When we talk to people about our travels in China, we sense their fear.
No, not political or economic fear:
Didn’t you have trouble with the language? How about the food? Chinese food in China is terrible, isn’t it? Don’t they eat a lot of dog?”
All fair questions and sentiments, particularly if you’ve never been to China. We have a real story to tell about food in China. Armed with frighteningly limited Mandarin language skills and a sincere disinterest in dining on dog or innards, we managed to eat like kings on a pauper’s pence during the three months we traveled across China.
So how did we eat – on the street and in inexpensive local restaurants – so well without knowing the language? A few tips:
- Picture Menus: They are cliche in the West, but a godsend in China. Same goes for restaurants with food photos plastered everywhere. Take your waiter and point to what you want.
- Keep Your Dictionary Handy: Translating a dish from the menu into English with most pocket dictionaries is an exercise in the absurd. Instead, we kept our dictionary dog-eared to the page with “We are vegetarians.” Eating meat is a sign of wealth in China, so our request for vegetarian food often struck people as odd. However, aiming to please, folks complied; we almost always ended up with something new…and something tasty.
- Go Into the Kitchen: Walk into the kitchen and point to the ingredients you want. This may sound strange and intrusive, but it works in China. It will also earn you a few laughs from wait staff and cooks along the way.
Food in China Series
In our five-part series, we aim to give you a taste of what people in China eat with the 45 billion disposable chopsticks they consume each year.
Note that when entered China from Central Asia, we adopted a defensive eating philosophy in the form of the mantra, “Mystery vegetables are better than mystery meat.” So, vegetarians rejoice: you’ll notice vegetarian dishes highlighted throughout the series. Meatatarians, don’t fret. Pork, beef, chicken and fish all make appearances across the following segments of our Chinese food series:
- Xinjiang Cuisine – rather un-Chinese food of the Uighur people in Western China
- Hot Pot Fever – the beauty of boiling cauldrons of fiery broth
- Dumplings – could man live on dumplings alone?
- Sichuan Cuisine – there’s a good reason it’s known the world over
- Chinese Grab-Bag – a catch-all for Beijing bites, tofu and other dishes from throughout China