One of the first things people mentioned upon finding out I was off to China was the food. Whether I’ll be testing out the street food or if I’ll be able to have three meals a day of the local grub, if I have any idea what the traditional meals are like or if I’m expecting it to be like the local takeaway back home. The food was a massive attraction for travelling to China, but also one of the main worries. The dreams of duck pancakes and egg fried rice have clashed with the reality of the language barrier and misleading picture menus leaving the results of our dining experience a hit and miss situation.
After a long journey consisting of two flights and numerous trains we arrived at our first hostel early in the morning and unable to check in to our room we ventured out into Beijing for our first taste of China, and Chinese food. Just around the corner we stumbled upon a small food hall and thought we’d pop in to refill our grumbling stomachs. Circling the small restaurants we considered the pictures on the walls and a few laps later I went for some noodles. Confidently, I approached the counter, boldly pointed to an appetising visualisation and blurted out “noodles”. A rapid report of incomprehensible Chinese was battered back at me seeking further instruction for fantasised food, to which my reply was “noodles” a reassuring finger aimed at the same picture and another claim of “noodles”. More strange gargling came back my way and all seemed hopeless, that it would be a long five weeks without getting fed and that we’d live off of hostel food and supermarket biscuits but then, miraculously, a finger joined mine in pointing to a noodle filled bowl. The universal sign language had worked it’s magic and it seemed as if a delicious delicacy was to be delivered. A similarly over complicated affair continued to establish how to pay, before I took my seat and awaited my feast.
The variety of noodle possibilities seems endless. There a thick noddles and thin noddles, short noodles and endless noodles, stuck together ones and sloppy ones. They can come with any vegetable and sometimes a fruit, under a sauce or swimming in a soup. This first bowl I had ordered seemed to have none of these variants and my first meal of genuine Chinese food, from China, seems to be the noodle incarnation of beige. Limply flopping about on the end of a poorly wielded chopstick sometimes making it all the way from bowl to mouth, these underwhelming strings of plainness weren’t the idolised feeding thought about on the plane, but merely a boring introduction to what is a exciting and colourful cuisine. It’s got better since, but not every time.
The liveliest and most exotic dining experience is the food streets where hole in the wall kitchens and market stalls offer up a wide range of delightful or disgusting dinners. Beijing’s street scene seems to be a more regulated and tourist friendly affair than the local markets in the more traditional and rural Chengdu. On the capital’s popular Wangfujing Street small seated setups offer imported beers and perfect machine dispensed ice creams whilst the beautifully translated “interestingly market place” of Chengdu has a distinctively old school vibe with live frogs and fish unhappily flapping about and legs of meat hooked up. The only thing we dared to try in Chengdu was a fruit salad served up a long way from the feral backstreet market and whilst the fresh fruit seemed trustworthy the product turned out to be 90% ice, the regular fruits minimal and the strawberries were a myth. A similar false advertisement came earlier in Beijing when the hope of a favoured prawn cracker turned out to be, well, indistinguishable but we guess it might have been fried and at one point could have been meat or possibly something starchy. That’s not the only danger. Along the congested streets of these market places as people gorge on a local delicacy which seems like a kebab or a satay, a skewer of some type, they are so engrossed in enjoying eating that the endangering stick is waved about without a thought for consequence. If you can get from one end of the street to the other without any minor stab wounds, an eye being lost or yourself ending up being skewered and served, you’ve done well.
Obviously, not every meal has been a misconstrued misery or a street long obstacle course, there have been sublime suppers that have left us contently comatose. Most of which are familiar from Hing’s takeaway- come- hair salon back at home. Sweet and sour is a personal favourite, especially when complete with pineapple, and the egg fried rice has mostly been exceptional. Kung Pao chicken has proven to be a surprise success and the crispy chilli beef equivalent has been good, but mostly excessively firey. There has been one meal which is in its own tier standing succulently above the rest, perfected in its indigenous region and persistently pined for by Georgie. Peking duck pancakes are both her favourite from Mr Hing and from China itself and it has been amazing. Peking being the old name of Beijing and pancakes being reliably wonderful is a lovely combination and the licence to play with your food as you smear sauce, delicately drop duck and cover in spring onion has proven unbeatable. It’s more expensive than any other food we’ve got but worth every extra penny, the only problem is, we’ve only seen it in Beijing. I do love a Chinese takeaway, but there aren’t many actual Chinese dishes I’ll take away.