Navigating the food situation here in China with hardly any Mandarin has been one of the most interesting experiences so far! Chinese food has a huge variety and I have barely scratched the surface, but I’m enjoying trying!
Something funny about interacting with people in certain situations in China is once they’ve established your Chinese is terrible they get nervous and make little effort to understand what little you may be trying to say. My theory is that having such little contact with people who don’t speak fluent Fuzhou hua (The dialect of Mandarin ish spoken in Fuzhou) that they just fall back repeat themselves. Not more slowly though. I’ve asked how much entrance to a museum (duoshao qian?) to have them reply over and over that it’s siwu (Sounds like 4-5 which doesn’t even make sense in the Chinese numbering system, for 45 they would say sishiwu). What they really meant was shiwu, they just said it fast and in Fuzhou hua 4 and 10 sound the same (si, second tone and shi, fourth tone respectively).
That is all to excuse myself from not yet being more adventurous with food here! Not to say I haven’t jumped at every opportunity to try a different regional cuisine or local spot, but I have found myself falling back onto a few places that became quickly familiar as our go to lunch spots near work. It’s a lot easier to try to go back to a place someone has already showed you than to try to navigate a usually entirely Chinese menu when you don’t know what anything is called. Often the places we’ll go will have a menu with lots of pictures so that we can jab our fingers at things and tell them how many plates we want rather than decipher, translate and pronounce what we want. Stepping outside your culinary comfort zone has a linguistic portion here too. It’s often well worth it though.
Here I think I can give my initial thoughts and some notes on Chinese staple foods. However I have far too much food to eat yet to give a reliable account!
Honestly I don’t know what most people think of as Chinese food other than typical American/European Chinese food dishes. Some things aren’t too far different, such as the rice and noodles as staple foods, but one thing nearly completely missing from Chinese food back home is soup. Everyone’s had Wonton soup, but the idea of soup as an integral part of a meal is so culturally enshrined here that I’ve been laughed at when I asked for cold water (bing shui) with a meal because the liquid portion of a meal is meant to be soup. Most smaller restaurants I’ve been to will assume you’re having soup and rice as sides to whatever you order.
There is a beef restaurant across from my work that has a picture menu and usually is busy enough that I assume it must be good. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve had from there so far. They serve up many varieties of beef from dumplings in soup, to braised beef neck, to a dried and spiced stringy beef served with grated vegetables. All of this, as seems to be the norm, is served with a side of bok choy, rice and beef stock with white radishes in it. They’re unbelievably cheap as well. One of my favourites there, a tofu that is flavoured with mushrooms comes as a full meal for about 10 kuai or 2$.
I’ve managed to try a few dishes that originate in the Sichuan region. All of these have been pretty fiery as they’re flavored with chili oil and fresh red chilies. These chilies aren’t as spicy as a habanero or some Indian chilies I’ve tried but there are just so many used in the cooking process that you’re bound to eat a large slice of one inadvertently. That’s when you’ll be wishing they served cold water. Or milk. Or really anything other than hot soup. The Sichuan dishes that I’ve tried have been 2 different hot soups filled with sprouts, greens and peppers, one with shrimp, the other with beef and a spicy ‘mapo’ tofu. All of these had a secret ingredient, the Sishuan peppercorn. Not a hot pepper, but more like an un-cracked black pepper. The flavour is crazy because it is looks to black pepper but it has a almost lemony taste and has a tingly almost numbing effect on the mouth which pairs well with the hot chilies. I can’t get enough of it.
A favorite quick food that can be found nearly everywhere before about 1 PM is the baozi, or steamed bun. Baozi are delicious little dough balls that are usually filled with marinated pork, beef or vegetables in a sauce. A pair of baozi makes a hearty start to a morning on the go. They’re less greasy than a lot of other quick food and their outer dough is soft and squishy but resistive enough to maintain it’s shape while being eaten.
There’s always going to be more to say about food here. I’d like to write more about distinct styles but that will need some more research first!
Noah is a teacher from Canada who currently works at our Hu Qian branch.