03 November 2007

Chinese Food - The Bad

Soup with hacked up pork ribs- tastes better than it looksNow that you've heard about the good stuff, you might be thinking you’d like to visit China, to try all of this wonderful food for yourself. Before you come, there are a few things I should warn you about…

To start with, eating in China can be quite difficult. Being able to pick up a piece of food with chopsticks and get it into your mouth without dropping it is an important skill, but that’s only the beginning. Although meats are usually cut into bite-sized pieces before they are served, they aren’t carved up in the way you might expect.

Soup with hacked up chicken parts and mushrooms - this one is actually quite deliciousImagine a chicken, for example. You might think of cutting it into parts like breast, thigh, wing, or leg, or you might take out the bones and cut the meat into small pieces to use in something like chicken noodle soup.

Now forget all of that and assume the whole chicken has been laid on a cutting board and hacked into random pieces with a large butcher knife. Then, imagine those random pieces have been put into a bowl of ramen noodle soup with vegetables. How might you eat such a thing?

Keep in mind, your only tools are your teeth, a pair of chopsticks, and a ceramic spoon. Chinese people never touch their food with their hands, unless of course they are trying to make a bungling foreigner feel better by pretending they sometimes need to use their hands, too.

Szechwan Fish in PotNow imagine you are trying to eat a whole fish with lots of little bones. It’s not your own personal fish on a dry plate, mind you. This is a large fish swimming in a pot of soup, sauce, or broth that is being shared by the entire table. Each morsel you are able to fish out of the pot comes with 2-3 bones, so you have to chew very carefully and then try to remove the small bones from your mouth with slippery plastic chopsticks.

Crab (very high difficulty)Now imagine you need to eat a whole cooked prawn with the shell-on, or a bite-sized chunk of beef still firmly attached to the bone. Chinese people would put the whole prawn or meat-with-bone in their mouth, and then do some sort of magic in there and spit out all of the inedible parts.

I think the only Americans who have a chance of mastering this technique are the ones who once learned to remove the stem from a cherry and tie it into a knot inside their mouth to impress their friends at college parties.

TissuesAs you were imagining some of the above scenarios, you might have guessed things could get a little messy and require extra napkins. Unfortunately, they don’t use napkins in China. In 10 weeks, I’ve been to maybe 5 restaurants that offered napkins. Most restaurants, upon request, will provide facial tissues or toilet tissue to use as a napkin.

Typically, these are scented tissues. So every time you wipe your mouth, your nose will be filled with some strong fragrance that clashes with whatever tasty Tissuesmorsel you happen to be chewing.

One additional problem with the tissues, pointed out by a French colleague who was in Shenzhen for 2 weeks, is that if you have a rough beard, the tissues are virtually useless.

Another problem with the food is that it’s all mixed up. The traditional way of eating is to order lots of dishes that everyone shares, which I really like. Unfortunately, you only get one bowl and one small plate of your own, so it’s very hard to keep different dishes from mixing together (especially soups). It’s especially bad if you take too much of something you don’t like and have to figure out a place to put it so it doesn’t get mixed up with the good stuff.

Shrimp in shell that has been sliced in halfSoups might be eaten before, during, or after other dishes. Sweet dishes are just as likely to be eaten at the beginning or middle of a meal as at the end. In a hot pot, they wouldn’t think twice about putting a whole fish and some boneless beef together in the pot, so you might have to sift through the fish bones to find a small slice of beef.

Beef ribs and Tofu - dishes that taste much better than they lookA colleague of mine once started off drinking some sort of thick yogurt drink with dinner and switched to beer halfway through, using the same glass. To be fair, this was the same colleague involved in the head of rabbit story I will tell in a future post, so the yogurt/beer example is probably a little extreme.

Trying to explain what you want to eat, to a Chinese person interpreting an all-Chinese menu for you, is harder than you might think. I’m pretty flexible, so I started off by asking for any dish with regular meat that is easy to eat. However, when a Chinese person doesn’t understand what makes things difficult or strange, it’s hard for them to suggest “easy” or "regular" foods.

Typical lunch at Chinese fast food - sliced duck with bonesRequesting boneless meat might get you preserved meat or scary-looking sausages. Requesting pork that is boneless and not preserved or smoked might get you a pork cheek or pork belly, which may be a little different from what you had in mind.

In the end, I finally learned the “Lio” trick. When the meat ends with the Chinese word Lio (pronounced Lee-yo), it always comes from a regular part of the animal and is cut into little strips with no fat, skin, or bones included. Lio actually means leaf, and only describes the shape of the cut. However, it just so happens the only meat that gets cut into a Lio is the good stuff.

Within my first 8-9 weeks here, I was able to adjust to the local eating habits and overcome the majority of food-related challenges. Here's how you can shorten the adjustment period if you ever find yourself in China:

Lunch at a Chinese Muslim place that only serves water to drinkTip # 1 - use your hands to peel a shrimp, or to pick fish or small chicken bones out of your teeth. Chinese people couldn’t care less how you eat your food, even if it’s not the way they do it.

Tip #2 - no matter how odd it feels, you sometimes need to just spit the bad parts out onto your plate, even if the bad parts are big chunks of beef bone. Everyone else is doing it. You would miss out on some really tasty experiences if you avoided all difficult foods, and there's definitely no napkin to spit it into.

Tip #3 - memorize the Chinese words for "regular" Beef (Niu-Lio), Pork (Jew-Lio), and Chicken (Gee-Lio). It comes in very handy when you want something easy to explain and easy to eat.

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