It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I ate my way through China. Before I left, I had heard from many people that I should be prepared for some of the food to make me sick and that under no circumstances should I eat street food. “But,” I thought, “Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern are always eating street food and they love it.” And after 6 weeks of eating on the street and never having gotten sick (perhaps I should wait for the blood tests to get back before I swear by that…) I must say I’m happy that I listened to the strangers on TV rather than the perfectly reasonable people I know in real life.
One of the suggestions I had received was to only eat in hotels. We had catering provided in almost all the hotels we stayed in. Some of it was good but a lot of it was mediocre, like a whited-down version of Chinese food. The other issue with the catering was that to rely on it meant I would nearly be chained to the hotel and I was more interested in exploring these new places.
I can see how one would be turned off by some of the street food at first. I was lucky enough to have a Mandarin speaker there to translate much of the time which made me more confident that I wasn’t going to end up with dog on my plate. Speaking of dog, the good (or possibly bad) thing about dog meat in China is that they see nothing wrong with eating it so they don’t try to hide it.
The reason I even bring up the issue of dog meat is that when people warned me about street food in China, one of their main concerns was that I would somehow accidentally eat some. Honestly, I didn’t come across it often and found it easy to avoid. I understand there is some hypocrisy in finding one kind of meat revolting and another kind finger-licking good but for me, there is a difference. People have personal connections with dogs that they don’t have with other animals. A dog will excitedly greet you at the door, affectionately rest its head on your lap and even loyally stay by your side when it knows you are sick. I’ve just never seen a chicken do any of those things.
I would hate for any of the fears that were expressed to me to keep people from being adventurous with the food they try. I had so many delicious things. The inexpensiveness of it made it easy to sample many different dishes and fill up on local specialties for a couple dollars a day. One meal in particular, in Nanning, where 10 of us each had noodle soup and split vegetable dumplings, came to 27 yuan, that’s…are you sitting down?….about $4. For 10 people. FOUR DOLLARS!
Like I said, dog meat was easy to avoid and there is one simple, sure-fire way to avoid it: learn how to say that you don’t want it. I’m a big believer in trying to learn a few important words and phrases in the language of the country in which I’m traveling, even if that language is as difficult as Mandarin. These days, there are enough resources, including free ones on the internet, that it is an easy thing to do. Learning phrases like, “Hello”, “Thank you”, “You’re welcome”, “Excuse me”, and “Do you speak English?” can make a world of difference in your tarvel experience. That being said, for the first two weeks I had the phrases for “Excuse me” and “You’re welcome” confused. In my defense, they sound kind of similar. But that meant that for a couple weeks I was bumping into people and following it up with, “You’re welcome!” I’m sure that did not do much for the American image abroad.
Besides those basic phrases, there was one that I made sure to have in my arsenal, “I don’t want dog meat.” or in Mandarin, “Wo bu yao guo rou.” You can even hear the tones here. I also made sure to learn the “dog” character, 狗, so I could identify it on menus. It’s that easy, folks.
In every city we were in, it was easy to find markets or single vendors selling dumplings (I think I consumed about 873 dumplings in 6 weeks, all of them delicious), sticky buns, roasted chestnuts, soup, roasted sweet potatoes, grilled meat, fish and bread… The mantra became the dirtier the better. I remember one specific time in Wenzhou when some of us hopped on a bike taxi and asked our driver to take us to some street food. Instead he took us to a restaurant where we could see tablecloths through the window. “Tablecloths?!” we said, “What kind of people do you take us for?!” Instead, we found a restaurant across the street that was much more our style, that is to say, dirty. We actually sat next to the fish that was about to become our stew. We had the most delicious sweet and sour pork, like nothing I have ever had stateside and a steak dish with ginger, soy, cilantro and spring onions that I have desperately been trying to recreate since I’ve been home. Afterward, one of the dancers and I got $1 manicures. A prostitute came in to the salon to use some make-up and told me I had a beautiful nose. So all-in-all, it rounded out to be a lovely evening.
The thing is, I never get Chinese food at home. I find it heavy and greasy. I found the food in China to be much different, lighter and fresher. I was often wathcing them make it right in front of me. A great example of that was a Uighur restaurant we found in Foshan. Uighurs are a Turkic people from the Xinjiang province of northwestern China. They are Muslim so their food is halal. They are known for their lamb kabobs and homemade noodles. I was able to watch the amazing process of making the noodles and I have a video here. The noodles were so tender and soaked up the delicious sauce they sat in. We tried a few different dishes but I really loved a very simple dish of noodles with eggplant, green beans and a light sauce heavily flavored with cumin. We loved it so much went back to the restaurant the next night and they didn’t even serve alcohol which is SAYING SOMETHING for his group. If you are traveling in China I would highly recommend trying some of the Uighur cuisine.
I could honestly go on and on about different dishes and meals I had while in China. I tend to be a bit evangelistic about food in general but I was particularly happy, and honestly, surprised at how much I liked nearly everything I had. There is one thing I can not leave out, though, and that is The Most Delicious Banana In The World. I know that food tastes best when it’s perfectly ripened and picked fresh. I’ve tasted it for myself. Being that bananas are grown in the tropics and shipped long distances to us in the states, we probably don’t even know what a really good banana tastes like. I certainly didn’t till I had one in China. We were touring some gardens in Foshan and one of the girls spotted a cluster of bananas. She climbed up the tree and threw a few down. Sweet mother of baby Jesus in the manger they were delicious. They were so….banana-y. I never suspected bananas had so much flavor. Every person that took a bite had the same initial blasé response (How good could it be? It’s a banana.) which turned into wonder and amazement. Every banana I’ve had since has just been a disappointment.
So the moral of the story is, if you see a banana tree, grab yourself a banana and enjoy. And if you’re traveling in another country, or anywhere, or heck, even in your hometown, be adventurous with what you eat. You might just find The Most Delicious Something of your own.
Or you might get a tapeworm.