This post is part of a series on our experiences while traveling independently in China. Click here to read Part One: Language.
The food is terrible. That is, if you can even figure out what it is you’re eating.
Let’s be clear about one thing here. The food in China is not New York take-out. It is not unusual to meet your meal before you eat it, and the concept of careful trimming or deboning meat does not exist outside of a few tourist restaurants. Many menus are only in Chinese, if there is a menu at all. And let’s be honest – even if you stumble upon a picture menu, it’s far from easy to determine what you are about to order based on a small blurry photograph. On occasion, you may even find yourself in a food desert where your best option is Western fast food. But that didn’t stop us from eating some of the most enjoyable meals we’ve had on our trip.
Steaming soup dumplings. Cold noodles slick with spicy peanut sauce. Braised eggplant in a slightly sweet brown sauce. Tender, succulent bullfrog. Seriously, people, it’s good stuff.
So how did we uncover these culinary treasures? Mostly, it was by accident and observation. We’d hang back and watch how other people ordered. If we were lucky and the food was on display, pointing and pantomime worked fairly well, and even misinterpretations resulted in deliciousness. We discovered our favorite pork dumplings sold by a street vendor by ordering just one, tasting it, and going back for seconds. And then thirds. They were that good. And by the way, dumplings in China are served with a dark vinegar, not soy sauce, and all the better for it.
The peanut noodles were a fortuitous accident. In a crowded Shanghai metro station eatery, we pushed our way through the masses to the display case. Filled with freshly prepared dumplings waiting for the steamer, thick white rice noodles piled high and various sauces and vegetables, we decided on two different types of dumplings for lunch. After getting the attention of the man behind the counter, Keith pointed to the dumplings we wanted to order for lunch. Within seconds, noodles, peanuts, tofu and vegetables were being heaped into a plastic container and passed to us over the case. It looked and smelled delicious, so we just shrugged our shoulders and figured we’d have noodles for lunch. Turned out to be the best peanut noodles either of us had ever had.
Bullfrog was part of a fantastic meal with had with Ed and Joshua, some locals we met through my dad. They took us out to dinner at Szechuan Citizen, and we let them do the ordering for us. Out comes steaming bowl of spicy broth filled with vegetables and unidentifiable pieces of meat. Do you want to know what you’re eating, or just try it first? We decided to be brave. Bullfrog. It takes like chicken. I let Keith try it first, and upon his approval tried my first taste of this amphibious creature. It tasted like no chicken I’ve ever had – it was incredibly moist and tender with a mild flavor. I wish chicken tasted this good!
So while looking your dinner in the eye before eating it might make you a bit uncomfortable, and you might not be sure of what you are ordering when it’s a point and hope for the best situation, it’s worth persevering for the incredibly fresh and new flavors you’ll experience. Trust me. I was born and raised on New York Chinese take out, and if you keep an open mind when eating in China you will not be disappointed.