Living in China

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China's Food

Introduction    Food Culture    Food Styles    Chopsticks   Restaurants   Vegetarians   Western Food   Banquets   Strange Food   Drink

 

Chinese food must be among the most famous in the world. Sweet and sour pork with egg fried rice is reported to be the second favourite dish in Britain, and must of course be preceded by a plate of prawn crackers. All washed down with a lager or three.

Well, perhaps not. A few dishes are well known, but the majority of "Chinese" restaurants in the west provide a westernised version of Hong Kong or Cantonese food, with the occasional Beijing or Sichuan dish thrown onto the menu. Many so-called Chinese dishes are unknown in China. The vast majority of Chinese cooking is all but unknown outside mainland China.

I have lived in China for eighteen years and have travelled extensively throughout the country, yet I've seldom seen a prawn cracker. And egg fried rice is usually eaten as a quick snack, not with main courses. My wife, who is Chinese, saw her first prawn cracker in a London Chinatown Restaurant. And although sweet and sour is available in China, it bears little resemblance to that served in the west. Her verdict on her first "Chinese" meal in London was memorable. "What is this ****?" 

So what is the authentic Chinese food? Well, like any question about China, there are several answers. It is not surprising that a country larger than western Europe should have more than one typical culinary style. Then, we must distinguish between what you may be served in a large hotel dining room, a small local restaurant, a street market stall or in a Chinese family's home. For an authentic menu from a medium-sized restaurant in Guangxi province of Southern China, click here.

Typical Family Meal

But first, one myth needs to be dispelled. The starving Chinese! When I was a child I was encouraged to eat the particularly nasty bits on the plate by being told that the starving Chinese would lap them up. My suggestion that we could post it to them never went down too well. At that time (the late fifties) there was indeed a terrible famine in China (almost entirely manmade (Maomade)).

When I went to China first, it was after having lived in Soviet Russia and I expected to see the same long lines of people queuing up to buy nothing very much in particular. Instead, on my first visit to a market (in Hunan Province), I was confronted with a wider range of vegetables, seafood, meat and assorted unidentified frying objects than I have ever seen anywhere else. And it was so cheap I couldn't convert to UK pounds.

Sausages

Sausages in a Guangxi Market

 

FOOD CULTURE

As in many cultures, but not so much in the English speaking countries, food is central to life in China. The most common greeting translates as "Have you eaten?" This is not an invite to dinner but carries the same degree of literal meaning as the English "How are you?" Just we do not expect people to answer with a list of their medical complaints, the Chinese do not list the breakfast menu. However, it does indicate some of the importance of food in Chinese society. Similarly, many western business people are somewhat confused to discover that most negotiations and meetings will be held in a restaurant over a banquet and business will be discussed only after we have satisfied the inner man. At home, the various festivals and holidays are celebrated with lavish meals. 

 

FOOD STYLES

Traditionally, Chinese food is classified into eight regional styles. These vary from the artistically presented, slightly sweet taste of Guangdong through the fiery hot chillies of Hunan and Sichuan food, to the sour tastes enjoyed in Shandong.. Generally in the west, only Guangdong (in the Westernised variation of the Hong Kong interpretation) is represented along with the odd dish from Beijing and Sichuan. In China, most restaurants serve local cuisine, but there are also restaurants all over China serving Beijing, Sichuan, Hunan dishes etc. In addition to these eight styles, each town or city may have its own specialities. For example, where I live, LuoSiFen, a dish of rice noodles in snail soup with chillies is extremely popular. 

The various Chinese ethnic minorities also have distinctive cuisines. Most popular and available all over China is the Muslim Hui style from Xinjiang in the far west. This resembles Arabic or middle-eastern food and lamb kebabs are available at street stalls almost everywhere. Visitors to Xi'an should try to sample this food in the Muslim quarter. But also check out other minority cuisines, if you get the chance.

Hunan Restaurant

Shaoshan Restaurant - a Hunan restaurant in Liuzhou. Shaoshan is Mao's hometown / birthplace.

CHOPSTICKS

Start practicing! Outside the larger restaurants there will be no alternative, other than a spoon. Unless you want to look like a baby, you'd better refine that technique. Anyway it's more fun and, in Chinese dining, more practical.

Many travel guides advise you to carry your own chopsticks for hygiene reasons. I would suggest that you do, but more for environmental reasons. Most smaller restaurants supply disposable chopsticks. These are a major problem for China. Vast acres of trees are cut down to make them and the deforestation has led to worsening flood conditions. 

The secret to using chopsticks is to keep one stick stationary while moving the other. Most foreigners, when they first use chopsticks, tend to hold them too near the point. Watch what other people do! Final tip: never leave your chopstick sticking up in your rice bowl. This is a symbol of death.

RESTAURANTS

China is full of restaurants. From the hideously expensive Imperial Restaurants of Beijing to the tiny 'hole-in-the-wall' dives scattered across the whole country. Some are wonderful, most are very good and a few are awful. 

Restaurant interior

In larger restaurants, the ground floor is usually the cheapest. Upstairs, or in private booths, where they often like to guide the foreign guests, prices leap upwards. In large and smaller restaurants always check the price BEFORE you order and check the final bill. I suggest that you always study the menu meticulously, even if you can't read Chinese. Work on the principle that if they think you understand it, they will be less likely to overcharge you. Just make sure that you are holding it the right way up. Do not be shy about arguing if you think the bill is wrong. This is a national sport and you may find that the locals will join in. In one night market in Xi'an I checked the price of the lamb kebabs before I ate (3 jiao each - the correct price). When I was presented with the bill, these had risen to 3 Yuan each (10 times more). When I argued, half the restaurant joined in and one man insisted on paying my bill to show me that "not all Chinese are cheats." That said, cheating on that scale is rare and tends to be exclusive to the tourist areas.  

Some of the best food available is in the cheap food streets and night markets which are a feature of virtually every city and small town. Noodle dishes, kebabs, cheap stir fries etc.  The hygiene conditions are not what you are used to, but it seems the high temperature in the woks kills off most things. The only time in eighteen years that I've had anything approaching serious food poisoning was from the ice cream in a western restaurant.

Hole-in-the-wall

 

Experiment, point to other diners' meals if you have to, wander into the kitchen and have a look in the fridge to make your choice, but above all enjoy!

 

VEGETARIANS

Despite a strong Buddhist tradition, it can be difficult for vegetarians in China. But only when eating out. If you are cooking for yourself, you will be amazed at the huge variety of vegetables available. Tofu (doufu in Chinese) is available everywhere and comes in various styles. 

In restaurants, it is possible to ask for vegetarian food, but beware. Many Chinese like to stir fry vegetables in lard (pig fat). Also, dishes described on menus as containing only vegetables, may also contain meat. In the larger cities, it is much easier. In larger cities there are sometimes true vegetarian restaurants.  They can be hard to spot as their menus feature things like beef and pork and chicken and fish. In fact, they merely recreate the look and  flavour of these meats but only by using vegetable ingredients.

For much more detail on Vegetarianism and Veganism in China, see this article on my blog.

 

WESTERN FOOD

In the larger cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai and the provincial capitals, it is becoming common to find western outlets. McDonalds has over 400 outlets in China and there are even more KFC restaurants. For some reason, these are popular with the Chinese. I suspect this is more to do with fashion than anything culinary, and they tend to be expensive places to eat compared to the thousands of Chinese fast food joints. More 'upmarket' restaurants, such as Italian, French etc are confined to the larger cities. Some hotels have 'western' restaurants which are rarely up to western standards. Most of the chefs have never been out of China and have only ever seen pictures of what they are trying to recreate.

For home cooks, the variety of western food available can be limited. Real bread and cheese are all but impossible outside the main cities. Large cities have some western style supermarkets (from Hong Kong or Taiwan) and Carrefour and Walmart are in China. However, they mainly cater for the local market and for the little western food they carry, they charge prices on a par with those in the west.. Fine if you are on a western salary, but a bit difficult for teachers who tend to be paid local salaries.

 

BANQUETS

 

If you are  working in China, at some stage, you  will be invited to a banquet.  Despite attempts by the communist party to curb excessive use of public funds on banquets, they still happen, albeit more quietly and less often than in the past.

There are a few rules to remember if you want to survive the experience.

1. Arrive on time. This will give you the opportunity to sit on a sofa and study the decor while you wait for everyone else. Then, as they arrive, you will have the opportunity to watch the other guests sit around eating sunflower seeds and throwing the shells on the floor as they wait for the host (or top man) to arrive.

2. Wait to be told where to sit at the main table. Get yourself comfortable and wait to be told to move to another seat. Once everyone has finished arguing over the seating plan, prepare to move again when three unexpected guests join the party and everyone has to shuffle up to accommodate them around the table (this is always circular, designed to sit ten to twelve guests but usually manages fifteen.

3. If you are left-handed, make an excuse and go home. No-one in China is left-handed and the condition is considered to be dangerous. It is impossible to eat with chopsticks if you are left handed as you will continually crash into the guy next to you, sending food flying everywhere.

4. Wait till the top man says eat, then eat a little and put your chopsticks down. This is not really the start of the meal, but a test to check that everybody can find a pair of chopsticks and that no-one is left handed. 

5. Top man will then propose a toast. If you're lucky he will do this in the form of a speech less than ten minutes long. Take your drink, bang your glass against everybody else's round the table, and say 'Gan Bei'. This means 'empty glass' which is what you will have in your hand by the time it gets to your mouth. Consider yourself lucky. The glass probably contained Bai Jiu, a spirit made from rocket fuel flavoured with essence of vomit (see below).

6. Now eat. Do not worry that there are only twenty dishes on the table for a party of fifteen. Your hosts will proceed to drink themselves under the table with endless toasts, leaving all the food for you to enjoy. 

7. Interrupt your eating every now and again and wave your glass at a random guest. This is called toasting. If you can make a twenty minute speech in any language at all, then you will be regarded as an all round good guy or gal.

8. When your hosts put the head of the fish and the feet of the chicken into your bowl, SMILE. This is a great honour. At least that's what they tell dumb foreigners.

9. It is a good idea to pause in your eating and offer everyone at the table a cigarette. If they tell you they don't smoke, try to educate them as to the benefits of smoking. (It is no accident that the Chinese for "banquet" and "cigarette ash" only differ in tone!)

   宴会 yn hu (banquet)   烟灰 yān huī  (cigarette ash)

10. When some unknown, drunken idiot crashes through the door and insists on toasting the entire room, don't worry. This is the restaurant manager.

11. When you have managed to get through all the dishes, do not despair. Another twenty will arrive.

12. If you are drinking beer, do not eat rice at the same time. The Chinese believe this is extremely dangerous. Rice should only be eaten after beer. Then it should be shovelled into your mouth as if you are expecting all rice to be confiscated  forever in thirty seconds time.

13. When suddenly, for no apparent reason, your rice is confiscated and everyone leaves, this means the meal is over. Go home.

STRANGE FOOD

Many of the stories you hear will be urban myths. Many will be true.

Yes, the Chinese like to eat strange things (by our standards). They think we eat strange things. Many delicacies have been illegal for some time (bear paw, pangolin, monkey brains etc.) as they are from endangered species, although there is still an underground market. Eating panda will get you the death penalty. It happens. You are unlikely to eat endangered species accidentally, nor are your hosts likely to offer them. They are prohibitively expensive. 

Following the 2003 SARS epidemic, the Chinese government banned the consumption of around 1,800 specified animals and birds. Like all laws in China this has never been successfully enforced.

Dog is common in the south and in Jilin, bordering North Korea. It is not usually someone's family pooch; there are dog farms where the dogs are bred for food. Snake is popular, especially in Guangxi and Guangdong. If you are at all sensitive, be careful in markets, especially in the south. You never know what you will see hanging up on the butchers' stalls.

Perhaps the strangest thing I have eaten was  deep fried bee larvae. Tasted like chillied popcorn! Not bad.

 

DRINK

Perhaps not surprisingly, the favourite drink in China is tea. Everywhere you go, you will see people sipping their tea from old jam jars or small vacuum flasks. In almost every restaurant, you will be presented with a cup or glass of tea, before you order. Trains are fitted with boilers dispensing water to top up your tea. Hotel rooms are always equipped with large vacuum flasks of water and teabags. 

There is a growing fashion for coffee drinking throughout China. Starbucks have arrived, even going so far as desecrating The Forbidden City by opening a branch inside. (Now closed.) and have spawned many copy outlets. Coffee grows in Yunnan in the south of China, but away from cities can be fairly difficult to get. Where I am in Guangxi, there is a thriving import business from neighbouring Vietnam.

For coffee substitutes, Nescafe is available almost everywhere but beware. The most popular way to sell it is in 3-in-1 sachets. These are pre-sweetened and contain whitener. Maxwell House is also available, but less well distributed. 

Tsingtao BeerBeer is not really a Chinese tradition, but it's rapidly growing in popularity. The most famous brand and market leader with a 12.8% share, is Tsingtao which is exported all over the world. It is brewed in Qingdao (the new spelling) in Shandong Province. The original brewery was built by the Germans when Qingdao was an occupied treaty port. When the Germans were thrown out after the revolution, the Chinese continued. With the economic reforms, the foreigners are slowly buying the company back. Anheuser-Busch, the world's largest brewer, have a 27% stake.

But this is only one brand. There are literally hundreds, if not more,  varying in quality from the not-bad-at-all to the undrinkable. Experiment.

Whatever you do, do not follow your Chinese colleagues' advice. Try for yourself.  Chinese men's method of drinking beer is somewhat different from mine. There is nothing I love more on a hot summer's day than to relax with a cold beer or four. Chinese men on the other hand see beer drinking as a competitive sport. If Chinese people see you drinking beer, or carrying beer home from the shops, their only question will be, "How many bottles can you drink?" It is impossible to take a mouthful by yourself. It is essential to toast someone  (or preferably everyone in the bar / restaurant) and challenge them to drink a whole glass in one swallow. This continues until they fall asleep. Vomiting is allowed, after which you may continue.

At banquets or larger family meals many men will drink baijiu (pronounced Bye Joe). This is a spirit usually made from rice and is definitely an acquired taste. Few foreigners can stand it. It tastes like rocket fuel flavoured with essence of vomit. Again, drinking it is a competitive sport.

Be careful. Chinese people often translate 'Baijiu' as 'wine'. If you are offered wine, check!

The Chinese do make wine. Top selling brands are Great Wall and Dynasty. Wines tend to be rather sweet compared to European style wines. Most are undrinkable/

Nasty wine.

Spirits are available. The Scottish whisky industry has spent a great deal of energy trying to crack the Chinese market, as are the French with their brandy (which is ludicrously over-priced). However, although the locals are happy to buy the stuff or receive it as a gift, I'm not convinced they like it. I have been to many homes where a bottle of  French brandy is proudly displayed unopened on a prominent shelf. Most of them have matured longer on that shelf than they ever did in France. It is a status symbol rather than a drink. 

Similarly, in bars, it is considered the height of cool to order a bottle of Chivas Regal, which I have been told many times is the best Scotch. (I'm Scottish and know it's only just a step up from cooking whisky). They then pour the entire bottle into a jug and dilute it 50-50 with Lilt or Tango! Or green tea! Try that in a Scottish pub next time you feel suicidal.

The upside is that Russian Vodka is pretty cheap!

Note that it is still unusual for women to openly drink alcohol in China. Many people consider it a sign of depravity. As a foreigner, you are exempted from this prejudice. They already know you are depraved.

WATER

It is NOT recommended that you drink tap water anywhere in China. The Chinese never do! Purified bottled water and mineral water is widely available and very cheap. Top brand is Wa Ha Ha which translates pretty much as it sounds!

Also, in all hotels and on trains etc. boiled water is supplied free. Most travellers carry some form of drinking vessel, ranging from stylish mini thermos flasks to old jam jars.

 

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