Prior to my trip, I learned a bit of Mandarin, including the essentials like basic food and drink. So I knew how to read and say different kinds of meat, noodles, water, beer, and a few other key words. But what I didn’t know were the words for the hundreds of different types of vegetables that the Chinese have. So many vegetables! It was wonderful. Too often when I travel, I find I’m fiending for vegetables when I get back home. Most countries seem to either not have as many available as we do in the United States, or only served them boiled or pickled or otherwise altered. But not China. China has all the vegetables your body could possibly crave, and then some. And fruits and sauces and other meats I couldn’t identify. And dumplings! I ate so many dumplings and rarely knew what was in them. I really don’t know how people with dietary restrictions travel. I figure it’s best not to ask too many questions – just let go of your cultural limitations of what is okay to eat, try everything, and enjoy! Well, maybe. Hold that thought until my last bullet point below.
Aside from basically everything I ate being a surprise, four other food surprises on the trip were:
- Corn on the cob. My god the Chinese love their corn on the cob. There’s always someone walking down the street eating it for a snack and it’s a definite fan favorite at those hotel breakfast buffets.
- Cheese tea. This is a thing. When I first saw a “Snowy Cheese Latte” advertised at Starbucks, I thought it was a lost in translation type error. But nope, cheese tea and cheese coffee is real and quite tasty. No, I did not order one at Starbucks, although Starbucks is pretty hard to avoid. I went to Hey Tea for my cheese drinking.
- Alcohol. There is none to be found, except in internationally-minded Shanghai. The airports do not have bars, there is no alcohol served on flights, and there is no bar at most theaters to enjoy before performances or during intermission. Everywhere I went, the options seemed to be water, Coke, orange juice (which they seem to love almost as much as they love corn on the cob), and the basically flavorless Tsingtao beer. Even when alcohol was available, such as on my flight home, the Chinese didn’t order it. They just don’t seem to drink much. I did manage once to get a gin martini (oddly served with a maraschino cherry), but it wasn’t until roaming around the hipster Shanghai neighborhood of Xintiandi that I found craft beer and decent wine options.
- Food safety. I had read about food safety issues in China before but had put it out of mind until this trip. That is, until I was walking down the street with a tour guide and an old man carrying baskets of unknown fruits came along and asked us if we wanted to buy anything. Not knowing what the fruits were, I thought they looked delicious. But the tour guide jumped in and told us not to buy anything because the fruits weren’t natural. He said the color was wrong and they were too big. That was an important reminder. I was only in China for two weeks, and many of my meals were in my hotels or at places recommended by tour guides, so I wasn’t that concerned about eating toxic substances. But if I lived there, I’d have to do a lot of research about which grocery stores and restaurants I could trust. How awful for the people who live there, especially those who can’t afford to be choosy or don’t have options for shopping, to have to worry constantly about eating fake and potentially poisonous food.
I’m also not ashamed to admit that I overindulged in the hotel breakfast buffet daily. I love buffets. All that food, prepped and ready for you to try a little of this and a little of that for whatever mood you are and you don’t have to wait for a server. But the best part is always the European breakfast section, the deli meats and cheeses and hearty breads and chocolate croissants. I alternated between that and the Chinese section, which isn’t breakfast at all but just all types of Chinese food they’d eat at any time of the day. I steered well clear of the American section with the boring cold cereals and muffins (and excessive Christmas decorations). Too many other delicious choices.
For the Christmas and New Year’s holiday in 2018, I spent 12 days in the People’s Republic of China. The trip marked the first time I had been to Asia in over 16 years. In these 12 posts, I share my thoughts, observations, and feelings about the PRC. For a highly readable, more in-depth account of past and future China from a westerner who lived there for many years, I recommend Rob Gifford’s China Road.