“The food, imagine how good the food will be”. This was the refrain I heard before I left the UK ( along with “you’ll get a Chinese wife, you’re into those Chinese girls, aren’t you” ). The Central Kingdom is known for the quality and variety of its cuisine, and I will no doubt be writing more on this subject, about the street food, the hotpot, Beijing’s renown roast duck, the steamed buns and kebabs and fried things on sticks and all of that. But for now I’m going to indulge in the lesser known delicacies of the University canteens, which is where I do the majority of my feeding and watering.
I’d like to list the names of my favourite meals and what they contain, and the distinct flavours of each, but I’m afraid I don’t know the names of anything and I’m not entirely sure what anything is. It’s very much an (un)lucky dip. Mostly you just guess what looks tasty/safe and then point at it and say “na ge” 那个 or “zhe ge” 这个 ( “that” or “this” ) and then nod when they stick the spoon in the right thing. When we foreigners talk about food among ourselves we normally just refer to things in a roundabout sort of way, such as “that chicken and cucumber with the gravy thing poured on it that tastes a bit like curry”, or “choose-your-own noodles with the hot water on it”, or “like sweet and sour, but not quite”.
In general, Chinese Chinese food has some similar flavours to British Chinese food, but British Chinese food is much richer ( more MSG probs ) and Chinese Chinese food has more variety. There’s plenty of rice ( twice a day, normally ), but also noodles, dumplings, pancakes, eggs ( pickled, fried, boiled, just lots of eggs ), wraps, hot pot, steamed buns.
There’s the additional problem of things not looking like what they are. A bowl full of tender meat turned out to be mostly bones and gristle, or a plate of green beans is stuffed full of crispy beef ( less of a problem, though I don’t know how vegetarians manage ). Some of my most disappointing meals have been eaten in the university canteens, not because they were bad, but just because it wasn’t what I was expecting. Also, I struggle to find meals that are actually hot, rather than tepid or just plain cold. The food is often left out and barely kept warm. I’m pretty sure that things that don’t get eaten at lunch are left for the next meal, and that the tonnes of rice that are left over make it into the next morning’s rice porridge. Mmm.
Hygiene exists. For example, the servers all wear a mask that covers their mouths, and they wear gloves. But then they handle everything with the same gloves, and use one spoon for everything, including different kinds of meat ( raw chicken, raw pork, raw lamb, raw squid: one spoon ). Sometimes you ask for a bowl of pak choi and get a free sample of the tofu in an adjacent tray.
What do the Chinese eat for breakfast? Until I realised that I would need to eat breakfast, I didn’t have a clue. Turns out it’s basically the same things that you eat any other time of day ( as far as I can tell ). Noodles, little chicken-tikka buns, eggs ( pickled or boiled ). I normally go for zhou 粥 ( a sweet rice porridge ), Chinese style eggy bread ( very eggy, very greasy ), or baozi 包子 ( steamed buns with meat and vegetables stuffed inside ). When I’ve just woken up, I don’t really feel like the full assault of Chinese cuisine ( how much would it cost to have a fry up sent by post.. ).
On the whole I try not to complain too much. It’s convenient, it’s nearby, it’s edible, and it’s so cheap. Breakfast normally costs me between 10-30p, lunch and tea/dinner (whatever you call that meal that you eat in the evening) is around £1-2 a pop, depending if I splash out and a get a drink and bready pancake thing as well. When the food becomes bland or monotonous ( it often becomes both ) then we venture off campus into the city in search of the true taste of Beijing.
And that is for another post.