Since trying new food is my favorite part about traveling, I feel that dedicating an entire journal entry to Chinese cuisine and restaurant culture is appropriate. Before I came to China, I thought I liked Chinese food in America well enough because who doesn’t like egg rolls, orange chicken, and fortune cookies, right? But believe me when I say that this is just the tip of the chop stick.
When at a restaurant in China, things are done a little differently. After customers have been seated at a restaurant, it is up to the customer to call for the waiter to order. If the restaurant is busy the waiter will not come to a table unless called, which, depending on the amount of people at the restaurant and the noise level, may be a sharp bark (fuwuyuanr!). At many restaurants the bill is paid before the food comes, and although it is traditional custom for Chinese people to want to pay for the entire bill, young people are adapting the Western habit to split the bill (Chinese people call it “AA”). Also, no tipping allowed! Eating out with a lot of people is great because everyone gets to try many different dishes, since all dishes are shared, and this also makes the bill cheaper if it is split.
As for what I have actually eaten, I cannot exactly tell you what all the dishes are called or what all is in them but I do know that my taste buds have rarely been disappointed or underwhelmed. For starters, Beijing and northern cuisine is not spicy, even though Beijingers might warn you that a dish may be too spicy for a foreigner, it usually isn’t. However, if you are looking for the mouth numbing Sichuan experience, Beijing has plenty of hot pot and Sichuan restaurants. Hot pot is basically a large variety of vegetables and meat that you boil yourself at the table in a boiling, oily broth in which you can choose your own level of spicy. I love eating hotpot because I can eat lot of it without getting full and tastes especially good on cold, winter nights . Also, there’s just something about a steaming cauldron of delicious hot, food that really brings people together because every time I have eaten hotpot, I’ve also had great conversations.
Beijing is the perfect place for food lovers because it literally has everything, from different Chinese regional cuisines to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican-Vietnamese fusion restaurant. A lot the dishes that I enjoy the most are probably the most simple like malatang, which is just various vegetables, noodles, meats and tofu which you choose yourself to be boiled and made into a mildly spicy soup. Or a Sichuan green bean dish that is salty and spicy with a little crunch from fried peppercorns. Even the street food is pretty good, but be wary of the small food carts that are not permanent establishments if you are worried about getting sick. During the school week I usually buy a meat filled pastry for breakfast and for lunch I will often by dumplings or fried noodles from the small stands on campus or eat at Beijing University’s many cafeterias.
Although I do have a busy schedule and routine here, I think it is important to eat something different, take a different route, and talk to someone new every day. I’ve gotten so used to not exactly knowing what I am ordering from a menu, not fully understanding what the waiter is saying, and eating so many new, delicious things that going to a restaurant back in the States will seem somewhat boring. This semi-love letter to REAL Chinese food doesn’t even begin to describe how varied and amazing all the dishes I have and haven’t eaten yet are, but I hope it helps those unsure about coming to study abroad in China know that finding something good to eat is at least one thing that you don’t have to worry about.