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All about food

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Naturally, I’m sure a lot of you are interested in knowing what I’m eating in China. And if you are not…..well, you should be.

First ‘meal’ in China

I’m gonna go right back to the start here, with an omelette that a friend and I ordered at a 清真 qingzhen (Chinese for ‘halaal’) place right near the hostel we were staying in. I was originally pleased that I had so quickly come across a halaal place, from the outside, it looked fine. The inside, however, is another story. When we went through the hanging doorway things that the Chinese like so much, we were greeted with the sight of two guys casually sleeping on the wooden benches, and another sitting with a cigarette, or two. No one seemed in any hurry to get up, in fact they seemed more annoyed, but I guess I would be too had someone interrupted my sleep. As it was just our second(?) day in China, (or, first meal at least, anyhow), we didn’t feel like being adventurous (also because we didn’t know what any of the characters on the menu were, although there were some pictures) and simply opted for the omelette. While we waited, we were treated to some entertainment… a full-on fight broke out between the workers, even moving into the mini kitchen, that was really only big enough for the single person in there frying our eggs. Of course, all the fighting was accompanied by angry shouts, although not in Mandarin, as the majority of the 清真 qingzhen are Xinjiang places (a region in the northwest of China, where a lot of Muslims live and the language spoken is something closer to Turkish), and this place was no exception. With the action dangerously close to us, and with no signs of restraint, we were just deciding on making a hasty exit, when it seemed to calm slightly, and our omelettes arrived. Quite frankly, they didn’t look particularly appealing, nor did I have any appetite, but we decided we should make a go of eating them…with chopsticks. It’s not easy, I’ll have you know! (It also doesn’t help when you’re the only customers in there, in a tense environment) As it turns out, there was less egg than there was oil, and with nothing else to be done about it, we meekly requested the bill. We were given take away containers for our egg remainders, needless to say they were not eaten on return to the hostel.

Getting there…

The next day, we stopped in a standard restaurant on the main road, (as opposed to the omelette place, which was down a hutong), and with me not confident enough to successfully order something without meat, and with my friend not feeling ready to eat any meat yet, we went for two bowls of plain rice. This was good for the first two chopstick-fuls, after which I truly realised how bland plain rice was (Yes, that was the Indian in me!) – not even any salt! My friend found out the hard way, that what we thought was soy sauce on the table, was actually vinegar, after she poured it generously over her rice. Oops..

This picture isn’t actually mine, but shows the real size (not the menu size which was hugely misleading!)

Sometime also within that first week, we went to an actual decent 清真 qingzhen place we came across not too far from the hostel. We were given glasses of some sort of tea, which were continuously topped up by the friendly waiter even after just one sip. In a moment of braveness(!), we went for the 羊肉串(儿) yangrou chuan(er) – skewered lamb kebab – a popular dish that originated in Xinjiang, but is now popular throughout China, particularly Beijing. The picture in the menu looked huge, so we decided to be safe and just order one each; it turns out they’re pretty tiny, but seeing as it took a very long time to get those two out to us, we assumed they might probably be annoyed with us for having just ordered two, when it took so long, so we didn’t order any more of those to eat with our rice. This is when we were truly struck with how cheap it was (or could be) to eat out in Beijing, with each skewer costing 3元 (if I recall correctly) and one bowl of rice costing 2元 – the approximate equivalent of 20p! Although, in my university canteen, it’s only 1元 for a bowl of rice. Now that’s value for money!

A blur of eating random things at random times later, my brother arrived in Beijing. In the time he was here, various things happened in the way of food:
1. We met some friends to eat at another 清真 qingzhen where things on the menu included Pot Whelp Sheep Intestinal Fat, and Genitals, Gall bladder and Kidney
2. We moved to a different branch of the hostel, which served food, and we had TOAST and BUTTER with our breakfast one morning, but also discovered that the Chinese take pizza to a whole new level…

It can only be good for you, right?

3. Scouted out one of Beijing’s Indian restaurants – Ganges – and enjoyed some (almost) homey food.
4. Made a visit or two to Pizza Hut, appreciating one of the rare occasions I get proper cheese, and realising that the Pizza Hut pizza in China is better than the Pizza Hut pizza in England. However, this could just be my mind playing tricks on me, given said cheese issue…
5. And finally…. completed the move into my flat, including buying things I was told apparently belong in the kitchen, with which I attempted this strange thing called cooking…

Cooking at home

Despite having brought the most commonly used Indian spices with me, it’s never as good as home. There are two main reasons for this; the first being that, okay, I can’t actually cook, I don’t expect it to be that good, and the second being…well, it’s China. Even making rice successfully is more of a challenge than it should have to be, this ain’t no Basmati – it took me a while to realise that I should stop waiting for it to turn out the way I’m used to! The grains aren’t going to separate nicely, it’s supposed to be sticky (that’s what I tell myself, anyway).

I recently tried to make what would be a very simple lunch back home: tuna-sweetcorn sandwich. (Thanks go to the parents, for bringing these canned goods!) The first problem I encountered was opening the tuna can, which didn’t have a ring-pull lid like the sweetcorn, and like the other cans I’ve seen in China. I have looked in every shop I’ve been in since I arrived in China for a can opener, and have found a grand total of 0. Well, the tuna wasn’t sitting around waiting for a can opener, so it had a battle with a knife, coordinated by myself, and while it put up great resistance against it’s opponent, it eventually lost. Believe me when I say I’m not being hypercritical (yes, it’s now my new favourite word) – I’m not expecting no Hellmann’s, but the mayonnaise, like a lot of the things in China that shouldn’t be sweet, was somewhat sweet. Thinking back, Kewpie Mayonnaise does sound similar to Cutie Mayonnaise… how sweet. Other common things that are unusually sweet are most of the bread, and milk. Overall, it was just a very strange tasting sandwich.

Recently, I’d been on the prowl for (local) butter/margarine. Although the compound supermarket where I live actually had some mini tubs of (very yellow) margarine some time ago, when I went to buy some more, I found there was none, and the response I got when I asked was that they just don’t stock it anymore. I think she may also have said something about production, but I’m not sure exactly what. How convenient. Of course, it is possible to buy butter at larger supermarkets, such as Carrefour, or even in the expat-rich areas of Beijing, but of course, it also comes at extra high import prices, or as we often say 太贵了tai gui le (too expensive). Last week, the compound supermarket surprised us by suddenly dedicating some shelf space to new products, namely cheese and butter. But wait, there was not only one type of butter, oh no, there was a CHOICE! Anchor Unsalted butter, or some Anchor Garlic & Herb butter if you fancy, and even tubs of Kerrygold spreadable butter. Mmm. The usual ‘cheese’ slices you can find in the supermarkets should not be allowed to be called cheese. This new selection stocked some vaguely equivalent Laughing Cow/Dairylea spreadable cheese, and a handful of blocks of Kerrygold Swiss Cheese. Just wow. Honestly though, I’m not expecting any stock refills once these run out. Seems like standard procedure unless the product in question is rice or noodles(!) Once my current Chinese margarine wannabe finishes, and there’s still Kerrygold left, I’ll take it as a sign that it was meant to be and will definitely be getting some of that!

Our kitchen is only equipped with a gas cooker. Oh, and a kettle. Kettles are actually very useful – did you know you can boil an egg in your kettle?? …So I’m told, by friends who live on uni campus and don’t have kitchens (that are fit for use). I’ve discovered that woks are no good for frying eggs, but they’ll pass as toasters, black pepper is the thing that makes anything (Chinese dishes) taste instantly better, and oh – how I miss microwaves!!

When pictures decide to start uploading again, there’ll be more about  清真 qingzhen to follow!
(I realise I managed to write the whole post (and it was a long one) without really saying much about what exactly I am eating (typical!), but that will come later with pictures, as mentioned above. I also realise how hypercritical (possibly more like ‘spoilt brat’) I’m sounding with regards to things such as mayonnaise, rice, cheese, butter, microwaves, the lack of can openers, etc…(better not to start a list), but I think it comes across more exaggerated than I really mean, and actually, it’s all good. It’s all part of the experience, and I’m not complaining! Well, maybe just a little. It wouldn’t be the same China otherwise though! That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to them when I go home 🙂 )

Comments, comments – they do make me happy. As do microwaves.


About Ibtehaal

I graduated with a degree in Chinese and Economics, which involved spending a year studying Chinese in Beijing. This turned out to be the hardest but most rewarding thing I think I have ever done. I've now returned to China for another year, to study in Shanghai and figure out my next steps.

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