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Not exactly a typical Friday evening…

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…but a typical insight into daily life in China.

Last Friday, we went to try out a Xinjiang cuisine restaurant about 5 minutes walk away from where I live, which we’d kept meaning to go to, since it was so close. I’d been here with my brother way back in my first week in China, but due to a combination of, a) – not being accustomed to the food yet, and b) – not knowing the cuisine well enough to know what (and how) to order, it’d be an understatement if I said that we were not the restaurant’s biggest fans. As expected, given our now-excellent ordering skills, and acquired taste for the food, last Friday’s was a much better experience.

However, the restaurant is not what I’m planning on writing about, but rather, the ‘adventures’ that ensued after dinner. This is, instead a post to give an idea of the sort of things we see as standard (A bit of Chinglish coming up). We walked back from the restaurant on a different road and saw some clothes shops which looked half decent and decided to go in for a look…

On the bottom half of the back of a pink t-shirt.

On the bottom half of the back of a pink t-shirt. Makes total sense to me.

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The heart on your shirt could suggest otherwise.

The clothes were surprisingly cheap for the look of the shop though, even for China. A lot of the tops were only 25RMB, but none of us bought anything. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned how weird most Chinese fashion is to us… as you can see from the above examples. We spent a good while in there though, quite literally sifting through every item of clothing and amusing ourselves. When we left the shop, possibly 15minutes later, I commented that the woman inside might have been quite annoyed with us, having spent so long looking around and then left, having bought nothing. “Actually,” corrected Nafeesah, “spent so long looking through all the clothes and LAUGHING at them, and then left!”. Yeah, about that… Oops.

A little further up the road, was a supermarket. that despite being so close to us, is not one we usually frequent. (This is because there is an even closer, albeit smaller, one for most of our daily needs.) Some of the following pictures are not meant to be amusing, (though some are), but just to show a little of what the inside of a Chinese supermarket is like.

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srtrange odour?!

Strange taste beans?? I’ll take 20!!

In the above picture of ‘Strange taste Beans’, it’s not so clear, but we originally misread the company name as “Shaming Foods”, and just found it amusing (Alright, so maybe we were in strange moods – finding not-so-amusing things overly hilarious. What can I say? Maybe it was the Friday night fever…) Then we remembered we were in China, checked with the Chinese characters, and realised it was Sha-Ming and not pronounced ‘shaming’ as in ‘shame’. Ah well, it was funny at the time…
I just put the characters for ‘strange taste’ into my dictionary app, and it translates it as ‘strange odour’. They’re both equally strange beans to have, anyway.

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The fish counter

Not only is the fish counter, very literally, alive, it’s also self-service!

Not only is the fish counter live (quite literally), it's also self-service!

Nafeesah, just helping herself.

“What did you get up to on the weekend?”
“Ah, just did a spot of fishing…”

Part of the meat counter

Part of the meat counter… some nice pig feet in the foreground here.

At least this looks vaguely like a refrigerated section. In the ‘butchers’ outside, i.e. not in supermarkets, the meat just hangs…. outside, a lot of the time. Who said raw meat needed to be kept cool??

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Spice it up!

(Actually, I’m not really sure what they all are, apart from the red chillies.)

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Rice and lentils…and stuff. No Tilda Basmati though, sadly.

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…So cats can enjoy a holiday at home!

Admittedly, I don’t know anything about taking care of cats, but I’m sure I’ve never seen or heard of ‘cat sand’ before. Anyone care to enlighten me?

And finally, by the checkout counter: (Not very clear, sorry, taken on my phone!)

Free soy sauce with your orange juice

Free soy sauce with your orange juice. So stereotypically Chinese!

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Qingzhen cai! (清真菜)

As promised! Qingzhen cai = Halaal food.

Some interesting character compound decomposition:
清 qing – clear, pure, just and honest
真 zhen – real, true, genuine
So the literal translation is just something like clean, and pure, though it also means Islamic (or Muslim, but you don’t say this of a person), and halaal (of food).
Amazing, right?

University Muslim Canteen

Many classmates have commented that the food here is possibly the best on campus, and it is indeed popular with more than just the Muslims. The reason for this is largely that a lot of people (i.e. the Chinese) see 清真 food as being ‘cleaner’. This is not just the case at university, this notion seems quite widespread, and they are right. The standards of cleanliness are better in general than in a lot of the similar level Chinese places.

There are two sections to the canteen; one side is more like a restaurant, you order and pay at the counter (by cash or student card), and then get given a numbered holder for your table, so the food can be brought to you. This is the side I’ve usually eaten at, because I have not yet put any money on my card…for various reasons, none of which being pure laziness. The other side is actually a canteen, with various dishes along the serving counter, metal tray/plates that you put your food onto, and the card swipe machine, where you have to swipe your student card to pay. You can not pay by cash. You also cannot successfully swipe your card if it is not registered as Muslim… I discovered this once when going to eat with friends, some of whom decided they would go and get food from the canteen side (they DID have money on their card). They came back without any food, and said that the servers behind the counter had refused to serve them when they tried to swipe their cards. SHOCK. I was appalled, thinking how excluding people on religious grounds was terrible and giving such a bad message. After talking to various other people, I’ve had to rethink my initial reaction and concede that, okay, fair enough, anyone can eat at the restaurant side, and the canteen side (which is actually cheaper!) is just left exclusively for Muslims… Actually, I still don’t like this. Opinions on this arrangement?

Anyway, back to food, a couple of dishes from my university canteen.

老干妈牛肉炒饭

老干妈牛肉炒饭

The first one is 老干妈牛肉炒饭 Laoganma niurou chaofan, Laoganma beef fried rice. So, the laoganma part actually would translate to something like…old, dry mother. But (I hope) it doesn’t have any bearing on the actual dish… In all seriousness, I think it’s the name of a company, or it’s just come to be a well-known name for a certain flavour. I think it’s tasty, with the little black beans that are so good. This is the dish I’ve eaten the most times when I’ve been in this canteen (hence the lack of pictures of other foods from here).

This next one is 大盘鸡 da pan ji – chicken “platter”, which is just chicken and potatoes served on some wide noodles, in a really quite spicy sauce, with lots of red chillies.

大盘鸡

大盘鸡

This is 回锅牛肉 huiguo niurou – “twice cooked” beef. Eat with a 1元 bowl of rice. Again with the yummy black beans, and the right amount of spice for the onion, pepper, beef combination.

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Qingzhen Cai (المطعم الإسلامي)

The المطعم الإسلامي (lit. Islamic Restaurant) are a chain of sorts of halaal Chinese restaurants. Although I know of a couple of these places in Beijing, I came across them a great deal more on my trip to Shanghai. As I mentioned in a previous post, I think it’s more to do with the fact that we went around the city a lot more on our short visit to Shanghai, and not necessarily because there were more of them there than in Beijing.

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The soup you can see on the side of this picture is just great. It’s really just some kind of (meat flavoured) stock, but they put herbs in it and it tastes different every time. It comes with your dish and it’s just so nice to start your meal with on a cold Winter day. Free refills!! 😀

The next picture is my favourite dish at my local 清真restaurant: 土豆牛肉盖面 tudou niurou gaimian – potato and beef noodles.

My favourite dish at my local 清真 : tudou niurou gaimian

My favourite! And of course you can get the yummy soup with it.

I thought I had gathered more pictures, but evidently not. Never mind, you’ll have to let your imagination do the work. Or come visit.

Breakfast

My only Chinese breakfast experience has been at the hotel we were staying in in Shanghai. Going for the only thing that seemed to be suitable for vegetarians, I had 包子baozi – steamed stuffed bun (vegetable stuffing). Boiled eggs are also popular: shell the egg and eat it plain.

Baozi with pickled vegetable...pickle, a boiled egg and a glass of warm milk

Baozi with pickled vegetable…pickle, a boiled egg and a glass of warm milk

Cooking

I did go through a phase of making typical Chinese dishes, mainly stir-fried rice and noodles, and also a dish called 西红柿炒鸡蛋 xihong shi chao jidan or 番茄炒鸡蛋 fanqie chao jidan – scrambled eggs with tomatoes. The Chinese love it, you can find it on the menu almost everywhere. Seeing as I love eggs, and like tomatoes, I thought a combination of the two would necessarily have to be good, so on recommendation from a Chinese friend, I tried the tomato and egg soup once.

Tomato and egg soup

Tomato and egg soup

I found it to be quite bland (Indian genes, what can I say?) but thought it had potential and could do with some spicing up. So I experimented myself…

Scrambled eggs and tomato, with spiced vegetables (pak choi)

Scrambled eggs and tomato, with spiced pak choi

And as expected, the combination of two good foods turned out alright, though admittedly, the picture doesn’t look anywhere near as appealing as the restaurants soup.

Stir-fried rice is, again, quite bland in my opinion, but still tasty and supposedly really easy to make. Not surprising, considering this is China, and stir-fried rice dishes, as opposed to tuna sandwiches, are the norm…

Stir-fried noodles

Stir-fried noodles

Missing home food!

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.