“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay home.” – James Michener
A sign posted on the outside window of a Chinese restaurant near our hotel in Beijing.
One of the best things about traveling the world is experiencing the world through your stomach. Taste, of course, is one of the five senses and you cannot possibly leave home without it.
Food is an integral part of every country and culture around the world whether it be for mere subsistence, pleasure or some of both. It is often said that one of the best things about traveling can be trying and eating all the different kinds of cuisine a new place has to offer. However, that said, one of the worst things about traveling can also be the food. It is all a matter of how you interpret things and of course how adventurous or non-adventurous you are.
Let’s take me as an example. I am a relatively adventurous eater who loves to eat ethnic food. My favorite cuisines are Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern and recently Ethiopian. However, I do not eat red meat (sorry folks, I had to drawn the line twenty years ago when my grandfather fed me a hamburger that was stone cold frozen down the middle! I haven’t had the desire to eat red meat since then). I also am weary of any other types of odd meats (donkey, venison, dog to name a few) and “meat parts” such as organs (eye balls, hearts, livers, etc).
I can’t stomach strange kinds of uncooked fish such as fish eggs or scary looking raw creatures (I lost 10 pounds when I traveled to Japan as a teenager). Yet, When in Rome I try my best to try the local cuisine, especially if it is vegetarian, cooked fish or poultry. Therefore, I’m not a meat an’ potatoes kind of gal but I do steer clear of McDonald’s and opt for Pad Thai.
Before my big trip to China, I was extremely anxious about the food. I had tried the Americanized version of Chinese in the States (and even went to have Dim Sum in Chinatown) but I’ve always left the restaurant feeling sick. It was too greasy, too fried, too MSG’ed and too much. I had high hopes that perhaps I’d enjoy the food in China much more than the terrible Chinese American food I’ve tried here. Unfortunately, I proved my fears correct: I hated the food. (Note: I am certain there is some Chinese food that I would have enjoyed if I had more time in China. Each province has their own unique kind of cuisine. As a tourist who couldn’t read any Chinese, I was at a severe disadvantage thus I am perhaps being a little unfair in my judgments).
My first lunch in China proved to be edible. I had cashew chicken with no rice (never figured out where the rice was!). It was gooey, relatively bland and so-so. It left me feeling incomplete and unsatisfied but at least I kept it down. That evening, I tried Sichuan pork at another Chinese restaurant and my mouth was on fire. The fire raged all throughout my sleepless, first jet-lagged night and I woke up at 4 am with a burning stomach-ache. From that point on, I simply threw in the towel and gave up. I know, lame lame lame! But given my past history with parasites and other unmentionable stomach ailments, I didn’t want to risk it for bad food. So for the rest of the trip, instead of eating Chinese food I found myself taking picture after picture of the various types of Chinese cuisine I saw along the street.
Never before had I ever seen such a wide variety of street food in my life! You could find anything you wanted, any time of day and the price was right. It was beyond cheap. So cheap that most Chinese prefer to eat both breakfast and lunch out everyday on the street!
So, without further delay here is thirdeyemom’s Chinese Street Food 101: How to eat like a Chinese and not get grossed out. Time to get out your chopsticks and dig in! Hope you’re hungry!
Scenes from the street: Every evening this enormous line of street food vendors would set up shop on Donghuamen Daije (a busy thoroughfare in the heart of Beijing) and sell plates and sticks of food to hungry passerby.
Raw meat was selected and cooked up on the spot.
As well as other types of raw foods (fish, pig’s feet, beef).
Candied calabash and other delights were for sale on a stick for a quick and easy dessert. These were extremely popular and I frequently saw locals slurping them down.
Stir fry and noodles were made to order (obviously this Chinese vendor thought I was interested!). All the ingredients are fresh yet the pots, pans and plates are not very clean or hygienic.
You could also find fish fry around town. You would simply pick your fish, then they would kill it for you and cook it right before your eyes all in a matter of minutes.
Smelly green sea cucumbers are also cut up fresh and served in a plastic container to go. Mmmmmm.
And one last time (I promise, I just can’t get enough of this picture) you can buy live scorpions, beetles and seahorses (supposedly have a medicinal quality per a fellow reader of my blog) to be cooked up live on the spot and eaten. I did not see any tourists eating this stuff as it was strictly in a Chinese side street. Thus I cannot confirm who does eat the live scorpions on a stick and why!
Outside of town, you could find peasants selling their excess produce. I still have yet to determine what these are (a fruit? a vegetable?) but I saw them growing in the trees en route to the Great Wall (thus they must be a fruit!).
Fresh nuts, figs, dates and other dried fruits were for sale as a tasty snack which even picky me enjoyed (they made a great treat for our 2.5 hour hike up to the Great Wall!).
Being measured are the mixed goodies I purchased. They were delightful!
I had been warned not to be alarmed if I ordered Chicken Soup in China. Apparently the Chicken’s foot is often sticking out of the soup! Needless to say, I did not order Chicken Soup.
Shanghai eats: Shanghai had much better food in my opinion which was a thankful relief. It is an extremely cosmopolitan, modern city and is the complete opposite from traditional, historic Beijing. Yet I did still find plenty of interesting street food!
Here are some of my favorites:
Dried fish parts, raw fish pieces and other yummy, smelly things.
Up close and personal.
Ahh….I found my Moroccan dried fruit cart, in the midst of central Shanghai!
Ok….these steamed buns MUST be good because every time we walked by, the line was a mile long.
A local specialty from Shanghai’s water village community, Zho Zang: Bean sauce pork.
Toes and feet included! (Had to take it sideways to get up close and personal).
There are rows and rows of this bean-based pork delight. Seems like it would be a messy kind of food to eat while walking but many do.
Zho Zang is also known for its seafood, notably fresh crayfish as seen above.
Here are fresh oysters which are caught in one of the many fresh water lakes outside the water village.
Here is the traditional, local Hairy Crab, fished right outside of the water village. The crabs are still chirping as you pass by.
Street food and eating in action.
All this talk about food is making me hungry! But I’m glad I’m back and eating what I’m used to. It is all a matter of our tastes and what we are accustomed to. There is no right or wrong with cuisine. I just wish I could have liked the Chinese food better! Thank god for western hotel food! (I am so embarrassed to admit!).
BEAUTY IS IN THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER, AS IS FOOD!!!!!
Stay tuned….next post details my exciting “climb” up and hike on the Great Wall of China. Needless to say, it was a great adventure!