Variety best describes the food I experienced while in China. From the grocery store, to restaurants, to roadside stands, visitors are met with an abundance of choice.
Questions about food are the most frequently asked of me. I can tell in the voice of those asking they anticipate answers different from the ones I give. There are some things about the food in China many would consider strange, but there is certainly no lack of food or of choices.
It was very beneficial having our daughter and son-and-law serve as our hosts. They have lived in Beijing nearly five years, so they know some great places to eat - and even more importantly, which places to avoid. Carol simplified the choice for each meal by asking the question, "Do you want Western food or Asian food?" After this basic question is answered the choices are endless.
After church Sunday morning (yes, foreigners are free to attend church) we joined some of Joe and Carol's coworkers at a southern BBQ restaurant named Home Plate. We enjoyed some of the best pulled pork, brisket, ribs, coleslaw, and hushpuppies I have ever had. Though some of the servers were Chinese, most everyone else were "expats." The sights, sounds, and aroma in the brick and exposed beam building could be easily mistaken for any joint on Broadway in Nashville. The most noticeable difference was the small size of the glasses for sweet tea and the lack of ice. No free refills either. It wasn't enough to ruin the meal, but it was a gentle reminder we weren't in Music City.
The lack of ice is one of the curious differences between home and China. Getting a bucket of ice at both the hotels where we stayed was quite an ordeal. Even though the Beijing guest book said there were ice machines on floors five and ten, the spaces where they should have been were empty. In the larger hotel in Shanghai there was no mention of ice machines. Room service is happy to bring ice up to you at no charge, but the idea of a lot of ice is one glass partially full.
Not having a cold drink with each meal seems to be universal in China. The kids my wife and I have hosted over the course of the past decade have each had no desire for a tall glass of anything cold during meals. One explained that the "liquid" in their diet comes from soup and not cold drinks. Hot water stations in public places throughout China are more common than drinking fountains in the US. Hot tea is prevalent, as one might imagine, but it should not be assumed at meal time. Servers don't automatically ask, "And what would you like to drink?" If a customer doesn't ask, no drink is served.
An impromptu visit to Pizza Hut with my grandson taught me this lesson. While enjoying a delicious Hawaiian pizza and some wings, I realized we were sitting there with no drinks. When I clumsily asked (or more accurately, motioned) for water, two small glasses of warm water were brought to the table.
McDonald's was an exception to this rule. A #6 (filet-o-fish, fries, and a Sprite) was served with ice. The fast-food giant is as consistent in China as they are in the US. Depending on your perspective - consistently good or bad.
Enough about Western food. We enjoyed several traditional Chinese meals. Picking a favorite is tough because I enjoyed each one.
Our first meal in Beijing was in our daughter's apartment. She took our American clan to the grocery store to pick up the items her husband, Joe, needed to prepare a traditional New Year's dinner. Think of Kroger Marketplace with the addition of a Publix to get the idea of the grocery store we visited just a few blocks from the apartment and directly across the street from our hotel.
Instead of a large square footprint, this store is a block long but not too deep. It is complete with a bakery, deli, produce, dry goods, and household items. The most unusual space for us was the meat department. Duck and chicken is sold whole from head to feet. The fish is very fresh. So fresh, in fact, it is still swimming in tanks. Our daughter picked out a nice fish which the butcher fetched with a net, took in the back, and brought out ready to cook.
Joe cooked the entire fish from head to tail and brought it out on a single plate explaining the importance of eating a whole fish for good fortune in the new year. The entrée was complimented with pan fried dumplings. Not the Southern, doughy type we eat with chicken, but the little pockets filled with meat. Cooking dumplings according to family recipe is a tradition at New Year like baking grandma's cookies at Christmas.
The day we visited the Great Wall, Joe checked with our driver and found a "bed and breakfast" type house that would gladly welcome us for lunch. The lady of the house had our meal almost finished when we arrived. She set out a variety of truly home cooked selections on the Lazy Susan. Hungry from our hike on the Great Wall, we quickly ate all the cauliflower and bock choy (Chinese cabbage). The chicken soup was delicious as well, but some in the group were a little taken back by the presence of the head and feet - so there were leftovers.
We had three formal meals during our visit. Each had unique trappings and will be remembered for years to come. We enjoyed a seafood dinner in Beijing with the parents of some of our international students. I ate far too much. One of our HCA graduates treated us to a traditional dinner in Shanghai just a block from where she works.
Our final meal was Beijing duck, which we enjoyed together as family. The duck is roasted whole and brought to the table by the chef. He then makes about 100 strategic cuts making sure there is crispy skin with each slice. The meat is best enjoyed by placing it in a thin pancake along with plum sauce, thinly sliced onion and other vegetables. Diners roll the pancake and eat. In a few weeks, I have no doubt I will be craving roasted duck, but you can only truly enjoy duck in Beijing.
The next article will focus on the people of China. Feel free to share comments or submit questions to me at email@example.com.
William Slater is headmaster of Hendersonville Christian Academy.