One of the things I was most excited to experience in China was the food. I’ve been to many Chinese restaurants while in America, but have been told time and time again by both Chinese and Americans alike that they’re anything but authentic. After dining on little BUT Chinese cooking in the past month or so, I finally feel ready to share my initial impressions.
Traditional Hotpot Meal
The very first meal that I had in China, believe it or not, was in the school cafeteria of Beijing No. 80. The two-story cafeteria has around 9 service windows on each floor. Most serve different kinds of Chinese food, but a few do offer Indian and Western cuisine. Although not fine dining, the vast majority of dishes are quite tasty and portion sizes are huge!
School Dining Hall
Food Service Windows
Local eateries are plentiful, and generally inexpensive. Within a 10-minute walk from school you can find a wide variety of restaurants. A small worn-down shop on the side of the road sells piping hot buns and a signature Beijing stuffed pancake-like dish that they make right in front of your eyes. Popular Chinese chain restaurants serve a wide variety of Chinese and Korean food. Familiar chains like McDonalds, Burger King, and Pizza Hut, all have slightly different menus than their Western counterparts. The American students are fond of a small beverage chain called Coco that sells delicious milk tea and fruity drinks for only 8-12 yuan (1.3-2 USD) each! We’ve also quickly discovered that they deliver to the school!
Local Mickey D's
During the National Golden Week holiday, I tried many traditional Chinese meals, both in restaurants and family homes. So far all of these have been served family style. Each member of the family gets a soup bowl, a small plate, cups, and chopsticks. Dishes are placed in the middle throughout the meal, often on a rotating platform. You are allowed to grab with chopsticks anything that looks appealing. However, I suggest that you go slowly. Even if you think that the table could not possibly fit more dishes, I promise you that there is more coming.
Dining Family Style
As the token foreigner I’ve been forced to try at least a bite of each dish that comes to the table, no matter how strange it seems to me. This had led to some very pleasant and unpleasant discoveries. In the space of three days I’ve eaten tree fungus, chicken feet, pig ears, pig hooves, century eggs and my personal least favorite, stinky tofu. (Yes, this is really its name.) Later I ate cooked pigeon including the brain which had a very rich taste, followed by an elegant and delicious red bean paste dessert. Fortunately I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of my meals and had a blast trying all these traditional dishes.
Chinese food is overall quite different from what I’ve eaten in the States, and is in many instances much more delicious! I can’t wait to see what fun new dishes will end up on my table in the remaining months!
Abigail is currently spending a year abroad in Beijing, China with the NSLI-Y program. She is excited to share her experiences with family, friends, and others on this blog.