Being home alone for three weeks, with little to do, has given me ample opportunity to try a few of the less popular foods I’ve seen around, many of which my better-informed partner refuses to touch. Don’t tell anyone, but she was right.
I was unlucky with the street food. Other than the excellent Jian Bing pancake maker, anything within walking distance of the house wasn’t so much bad as just underwhelming. A bucket of noodles were tasteless despite a generous topping of pickled vegetables. Fluffy xiao long bao from the back of a horse-drawn cart were nearly devoid of meat.
The worst item I tried was one of the widely popular egg, lettuce and sausage sandwiches sold on so many street corners – it’s the first meal in a long time that I’ve admitted defeat and had to get something else instead. If I’m honest, I realised whilst watching it cooking that it was probably a step too far. The bread and egg was greasy, the lettuce limp and the meat appeared to have been squeezed out of a tube. The fluorescent pink colour of the meat, and the complete impossibility of determining what sort of animal it might once have been led me to conclude a couple of bites were sufficient. Unsurprisingly it tasted like a greasy egg sandwich with a disc of soggy cardboard.Breakfasts were more successful. A tub of slimy tofu was cheap, warming and filling, even if the consistency reminded me of slug trails.
Average cost for a takeaway snack: <6rmb
Difficulty: Ordering street food is easy – each stall only tends to do one food item. Just point at whatever is cooking.
The short menus combined with the probability of repeat custom leads them to do a few dishes very well, and not be too experimental. Pick a busy place, gloss over the bones on the table and bits of vegetable on the floor and concentrate on the flavours of the food, and it becomes obvious why they’re so popular. They’re full of hard working people having a quick lunch. Food is usually prepared to order and turnover is very high.
The most successful was an individual beef hotpot, served with a selection of side dishes such as tofu and lettuce, that are dunked in and left to soak up the flavours. Despite finding a cockroach gently toasting next to the burner the flavours were deep and rich.
The worst was a watery broth hiding a lamb’s spine. By the time I found it there were very few people in the restaurant that I could watch and figure out how to eat it with chopsticks, so I had to console myself with a plate of chilled spiced pig lungs. I can tell you’re jealous now.
Average cost for a single meal: <30rmb
Difficulty: Hole in the wall type outlets are the hardest places to order. Menus are solely in Chinese and rarely have pictures. The easiest way is to point at someone else’s dish and say “that one”.
Chain restaurantsFood is generally well made, hopefully clean and usually tastes pleasant, if not too original.
I know most of these and they’re safe enough, so I skipped what would have been a reliably pleasant meal and went back to trying new dishes.
Average cost for one greedy person (1-3 dishes): 20-60rmb
Difficulty: Low. These are easy enough to order from, as most will have picture menus and variably successful attempts at English translations.
I also tried a few mid to high-end places in the expat areas, and these were often the most disappointing.
After language class I’d meet friends and head for lunch in various restaurants. These included ‘authentic Shanghai dumplings’ that were worse than those served in most food courts, despite being five times the price.
Pizza chains, both foreign and domestic, were particularly weak. One of the local places we visited had a proper wood-burning oven and had been awarded ‘Best Pizza in Beijing’. It was a poor imitation of the thin-crust pizza I can produce at home, even using our low-powered oven. The other place was a global chain that produced a meal so unappetising we all burst out laughing when it arrived. Then the bill came and we felt like crying instead.
The two burger joints we visited were actually very tasty, but compared to the earlier street food dishes they were 30 times the price. Obviously, it’s an unfair comparison given the location, staff and legality, but the price difference made it feel poor value for money, and yet they were still both packed.
A Vietnamese chain was perfectly good, but missing that little spark to make it something special. The only thing that set this place apart was the excellent staff, friendly and efficient, yet unobtrusive.
Average price: 100-150rmb for a meal and a drink.
Difficulty: Very low. Even if you speak in Chinese you’ll get an answer in English.
This was the most fun, if the most unpredictable. By myself, I can be a little more experimental and prepare some mystery concoctions.
A lack of pictures on the packets, and the fact that my understanding of Chinese characters is still limited to types of meat, meant I grabbed a few items off the shelves and hoped. I went home to cook, pausing only to put my emergency medical insurance on speed dial, just in case.
Everything came out rather tasty. Spaghetti with pork mince and spicy red bean sauce worked well. Pasta and lobster sauce tasted more of crab sticks than lobster. Thinly sliced beef with limp, almost mouldy looking green shoots didn’t look or smell too great, but was very pleasant to eat.
Trying the corner shop next, I picked up one fiery red packet of sauce and the friendly woman at the till just shook her head until I put it down. I picked up some Cheese Lobster crisps instead and she nodded happily. They didn’t taste of lobster either. Or Cheese. They tasted how unwashed trainers smell.
Cost: Very cheap, especially the local corner shops.
Difficulty: Depends if you can read Chinese. If not, it’s more of an adventure…
Trying new dishes is important, but I’ve been shown where much of the great food is and completely disregarded all this knowledge to spend three weeks eating tasteless cheap food or overpriced disappointments. Not a huge success, but at least I didn’t just sit at home ordering McDonalds and Papa Johns.
This final week it’s too cold to go out so I’ve visited Sanyuanli Market and will instead be cooking at home. I also plan to try a few recipes from Wok With Me Baby – a guide to making non-Chinese food in China.
A recent poll showed that some foreigners order pizza delivery as often as three times a week, which seems a shame as there is a lot of delicious food out there. Maybe the first Chinese food they tried was the lamb spines…