Saturday, April 13, 2013

what to eat when traveling in China

I have heard it said that in China, one eats everything with four legs except a table....

This advice comes from someone who has been to China twice so consider the source. First, from my experience, do not eat in hotel dining rooms if you have better options. I recently returned from a trip to Hong Kong, Guilin and Shanghai. In Guilin, I traveled on a group tour. The hotel itself was fine but the problem is that we were only taken to the hotel restaurant to eat. The food was served in typical lazy Susan style but it was basic and bland. It was not even as good as the food at my local hometown Chinese restaurant. When I questioned one of our (American) trip leaders about this, I was told that the typical Chinese restaurant food was too "different" for Americans to tolerate hence the "safer" restaurant tourist fare.

In order to test this theory , I went out one night to a night market. Fortunately, my husband and I sat down next to a group of Shanghai businesspeople on holiday for the Ching Ming Festival. We started a conversation and soon enough, they were helping us to order from the menu. I decided on a vegetarian noodle soup type dish after one of the businessmen remarked that, "I just got the noodles with horse meat. I don't mind that, but I won't eat dog since I have a pet dog at home." So, maybe our tour guide did have a point.

But, traveling to different cultures is about experiencing them, correct? Food is an integral part of that experience. In my two trips to China, the only time I became ill was eating at a Pizza Hut in Hong Kong, of all places. Mind you, I traveled all over China and not only did I eat at many local restaurants I had the good fortune to eat in peoples' homes.

That said, it isn't easy dining at local restaurants (or homes) unless you have a trusted local person to help. I was fortunate to be with a group that traveled all over China, with excellent Chinese guides. We ate the famous Beijing duck-thin sliced with pancakes and plum sauce as well as noodle dishes, dumplings, and the like. It was all good but it was all ordered for us by our Chinese hosts. Venturing out on my own or with a small group of friends led to a variety of experiences. In Beijing, these were mostly favorable.

During a very memorable lunch in Beijing, a small group of women and I were able to successfully order (and cook, with the servers' help) hot pot at a restaurant in Wangfuji, the ultra modern mega shopping complex. We also had a great time on a hutong tour in Beijing where we stopped for lunch with a Chinese family who lived in a traditional courtyard home. Our entire group of 18 helped Mrs. Wang prepare lunch. Delicious and well worth it, even if was a tourist stop.

But in Shanghai, ordering hotpot at a local restaurant near Nanjing Road was a comedy of errors with a lot of pointing, miscues and frustration. Later, walking through back alleyways and sides streets, we also saw the infamous "wet market"-live creatures getting ready to beocme someone's dinner. Maybe some of their cousins had been on our plates! "M on the Bund" in Shanghai, however, as some have noted, is a top rated Western restaurant with a great view. If frustration overtakes you, go there for some relief!

In terms of home cooking, In Western China I spent a night with a Tibetan family in a traditional courtyard home. The specialty there is "yak butter tea." Refusing it would have been considered very rude. Barley wine is also another local favorite. It tastes a lot like Japanese sake. But beware-it isn't difficult to get inebriated on this potent stuff. One of my traveling companions was so overcome by this spirit that he shared a rooster head with the local party leader at a local banquet. We were told that rooster head is a rare delicacy and is only given to honored guests!

Speaking of honored guests, dining with a family at home is something very special. Most Chinese people will go all out for guests, often using a few months worth of groceries in preparing and serving food. So, don't accept such an invitation if you think you may have "reservations" about local cuisine.

During a home stay in Beijing, my host family and I made "gyoza" (dumplings) together. My gyoza making skills were deficient as I was told. Nonetheless, the final product was delicious. We also shared hot pot, cooked on a flame type appliance on the tabletop with lots of fresh vegetables and unidentifiable meats. When I asked my hosts what one of the rubbery type meats I had just swallowed was, a quick translation came back. through my host's teenage son. "Bull's throat," I was told. This taught me NOT to ask. You shouldn't either, If it tastes good, eat it is my advice! Or, stick to Mc Donald's!

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