatery because I am able to get a good meal at any of them. Getting vegetarian food can sometimes be a little tricky but if you just have a Chinese friend, a good phrase book or know a little Chinese it is “mei wen ti” – no problem. Many places have pictures of the dishes on the wall so if you can’t make sense of the Chinese characters in the menu you can always point.
On just about any street there will be a restaurant that will suit everyone regardless of their tastes, price range or beliefs. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the street food carts. Some sell take away only while others are set up with tables and chairs that are so small that they would not seem out of place in a kindergarten. You have to be careful sitting on the tiny chairs as it is quite embarrassing, though highly amusing to the locals, to overbalance and fall backward onto the footpath. This something I have done several times.
Then, there are the hole-in-the wall shop fronts. They usually sell local delicacies. In Tianjin they often specialize in mahua which is a twisted fried dough concoction which tastes like an unsweetened doughnut. On the trays next to them are sweet pastries, cakes and, to me anyway, strange, unappetizing and unidentifiable animal parts fried to a crispy brown. That is in Tianjin, however, each region has its own delicacies. The best of these types of shops are easily identified by the constant queues of people patiently lining up.
Next step upward in the food chain are the family run restaurants. These range from a slightly more up market version of the street cart but in a stall with chairs that may be a bit larger. The waitress, often dressed in her school uniform, may try to practice her English with you and does her homework in between taking orders. Mum and dad will be out in the kitchen working away over the steaming hot pots and pans.
Then there are the middle class establishments which can cover a wide range of styles. At the other end of the scale is the full blown opulence of the large glass and chrome dining palaces with marble floors, lush curtains and stairways where the sosphisticated and beautiful “xiaojie” wear their elegant qipaos. The cheaper places might usher you to a table, but always with a tablecloth, that is in full view of the pedestrians on the street where you happily tuck into your bowl of noodles. The more expensive, may provide you with your own private room with karaoke to help you digest your Beijing duck or mala dofu.
Finally, there are the international five star hotels with which, I must admit, I am not that au fait. I find it hard to understand why anyone would pay outrageous prices for a Western style meal in China when just around the corner you can find something just as good, more interesting and much cheaper. Of course, if someone else is paying, that is a different matter, but on the few occasions I have been to one of these moneypits, I have been disappointed.
The food in these places looks good but rarely does it taste like genuine Western cuisine. This is particularly the case with cakes. The cakes look wonderful but the first bite is usually a disappointment. The Chinese palate is not used to the sweetness of the European cake and so, the cakes in these establishments, usually seem very bland.
Obviously, the Chinese do Chinese food best and that is what they should stick to..
I am a school teacher and my wages in China, despite being much less than what I earned in Australia, make it viable to eat out every night, something that I could rarely afford to do in Australia. In China there is no question that this is the only way to go.
My apartment has a sparsely equipped kitchen but with cheap eats available everywhere it is not worth the effort of firing up the wok. Anyone who knows me will tell you I am no whizz in the kitchen and that my eyes start to glaze over when someone tries to explain how to cook anything more onerous than a boiled egg. Another bonus is that eating out means no washing up is required which is also an area with which I have yet to become proficient.
For these reasons, a colleague and I go out for dinner every night. Last night we went to a seafood place. It’s one of our regulars haunts and we go there every week They are always very busy, a sign of good food, but the staff are always patient and there are so many of them. From my first week in China they have looked after us as we tried in mangled Chinese to get vegetarian food in a restaurant that specializes in live seafood. Fortunately, my colleague eats fish.
She is never lost for choice as there are tanks full of live lampreys, lobsters, sea cucumbers, crabs – everything that is edible from the water. One week there were even a couple of alligators stoically awaiting their fate. There was something not quite above the board in this as when I tried to take a photo I was told “bu, bu, bu” and quickly ushered away. This restaurant is more expensive than the usual places we go but we always enjoy ourselves.
The meal was good and they made the usual fuss over the “wai guo ren”. The bill this time was 99 yuan. We left a 100 yuan note on the table and made signals not to worry about the change. Despite this, before we had time to even get out of our seats and into our coats, a one yuan note was swiftly handed to me. I thought perhaps they didn’t understand that it was a tip, so I left it on the table. I know you might be thinking, one yuan – wow – the last of the big tippers, but I am Australian and tipping has never really caught on there.
Anyway, just before we walked out the door, it’s a big place, there was a bit of commotion behind me. I turned around and saw the waitress with a distressed look on her face running up waving the one yuan note. She was acting as if I’d left my parcel of Microsoft shares behind. They thought that I’d left it behind by mistake. What a country! They don’t even have the concept of a tip. I reluctantly took the note back. There are not many places in the world where this would happen.
China can be a frustrating place – the trains are crowded, nothing runs to plan and the roads are full of motorists who drive like maniacs. However, no one can beat the Chinese for variety of food, restaurants and an always memorable eating experience.
Jim is an Aussie who has been living and teaching in China for two years.