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Eating out in in China

June 16, 2007

While penning a post on what it was like being an Indian tourist in China, I found I was writing a lot about food…so I decided to do a separate post on food…which is basically about ‘eating out’ in China. From the point of view of someone who is used to eating Indian food.

If you are a non-vegetarian and enjoy experimenting with local cuisines when you travel…well, China is a foodie’s paradise.
It was like that for us. We had heard tales of real Chinese food (in China) being far too bland and tasteless by Indian standards, but our fears were unfounded. We had a virtual food feast in China…in fact all of us returned with a few extra pounds. Maybe it was the oil. The only downside was that the food was oily. I wasn’t sure whether this was because it was hotel food, or whether the Chinese themselves use a lot of oil in their cooking.

And no, we didn’t get any ‘weird’ things to eat. We had heard that dogs and snakes are eaten in China…but we were never served those meats. Perhaps it was because these meats are served in smaller restaurants…I don’t know. We were taken to restaurants by guides and had a very good experience. In fact we were served mostly chicken, lamb, pork or beef…and at times roast duck, prawns and fish. If you don’t eat pork or beef, this has to be mentioned to the hotel staff as soon as you arrive.

There were a lot of vegetables dishes so on the face of it it does seem as if a vegetarian can survive here. Well, in hotels its risky as the Chinese cook in pork oil or some kind of lard…and often their vegetable dishes contain meat. In any case you will not find a certain section of the kitchen being kept exclusively for cooking vegetarian meals (like it is in India) so the ‘contamination’ is inevitable.

What I liked about the food was that the meat was either sliced thinly or chopped into small pieces. More often than not it was thoroughly mixed with vegetables…and this automatically reduced meat consumption. Although we are non-vegetarians, we are conscious of the fact that too much meat isn’t good for health. And the Chinese way of preparing dishes ensures that a lot of vegetables are consumed…and large chunks of meat are avoided.

The non-vegetarian dishes were coated with different sauces…black, brown or red. Black bean, garlic, tomatoes…and none of of the sauces were bland and neither were they spicy. Some dishes had a slightly sweet taste…and some had a sharp tang. Some dishes had chopped green or red chillies…so really, there was something to satisfy all tastes. The vegetables were usually underdone, crisp and tasty. We loved them. At home too we avoid over-cooking veggies even when done the Indian way.

However, Chinese vegetable dishes are often very bland…and oily. There were a few dishes which were spicy…for example we had chopped brinjals with a black bean sauce. Brinjal, green leafy vegetables and cabbage are favorites with the Chinese, and cabbage is served with hardly any spices. However, all vegetables are lightly fried. Potatoes were served very often too, at times mixed with meat.

The dishes are dry by Indian standards. Anyone looking for a curry will be disappointed. Inspite of the absence of any kind of curry or gravy, the meat and vegetables are eaten with rice. You are supposed to eat in a tiny plate (smaller than a half plate) as the Chinese eat one thing at a time, with small bites of rice which is served separately in a bowl. And the rice is plain steamed rice…and its lumpy. Anyone used to basmati rice will be disappointed. However, lumpy rice is easy to pick up with chopsticks.

We were never served fried rice or ‘mixed’ noodles during our whole trip…something that is standard fare in every Chinese restaurant in India. Plain noodles were available at breakfast buffets though…with various ‘mixtures’ which I couldn’t really figure out. For breakfast we mostly stuck to cut fruits, eggs, bacon and cereal.

You won’t find dairy milk anywhere, unless you ask for it specifically as dairy products are not eaten in China. There is soy milk though and tofu (a kind of paneer/cheese). You can order ‘white’ milk but its expensive. Even tea with white milk is more expensive. The Chinese do not use either milk or sugar for their tea. The tea is green, light and hot. And green tea is served in a pot with every meal and its topped up continuously. They say green tea is a digestive…perhaps why none of us were ever down with tummy upset!

Its the tea which helps you manage without a curry. It keeps your throat wet and well…there is soup too. For dessert, only fruits are served. The Chinese don’t eat desserts like we do…

What about western food? Well, it was available at breakfast buffets, yes. But one could see western tourists were pretty unhappy with the quality of the bacon and the other stuff. Plus there is only soy milk. One could get western food for lunches and dinners as well…but it’s more expensive. We didn’t even ask for it as we wanted to try out the Chinese. There was one place where we saw a western buffet which was served alongwith the Chinese, but the limp french fries, stuffed potatoes and large chunks of roast chicken did not look apetitising. The Chinese food on the other hand looked great.
There are umpteen Macdonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants all over the place but we never stepped into one as our tour was pre-planned and all meals taken care of…but if one does have a free day there is no dearth of western style restaurants to choose from. Chinese too ofcourse. There are eateries everywhere…though I wouldn’t trust a roadside eatery simply because one doesn’t know too much about it. In India I do eat street food, but not just anywhere…

The only strange thing was that there was no water! That was an irritant. We Indians are used to drinking gallons of water…and over there in China one had to buy it. It wasn’t cheap by Indian standards at 3 yuan (Rs 18] for a 500 ml bottle…but what was worse was the inconvenience of having to keep buying it. Buying it at the hotel was out of the question as it was way too expensive…about 10-15 yuans a bottle. There were four of us traveling so we needed plenty of water. We had to keep stopping off to buy water from small shops along the way…we were always on the lookout for water!
Most hotels provide a 500 ml bottle with each room for free – but you have to buy the rest.

I know that foreign tourists buy water when they come to India as well…but purified water is available and in India a vast proportion of local people drink tap water which is considered to be safe by the locals, at least in most Indian cities. Water filters and UV water purifiers are to be found everywhere in India…and they work. Its a normal thing to have a UV purifier in middle class homes.
But apparently in China even the Chinese who can afford it drink bottled water! They get it delivered to their homes! I was quite astounded. On probing further I found out that the water quality is pretty bad because of the pollution levels…apparently industrialisation has polluted the rivers as well as the ground water. Filters and purifiers cannot remove all the contaminants – that’s what we heard. And poor people tend to drink brackish water…full of chemicals!
I was shocked to hear this…is this the price that China is paying for it’s rapid growth? If the country cannot provide safe drinking water for it’s citizens, what’s the use of all the so-called progress?

Overall, our eating experience in China was good…but as I said at the beginning, as long as you are not a vegetarian it’s fine. Except for Shanghai and perhaps Beijing, you won’t get proper vegetarian food. What about Indian food? Well, it’s the same story. We did eat in an Indian restaurant (The Indian Kitchen) but it was terrible. I guess if you are desperate for Indian food it might suffice…but hey, who wants to eat butter chicken in a coconut curry? Or prawn pakodas that were fluffy orange balls – tiny prawns covered with red coloured grated potato! And what we disliked even more about The Indian Kitchen was that the food was brightly coloured…we detest coloured food…and it was so obvious that the dishes in the Indian kitchen were liberally dosed with synthetic colours. I would rate this as the worst restaurant we went to in China…and frankly the bright red and green colours reminded us of C grade restaurants in India. But at least in India you get authentic Indian food, even on the streets. Here not only was the food weird, both the curries we ordered (butter chicken and mixed vegetables) were identical. We had not had this experience is any Chinese eating joint. Each and every dish had a different taste.
But as I said, if you are kind of salivating for Indian food, this restaurant could suffice.

All in all the Chinese food in China was far better that the Chinese food you get in India. In India the Chinese is Indianised…it’s often dosed with Indian spices and and often very hot. Also the sweet and sour that we get in India is something we never got in China. In Indian restaurants the sweet and sour dishes are too sweet, and the well, just not as good as the real ones. In fact I don’t think the Chinese eat sweet and sour dishes at all…I couldn’t identify any dish which was sweet/sour.

About hygiene, there was never a problem as we didn’t eat street food and we ate at good restaurants. Everything was clean and we were provided with sealed chopsticks with every meal.

Related Reading: Being a tourist in China
Four Chinese Cities: Beijing, Xian, Guilin and Shanghai
The people who live in Chinese cities – the urban chinese
China’s claim to an Indian province is preposterous

More:Instant Chinese Mixes available in India – a review
Restaurant Reviews on this blog

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 16, 2007 12:16 pm

    Nita – the Chinese food I grew up eating in Canadian restaurants probably has little semblance to food Chinese people cook for themselves. A friend recently immigrated from Taiwan, took me to a restaurant in the burbs which she said prepared food in the Taiwanese manner – delicious vegetables, stirfried with simple tasty sauces, scant meat and no weird sweet and sour concoctions. What you write about the scarcity of good drinking water is a shocker to me – it indicates that tap water is not potable there. Where is the bottled water imported from?
    As to the sealed chopsticks you ate with – were they the disposable ones you rip apart before eating. There was quite a business here in Canada for manufacturing disposable wooden chopsticks which were exported to China. Such a waste of wood!

  2. June 19, 2007 6:54 pm

    In my varied travels to US and Europe, I’ve always been irritated about the lack of free drinking water. Water is an expensive luxury in many parts of the world, is what I’ve come to realize. But at least, the tap water in homes in these countries is considerably safe, for us at least (the Americans and Europeans don’t drink their tap water, but it works fine for us Indians). So China is a different story from both the western countries and India!

    We used to eat regularly at Chinese outlets in the US. There was such a thing as “sweet and sour” in the taste. A Chinese colleague explained that there are at least 4 distinct cuisines from different parts of China that are very different from each other. To add to that, the Chinese I’ve eaten at different parts of the US (Detroit / Chicago / California) was also different!

    No need to write about Indian food abroad – the only thing one can discuss is if its worse than in-flight food or not!🙂

  3. September 10, 2007 3:11 pm

    Be my guest for great Cantonese cooking anytime you are in South China!!!!!

  4. Duane permalink
    February 21, 2010 11:40 pm

    Would that include eating dog, I sure hope not..

  5. October 7, 2010 6:53 pm

    As a Chinese who have been to Japan, Canada, US … … I found most Chinese dishes there have adapted the local flavors. Real taste of Chinese food can only be found in limited restaurants outside China.

    For the eating-dog issue, it just equals to the notion that most Chinese people has Kongfu skill like Jacky Chen. It exists in very rare case, but not for the overwhelming majority. haha

    Yes, many Chinese food are oily. That’s why most chinese adults have higher BMI than Japanese. But not many people can resist the colorful Chinese dishes in front of them when they’re sitting in even the small and plain restaurant in China.

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