Friday, November 26, 2010


Touring Beijing, appendix 1: Food

Now that I’ve finished the daily travelogue, I wanted to say a couple of other things, in general, about visiting China. Today: the food.

Executive summary: I loved it!

On my first night there, I was in Shenzhen on my own, and decided to walk around and find a place to have dinner. I don’t know any Chinese, and, hoping for an English menu, I went to a nice-looking restaurant that was near two upscale, western-style hotels, figuring that my best bet was there. I went up the half-flight of steps from the street to the door, and said to the two young women waiting there, Do you have an English menu?

They smiled and laughed a little nervously. They didn’t even know the word English in English. That’s not surprising, now that I think about it; I don’t know the word Chinese in Chinese, either. I made a motion with my hands, and they smiled and invited me in, and handed me a menu. It had pictures. That will do, thought I, and I nodded. One of them led me to a table.

I started looking through the pictures, and very quickly a waitress appeared. And stood there. I soon learned that this is the way it’s done there: you’re expected to know what you want, or at least figure it out fairly quickly, and the waitresses will stand there until you order. There’s no way to get them to go away and give you a few minutes. On this first experience of it, I felt uneasy, and picked something out quickly, something that appeared to be chicken with hot peppers, many slices of fresh red and green hot peppers. I also got some tea.

The waitress asked me something else, and, of course, I didn’t understand. I looked blankly at the menu, looked back at her and shrugged, and she made a never mind sort of gesture and left. She soon came back with tea, and then later with my food.

One thing about the picture menus is that it’s easy enough to tell that a dish has meat, but it’s not so easy to figure out the kind of meat. What had looked like chicken with hot peppers turned out to be fatty pork and chopped fried egg with hot peppers. It was very tasty, and I’m glad I’m happy to eat any kind of meat (though I could have done without all the fat), but it was definitely not what I’d been expecting.

Soon, another woman, appearing to be supervising the waitresses, came by and tried to ask me something. But when I couldn’t answer her, she went to someone else and said something, and the latter scooped some steamed rice into a bowl and came over to offer it. Ah, xie xie [谢谢, thank you], I said, and they smiled. They’d been trying to ask if I wanted rice, and I didn’t know what they were asking, nor how to answer. They added the rice to my bill.

The meal — a large portion of pork/egg/peppers, rice, and tea — cost ¥24, about $3.70.

Breakfast at the hotel (included in the room rate) was steamed buns, fried noodles, and fried vegetables. They also had cold cereal available, and congee, rice porridge.

In general, I found the food tasty and excellent, and very, very cheap by western standards. In both Shenzhen and Beijing, one could easily eat for just a few dollars a person. The hot-pot meal we had on Monday night after touring the Temple of Heaven was extravagant, at about $12/person. I had my fill of noodles, stir-frys, hearty soups, filled dumplings and buns, and lots of fresh fruits.

One could easily break the budget in the hotel, of course. In Beijing, the Shangri-La is a fancy, western hotel, with fancy, western prices. The breakfast buffet there, all by itself, would have cost more than $30 if it hadn’t been included in the room rate. That’s at least three days worth of meals outside, just for one breakfast. The buffet was quite extensive, though, here including not just the Chinese staples, but a full selection of American things (eggs & omelets, bacon, croissants, and so on), lots of fresh fruits and juices, cheese and cold cuts, and even smoked fish and sushi.

I also learned two things that are different about eating Chinese food there and here:

When we do Chinese food family style, we get one dish per person and share them all. They will get more than one dish per person — a full meal for six will include at least ten different dishes, sometimes more. We had one meal of duck, pork, lamb, several vegetables, dumplings, snails... when we realized that they’d forgotten to bring the fish we’d ordered, we decided not to fix it; we’d had more than enough food as it was.

Also, they don’t generally get rice with the meal. They will often have fried rice brought as one of the last courses, to be eaten after everything else, not with — and definitely not with the other foods mixed into the rice, as many Americans do. As someone described it to me: in case you’re still hungry, here’s some fried rice.

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