Changing China

Giant on the move

Bread? That’s not for eating

April 17, 2008

A Chinese employee carries a tray of Mantou steamed bread made of wheat flour in Xi’anAfter laying out our spread of spicy Sichuan food, the waitress returned with four slightly stale slices of white bread, each on their own glistening plates.      

I wondered briefly if DIY chili chicken and peanut sandwiches were a new fad in Chinese restaurants, but when I asked her how I was supposed to eat mine, she looked at me as if I was mad.     

Silently she fished a sliver of our fish from its oily sauce and showed me what would perhaps have been obvious to someone not brought up on a diet of toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, more toast for tea and sometimes bread and soup for dinner.  

The bread was just a sponge, for draining the oil from carp cooked in a traditional and much-loved way that left it a little too greasy for some modern eaters. No one in the “Spicey Seduction” restaurant would dream of eating it.

Which is not to say that there isn’t a lot of bread consumed in China, where bakeries dot most towns and an advisor to parliament admonished athletes last year that they needed to follow Westerners in consuming more milk and beef if they wanted sporting success.      

But two weeks enjoying what I think is one of the world’s great culinary traditions may bring a few surprises for Olympic tourists who have not been to China before.      

I don’t mean the strange translations which this blog has explored before, or the more exotic animals and birds favoured by some Chinese diners, just small differences in eating and cooking habits that can be a little disconcerting for first timers.      

Diners eat at a local restaurant in central Beijing that has been approved to supply beef to athletes during the Olympic GamesSoup is served at the end of the meal, as are rice, noodles and other staples (beware of filling up because you think that an order for sour and spicy soup has been forgotten).      

Then there is vegetarian meat, which looks like meat and when done well tastes pretty like meat — but is made out of tofu.      

The squeamish may prefer not to be shown the fish they are about to eat flapping around in a net as proof of its freshness,  or have chickens and ducks served with their heads and claws still attached.      

And I learnt years ago not to expect too many sandwiches outside of Western restaurants.      

In one of the first Chinese textbooks that I studied a mother warned her children not to be naughty. Otherwise, she threatened,
they would face …. sandwiches for lunch.

Picture of Chinese breads by China Daily. Beijing restaurant by David Gray  


I’m sure there will be numerous “western” style restaurants in Beijing during the Olympics, so a word of advise from someone who lives here full time. NEVER ORDER A SALAD, unless the management is willing to show you (and do check) a functioning water purification system.

The water here is NOT POTABLE, so unless your salad fixin’s are cleaned using purified water, you may very well spend the next few days within sprinting distance of your hotel room toilet.

Posted by Paul Droluk | Report as abusive

As an American who has spent a good deal of time in China, I would add the following advice:

Your best bet when going to China for the first time is to simply not eat anything that hasn’t been thoroughly cooked/smoked/preserved. And you’ll still probably get sick, but it won’t last as long, or be as severe if you stay well away from raw foods – yes, even the ubiquitous melons and citrus served for ‘dessert’ in many restaurants.

Beijing’s cuisine shares a large part of its spectrum with the American/Western pallate, if one can only get over the Western disdain for knowing where one’s food came from that has arisen in the last fifty years or so.

For those few who may be going to Qingdao for the boating events, you will find it even easier to get familiar foods. The Shandong diet is possibly the overall most familiar I have encountered in my travels across China. One could easily survive on Tsingtao beer and various meat-stuffed breads for several weeks. I certainly have…

Then again, for those who haven’t learned at least a bit of Chinese, remember that pointing at pictures in a restaurant serving unfamiliar regional cuisine can get even experienced travelers into trouble…so just try to have fun and keep a sense of humor when you end up with plates of pigs’ feet and duck tongues. Try them, they might just be good.

Posted by da6d | Report as abusive

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