Many of us are used to Chinese food here in the UK. Who doesn’t love sweet and sour chicken? But the reality when you land in China can be very different, in the same way that English food goes beyond Fish and Chips, Chinese food goes way beyond sweet and sour chicken. Historically most English Chinese takeaways were set up by families from the south of China around Hong Kong so the food they offer comes from that region, meaning that if you travel anywhere else in China the food is going to be very, very different! So, I’ve prepared some pointers that should be useful wherever you find yourself.
Picking a restaurant
Even finding somewhere to eat can be tricky when you’re in such a foreign culture but there are some key markers of a great Chinese restaurant. Is it busy? Obvious really but the busier the better! In China it is very common to queue for a good restaurant, it doesn’t even have to be a special restaurant just a popular local hangout. You will either have to introduce yourself to the hostess who will give you a number or there will be a machine which will give you a ticket. Then settle yourself on the handily provided seats and wait. Depending on whereabouts you are the restaurants will wither be at ground level in smaller towns and old districts of cities or in food courts of shopping malls in bigger cities. That may sound counterintuitive when British shopping centres are full of Subways and Wendy’s but in China the upper floors of shopping centres have a host of good restaurants. Even in smaller areas look up, the restaurants tend to sit above the shop fronts on the 1st and 2nd floors.
How to read the menu
Unsurprisingly, most menus are in Chinese which can prove a bit tricky to read. Either download a translation app before you travel (note any google based apps won’t work such as Google translate). Pleco is a good option as you can manually draw the character without having to know how to pronounce it. Also, picture menus aren’t a sign of a bad restaurant they are quite common in China, they will soon become your best friend. If all else fails have a look round the restaurant and point at dishes you like the look of. Simple, yet effective.
How to eat
Chinese people like to share food and unless you are ordering something like a bowl of noodle soup, be prepared to order dishes to share with your travel partners. The idea of Chinese food is that by sharing dishes you can balance the flavours and textures across a variety of dishes rather than just focusing on one taste. Also, chopsticks are the main form of cutlery so either practice before you go or take a travel cutlery pack if you think you might need a little more help.
Interacting with the waiter
Subtlety is not a part of the Chinese dining experience; you will not be sat in hushed rooms full of white tablecloths and gently murmuring diners where eye contact or a slight raising of the hand is enough to send the waiter scurrying over. No, in China you have to shout for their attention, they won’t attend to you unless you shout Fuwuyuan (Foo-woo-you-en) across the restaurant. Don’t be coy, get stuck in! By the end of the trip you will feel like a local. Also, to ask for the bill just simply say Maidan (My-dan).
My favourite popular dishes –
- Cucumber drowned in garlic and soy sauce – a great starter, especially in the heat.
- Dumplings – whether steamed jiaozi (found in the north), fancy dim sum (found in the south) or rustic steamed buns. Always delicious.
- Scrambled eggs and stewed tomatoes – sounds odd but don’t knock it ‘til you try it.
- Di San Xian literally translates to Three Treasures of the Earth – aubergine, peppers and potatoes in a delicious sauce, filling and comforting.
- Authentic Kung Pao Chicken – filled with numbing Sichuan peppers.
- Kaili Sour Fish – Fresh river fish (sometimes you pick it out yourself) swimming (metaphorically) in a chilli laden sour soup, best-enjoyed riverside in one of Guizhou’s stunning towns.
- Cumin Lamb – These skewers are particularly popular in the Northwest from Xi’an to Kashgar and fill you up as you are wandering around the markets.