Our first foray into China last November hadn’t been so successful from a food point of view. We’d struggled to find nice food or decent places to eat and almost everything we had eaten was very hot and spicy. Quite a few dishes were hot enough to make my eyes water! Most restaurants had looked out of our price range, were simply serving inedible stuff or had a Chinese only menu with no pictures. Once we had to run away from a restaurant because the dish we’d ordered was a huge pot of chicken stock and blood with bits of chicken floating in it! The food we had been ordering consisted of a meat dish with two side dishes of rice. The only meat we recognised on the menu was beef and almost always came with fresh chillies. That was our staple meal for our first visit.
On the plus side, we didn’t eat anywhere western (such as McDonald’s) for the whole 17 days. Another bit of good news is that on our most recent visit we discovered why we’d had so much trouble finding somewhere to eat in Beijing. The area near Tianamen Square has very few food places (I think the authorities want tourists to get in, see it, then get out without lingering). We struggled to find anywhere to eat in this area recently (we stayed in a better area the second time and only once went near Tianamen) and with the benefit of hindsight I can see why; the hostel we’d stayed in was close to Tianamen and had been in a ‘dead area’ as far as food is concerned. I can also see how wrong our mindset was. China was our first proper destination on this trip and when we arrived we associated eating out with eating in a restaurant. In Asia eating out has so many more options than just a restaurant but we stuck with what we knew at first and missed out a bit.
We approached China rather apprehensively the second time around. We’d really struggled with finding and ordering nice food and we were worried about this next visit which would be longer than the last one. We have taken lots of photos of the food we ordered to show people what we ate in China and to record for ourselves and look back on. I think that overall we ate pretty good. Over two visits, 20 days and 19 days, split by a 5 day stopover in Hong Kong, we only bought food twice which we didn’t like. Most food was pretty good and some of it tasted great, highlights included the street food in Hangzhou and dumplings in Shanghai. In that respect we did far better than last time, but we did unfortunately visit McDonald’s a couple of times, once in Chengdu before catching the train to Xi’an. The other time was in Hangzhou, when we couldn’t find the restaurants (we missed ‘restaurant street’ by one street). We also succombed to Subway in Shanghai, because along the Bund Promenade was devoid of restaurants. Apart from those occassions we avoided Western food for the duration of the visit, totalling 39 days.
We entered China from Nepal and toured Tibet for 8 days. For the majority of the tour we were taken to tourist orientated restaurants where the food was not authentic Chinese or Tibetan but more western style and often came with a fork and spoon rather than chopsticks. Once in Lhasa we had far more choice of restaurants and more time to explore them properly. On our first evening we went to a place where no-one spoke English and tourists didn’t venture. We ate an OK dish of beef and potato with a bowl of rice each.
The next day we found a much nicer place to eat at lunch and it was so good we went back later.
Our last night in Lhasa was pretty good, beef with onions and peppers in a sweet sauce with rice each.
In Chengdu we found a restaurant for lunch by a temple and had hot and spicy noodles. They were delicious, but very oily! I also added a few more stains to my white t-shirt with those noodles…
Whilst in Chengdu we tried the local speciality, Sichuan Hot Pot. A large bowl of oil is heated in the centre of the table with two sections in it, a spicy section and a non-spicy section. The food is brought to the table raw and we chose which section to cook it in. The hot section looks worse than it is. We only dared order the medium and it was hot enough.
A lesson we learnt for the second visit, if you’re ever hungry and near a food place of any kind, just ask for Egg Fried Rice. It’s quick, cheap and tastes fine. Most fried rice we had in China was greasy though, very greasy! I know it’s fried rice but the Chinese seem to have an obsession with oil and everything is coated with it. This rice was ordered on the slopes of Mt. Qingcheng near Chengdu.
Another staple food of our visit was noodles. Almost everywhere we went there were noodle sellers on the street serving this style of noodles. Usually there’s sliced cucumber and beansprouts with the noodles and the sauce is a mixture of about 5 ingredients and a spoonful of chilli to give them some heat. They are everywhere and usually cost between 5-8 RMB. This was our evening meal after visiting Dujiangyan.
We took a three day tour to Jiuzhaigou with a Chinese tour group. The food was very healthy but very plain. No oil, very little flavour, no additives. Just vegetables and a little meat, all steamed. This is very different to the usual food served in China, which is all cooked in a ton of oil with lots of additives and flavours in the sauce.
We usually try to avoid food in the hostels, firstly because it’s a lot more expensive than food in restaurants or on the street, and secondly because it’s often western food with very few ‘local’ dishes. This hostel in Xi’an had a decent range of Chinese dishes, but it was expensive. We were willing to pay this time because we hadn’t slept well on the overnight train to Xi’an and didn’t feel like walking around looking for food.
Scrambled egg and fried tomatoes are a great dish. We often order them as a side dish to a meat dish and two rice. Annemarie had them with noodles. Very filling!
We ate in the hostel later that evening too. This was sliced pork with some veg in a spicy sauce, served with two bowls of rice. You can see how much oil is in the sauce.
After visiting the Terracotta Warriors the exit was about a mile away lined with souvenir shops and restaurants, all with hugely inflated prices. Luckily, we’d seen a noodle stall by the bus station, so we avoided all the restaurants and headed for the stalls. This noodle dish was quite spicy and tasted great.
This next meal was bought on the high speed train from Xi’an to Hong Kong. On the slower and much cheaper trains almost everyone brings their own food (a tub of noodles) but on these more expensive trains it’s rare to see people eating the noodles. This meal was OK, nothing great, but far nicer than food on an aeroplane.
In Hong Kong we visited a Dim Sum restaurant. Think of Dim Sum as a chinese type of tapas and you’ll be pretty close. It’s many small dishes of food. We ordered a range of dishes; spring rolls, fried something or another, fried egg and rice, pork dumplings and a dessert coated with honey. All delicious!
In Shanghai we decided to try a dumping restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet. We ordered some dumplings and hot and spicy noodles. The dumplings were amazing. Probably the best food we’d eaten in China. These dumplings are fried and contain shredded pork and lots of juices. The technique for eating them is to punch a hole in the top and pour in some vinegar, give it a swish with a chopstick and then pick it up and suck out the juices. Once the juices are gone it can be eaten however you want. I used the chopsticks to tear it into small pieces. Even the Chinese customers were struggling to eat them.
On our final day in Shanghai we had very little to do, so we went to a park to spend the afternoon wandering. Just before entering the park we spotted the familiar noodle stall. We bought them and went into the park to enjoy them in the shade.
A few days later we were in the city of Tunxi for an overnight stop en-route to Huangshan. The hostel was near the bus station but a couple of miles from the centre of town. This meant either a long walk or eating in the hostel. The non-stop torrential rain made it an easy decision and we ate an expensive, mediocre meal. Actually we ate both meals of the day there! And both were plain and underwhelming.
But the worst was to come the following morning. We were taking the bus to the foot of the mountain then we had about a 5-6 hour climb up steps to the summit of Huangshan, so we wanted a good and filling breakfast. I splashed out on the ‘American Breakfast’. Toast, jam, eggs, bacon and beans, it sounded perfect. Look at what we got:
The food up the mountain was OK for the evening meal and reasonably priced so long as we avoided meat dishes. The breakfast was massively overpriced and not very nice. We ate as much toast as we could!
A few days later we took the high speed train from Suzhou to Beijing and ate lunch on the train. Meat, veg and rice. Warm and bland but still better than food on planes!
In Beijing we were wandering the back streets to get a feel for the Hutongs of Beijing. Annemarie noticed a small notice board with the word dumplings on it. With a few gestures we ordered some dumplings and someone brought out onto the street a table and a couple of chairs. The dumplings were the same as the dumplings we’d eaten in Shanghai and were simply delicious! I pity all the western tourists who walked past us and went to the expensive western cafe next door. If they knew what they were missing out on I’m sure the street would have been lined with tables serving dumplings.
When you’re in Beijing a must do is to order Peking Duck. We found somewhere (a little touristy), which served duck at a reasonable price. The duck was very good, far better than Peking Duck we’d ordered back in the UK.
We spent a few nights in the rather rundown and grimy city of Taishan when climbing the mountain of the same name. The food on the street looked bad and the smell was even worse and the few restaurants didn’t look any better. But next door to our hotel was a buffet style restaurant serving large amounts of decent food for very low prices. We ate well in there. They even allowed half and half on each dish to give us more variety. Here we’re eating sweet & sour pork, egg and tomato, green beans and pork with some veg. Along with a couple of bowls of rice.
In summary, we’ve eaten far better on the second visit to China than the first. This is partly knowing what to look for and partly by eating the food on the streets. Most people seem to avoid it and that is a huge mistake. The street sellers usually wear gloves and use serving chopsticks to prepare the food. Let’s put it this way, in Nepal we ate in restaurants every night and had the shits very often, in China we ate from street carts most days and weren’t ill once.
Posted from here.