My inner foodie is extremely happy right now! Last time I was this happy with Chinese food was in 2012 when I visited Shanghai, but during that time we mostly stuck to proper restaurants and campus food with the odd visit to a fastfood restaurant. However being in Baoding is quite a contrast. Seeing that I am now working with a limited student budget as far as food is concerned, I have been introduced to a world of much cheaper “restaurants” and street food. One doesn’t have to walk far to find a restaurant or street food vendor in China. One thing the Chinese love to do is eat out, they have a incredibly social eating culture. It is quite admirable that they are not generally overweight given their love for eating.
On a typical day I’ll have breakfast in my room, which is usually a peanut butter and jam sandwich, and a fruit. For lunch and dinner I either buy something outside school or cook in a friends room. I have not yet bought all the cooking items I need and I am still trying to figure out what is available and what is not in the supermarkets.
What I love…
Eating out is such an adventure! Since we (my foreign friends and I) can’t fully read the food menus, we tend to rely on pictures but the dish that is eventually served rarely looks like the picture that was presented. At least we are able to ask what meat is in the dish in Chinese, that’s the important part!
I had read online that Baoding is famous for donkey meat and as luck would have it, there’s a donkey meat restaurant right around the corner from the university so I have tasted it and it is absolutely addictive! It is slightly oily but very soft and tender. In addition, donkey meat sandwiches are very cheap so it’s kind to my wallet. They are usually served with a side of fresh vegetables drizzled with a light chilli dressing.
They add chilli to everything! In northern China, no dish is complete without chilli (or Là Jiāo). At every restaurant, after ordering a dish you are often asked “yào Là Jiāo ma? (you want chilli?)”. Since I recently acquired a taste for all things hot and spicy, I love that it’s always readily available.
Food is VERY cheap!!! Sometimes I am even tempted to ask if they are sure they want to charge me next to nothing for the food they serve. If you buy a meal for 30 yuan, it will be enough to feed 2-3 people. You can get street food for as little as 4 yuan. And a meal for 1 costs between 8 and 15 yuan depending on what you are eating. However, there are expensive places too, more upmarket restaurants or international fast food chains that will set you back 30-40 yuan and up for a meal. At the end of the day, you decide whether you want to pay a lot or a little for food.
Seafood is really fresh! At the supermarkets you have the option of buying dead frozen seafood or choosing the live ones from fish tanks and having them killed for you. This includes frogs, crab and shrimp. So there are no worries about eating expired seafood.
There’s literally a juice & tea bar on every corner. The Chinese stay very well hydrated, you often see them carrying homemade tea/drinks in flasks. One doesn’t have to go far to find freshly made tea or juice. I am obsessed with watermelon juice which they blend while you wait. I also also love the kiwi and pineapple juices. Any fruit that can be blended is available as a juice. In addition, they make a wide range of teas that can be made hot or cold.
What I don’t love…
General hygiene standards are very low to non existent. When I first went to the cheaper “restaurants”, the first thing my friend told me was “Don’t look into the kitchens or you’ll never eat here again”. They are absolutely filthy! The cooks also don’t look too clean themselves. However the food tastes really good and as far as I know, no one has died from food poisoning…..
The street food cooks rarely use gloves to handle food and their sources of cooking ingredients are suspect so you really have to take a leap of faith when buying from them. But again, hundreds of people eat the same food everyday and no issues yet though that’s not really a good justification. I guess it’s important to have a stomach of steel in China. Those that are sensitive wouldn’t last long.
The dishes made in this area (northern China) tend to be quite oily. They are as obsessed with oil as they are with chilli. It may not be apparent when you first eat the dishes but over time you realise how oily the food is. It hits me whenever I eat something without oil, the contrast in taste is very evident.
I’m getting tired of pork…. I never thought I would utter those words but the most common meat here is pork, followed by chicken and fish and finally beef. Good beef dishes are hard to find and beef is always the first to finish in the supermarkets. I was hunting for steaks and I was shown a thin piece of T-bone steak that cost 30 yuan, ridiculous!
Dishes with fresh vegetables are rare. Most local dishes that incorporate vegetables always have them cooked till they’re completely limp. That can’t be much help nutrient wise. I get very excited when I see dishes with fresh uncooked vegetables on the menu.
All in all there’s never a dull moment with Chinese food whether you’re eating at a fancy restaurant or on the sidewalk. There are times where I crave something simple though and on those days I cook in my friends room. Fast food is not that great here sadly. The flavors are slightly odd, fried chicken just doesn’t taste like fried chicken! Heartbreaking. So I tend to not frequent McDonald’s, Burger King or KFC that much, plus they are quite pricy.