I now come to the third part of my short series of observations about everyday life in modern China.
We have all seen TV documentaries of the bizarre cuisine in China, such as a couple of years ago when Paul Merton had lunch and interviewed a crazy woman in a restaurant that served snake and donkey penis.
Fortunately I have not yet stumbled across such establishments (or women), mainly because of self-preservation mantra “Stick to what you know”.
A Hong Kong friend man told me many years ago “If it moves – the Chinaman will eat it” – this was of course the abridged version, it should actually have been:
“If it slides, slithers, swims, scurries, scuttles, slips, creeps, crawls, climbs, dips, dives, hops, hobbles, jumps, jives, walks, wades, waddles, flys, flaps, flounders, flutters, frolics or f**ks – the Chinaman will eat almost every part of it”.
With this in mind, there is a high probability that you will encounter unfamiliar foodstuffs – so I offer this short guide to eating out in China.
The working title of this episode ought to be "How to retain your health and body weight - whilst all around you are trying to poison you".
Whilst living in a 5 star hotel, there are of course the hotel restaurants, Western, Chinese and Japanese style - as well as a revolving restaurant on the 24th floor, from where you get a panaoramic view of this area of Shenzhen's surrounding suburbs. We're next to Shenzhen airport here - so imagine it a bit like Staines or Houslow but a lot more densley built with high rise appartments. The Western style restaurant is at best disappointing, the others are over priced - so by way of adventure - and to get out of the hotel at night, I risk life and limb, cross the streets to the town centre and seek out local culinary diversions.
There are many outlets offering food in China, these range from market stalls selling snacks in the street, small makeshift eateries – that look that they adopt a fly by night strategy to avoid hygiene inspection, “mom & pop” family run restaurants – which is what folks drift into when they accidently end up with more than one daughter, and finally a multitude of specialist restaurants, offering food from all regions of China.
There are of course a plague of Western franchises, KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks – these tend to be common in the cities and the larger towns – the restaurants of last resort. In 30 years the next generation of Chinese will be unrecognisable - already the Hong Kong youth suffer from imported obesity from a diet of western junk food. (There's gotta be a pun there somewhere).
This is literally prepared in the street and consists of simple foodstuffs or snacks, cooked or barbequed on charcoal or gas braziers mounted on modified tricycle stalls. The food often consists of barbequed or deep fried fritters/critters on sticks and sell for 2 or 3 Yuan. In homage to Monty Pythons “Chocolate Box” sketch, “Crunchy Frog” or “Lark Surprise” may well be on offer. A disguise of golden batter makes even the most exotic appear appetising.
Other stalls offer omelettes, pancakes, hard boiled eggs and fried waffles. Some traders offer carved pineapple, lychees, grapes, bananas – fruit that can be eaten “on the go” plus lengths of sugar cane to chew on – and then have to spit out great wads of sugar cane “cud”. Some stalls have a special cane-crusher machine mounted on the back of a trike – and offer freshly squeezed cane juice.
My advice with all street food – is try at your peril. The cooking facilities are at best basic, the vendors have no means to keep hygienic conditions, and any water used may be straight from the local tap – and really should be boiled before consumption. Bear this in mind with any fruit, that may have been handled or washed in the local water.
So how bad can it be – everyone will have had a “dodgy burger” from a catering trailer at an outside event – but here in China, the implications can be a little more severe. Best advice is stay clear of street food – just ‘cause the local factory workers can eat it – is no guarantee that your metabolism is quite ready for it.
“Fly by Night Cafes”
These consist of a mixed assortment of plastic tables and stools arranged outside an open shop, often under a fold out canopy to keep out the sun and rain. They are found predominantly in the industrial zones – directly across from the factories. They offer low cost eating for factory workers – as an alternative to the rather institutionalised works canteen. Meals will be about 10 Yuan (£1) per dish, and are served with a plastic mug of warmish water. If you eat in these outlets – don’t look too closely at the decor nor the serving conditions. Make sure they use new, disposable chop sticks – individually packed in a paper wrapper. These cafes offer budget eating, but at the end of the day – you get what you pay for.
Next up the hierarchy, are the family run restaurants. These usually have about 30 to 50 seats arranged around plain wooden tables. The service is polite and if you attend frequently, they get to know you and what you prefer to eat. A meal consisting of a bowl of soup, a rice or noodle dish and a large (600ml) bottle of Tsing Tao beer can be had for 21 Yuan (£2.10). I usually have fried rice with shredded beef or pork for lunch at such a place close by the factory. Fried rice by its nature is cooked at high temperature and the thin shreds of meat are also well cooked and easy to eat with chop sticks – this is an important consideration if you new to chop sticks. Whilst more elaborate dishes are available, such as pork chop, beef medallion or roast chicken – these are not so easy with chop sticks and involve either a lot of gnashing of teeth or man-handling like barbeque food.
The Chinese have a particular desire for food that offers “mouth feel”. To the unaccustomed Westerner, this means bony, lumpy, gristley or chewy and downright awkward to eat without having to eject bits onto your plate. Whilst this might appear bad mannered in the UK, it is common for anything inedible to be ejected directly onto the table cloth – so no need to be embarrassed – you won’t offend anyone. Table manners, like driving skills, are mostly absent here. Soup is slurped, rice scoffed from bowl to mouth, bones spat out, extra gas belched and teeth customley picked at the table.
A particular note about roast chicken – for the uninitiated. In the UK we generally joint our chicken into easy to manage portions, legs, wings breasts, making it easy to eat, either by fingers at barbeques or with a knife and fork. In China, after roasting a chicken, they put it on a chopping board, and section it laterally across the rib cage with a very sharp cleaver. This leaves a series of strips of flesh, about half an inch wide, each featuring its own bits of cut rib bone – another hazard and pitfall for the chop-stick newbie. This means that if you order chicken, it will be served on an oval plate, in the above fashion – still with the head at the end of the plate.
Specialist Restaurants. These abound in all the big towns. They are normally based on some regional speciality, such as Hunan, Szechuan, Cantonese (Hong Kong Style), plus Vietnamese, Thai and Japanese. I will describe two that I have had some recent experience of.
Hot Pot. This is a style from the north west of China, close to the nomadic sheep and goat herding areas of Mongolia. If the restauranteurs are genuinely from this area, they will be tall, muscular and ruddy faced. The dish consists of a large stainless steel pot of hot, spiced lamb broth – similar to a round washing up bowl, full of a liquid that looks like dirty dish water, which is kept hot by a gas burner set into the centre of the circular table. During the course of what is usually a 2 hour meal, you order various types of wafer thin sliced meats, meat balls, vegetables and mushrooms which you broil for a few minutes in the broth and eat with bowls of rice. As the evening proceeds, the broth thickens with the fats and juices from the cooked mutton. The hot pot is a very sociable meal, and a good opportunity to chat – so best attended with at least 4 people. Remember to take your interpreter – it’s almost impossible to order the right mix of dishes without someone who speaks the lingo. Wash the whole lot down with copious quantities of cold Tsing Tao beer. They do a spicy variant of the above dish – which is definitely not for the faint hearted. I tried it once and it was disappointing – way too hot for general consumption.
This is often called “Mao Style” and it is a regional style from the Hunan province, where Mao was born. It is characterised as being hot and spicy, copiously involving the use of red and green chillies. If you are “up for a curry” this might just suit you – as curries are either non-existent or disappointing in this area. Dishes consist of meat or fish, served on a sizzling iron platter of red and green chillies. If you are lucky, the restaurant will have a picture menu – so best is to look for the ones that don’t have so much chilli – this can however be a bit of a “point and prey” lottery – rather like pinning the tail on the donkey. If you are lucky, the dish will be more or less what you expected, but I did once order liver rather than beef, as the picture was a bit unclear. The chefs tend to chuck in a lot more chillies than the picture might suggest – and I had one dish earlier this week, that was over-endowed with green chillies and almost too hot to enjoy.
Ordering from anything other than a picture menu is difficult, if dining alone. Fortunately I often have a Chinese friend with me, who keeps me out of trouble. I have however picked up a few words that usually result in the right dish being delivered.
A typical conversation in the restaurant might be:
Nihau - “hello, how are you”, then raise one digit to indicate that you are a sad lonely, singular western diner.
Nu yo chow fan - this normally is understood as fried rice with shredded beef.
Tsing Tao pee-jew – this will bring you a bottle of the local lager and a very small tumbler glass – this week there was a Tsing Tao promotion, and the nice girl in the Tsing Tao T-shirt put down a shot-glass not noticing that there was a small dead cockroach in the bottom. I pointed out her error and she got me a fresh one.
Fuwu yuan - “Waiter”
My Fan - reminds them you want a bowl of steamed rice
Ma Dan - bill please
She-she - thankyou
Bye bye - good night and thanks for having a giggle at my expense but hopefully not poisoning me. I’ll know within the next four hours.
Here’s some things I learnt during my odyssey:
During the course of your meal, expect lots of shouting from neighbouring tables when it comes to either place the order or discuss the bill. Smoking is still common in restaurants.
Don’t fret if you see a waiter with a fishing net go to the fish tank and bring back a live fish and head for the kitchen. They like their fish very fresh here. One barbaric delicacy is a live fish dunked tail first into hot oil, with its head and the chef's hand wrapped in a wet tea-towel. It is still (barely) alive when served at the table. Makes the "Spooks"/ deep fat fryer scene look quite tame really.
The “mom & pop” restaurant where I have lunch has a back kitchen with blazing gas burners. Occasionally there are minor explosions and loud “whooshes” and flames seen from the kitchen as the oil mist ignites over the gas burner – makes for a more exciting cooking experience.
If it looks like battered onion rings but very chewy, it’s probably sliced rings of pig intestine fried in batter.
Having started a meal in a small restaurant, I once saw a large rat make a bid for freedom, run from the kitchen area, across the restaurant and out of the front door. Rat was probably not on the menu – so I didn’t fret too much.
So now that we have got the polite aspects of eating out in China out of the way – I would like to warn you about some of the after effects and how best to cope with them.
Fortunately restaurants give you a plastic packet of about 8 or 10 folded napkins. These are great for wiping grease off your chin when struggling with chop-sticks – but at the end of the meal, keep the rest of the packet, put them in your pocket and take them with you – you may need them later.
Chinese restaurants seldom have western style toilets, so plan your evening so you are not caught short at the restaurant. Aim to base your daily business about the hotel, as western toilets, loo paper and soap are seldom found outside the hotel.
Last year, three of us staying here, who had a hot pot, suffered in the night and for most of the following morning. We had a bit of a laugh about it – put it down to bad luck, and returned to the same restaurant a week later with no similar effect. The effects are short lived and soon over within 12 hours.