I’m not terribly convinced that the Chinese like their own cuisine. I think it is an explanation as to why the people in this country are just so god damn slight. Had they proper food that included flavor, they might pack in a few pounds themselves. I hazard it also does much to explain why the McDonalds near my house is always god damn packed. Several times I have had the pleasure of eating with Chinese colleagues. Chinese food is of course all they will eat. So for reasons unknown, that is what we end up eating. Twice in my tenure here we have had large, company wide galas where massive amounts of food was served. Servers would come by with plates mounted high with… well, food. And nobody would ever want to touch the food in question. Now, I want to make it clear that I am not just talking about those coworkers of mine who are foreigners. No, even the Chinese colleagues only just picked at the food for curiosities sake. Most of the dishes left as packed as they came in, with one or two notable exception. By the time we left those events, all of us, Chinese and foreign staff alike, were ready to go get something to eat.
Even more damning that this were the potluck events that we did. Thanksgiving always ends up being such an event, where in the spirit of cross-cultural communication the management decided that the event should be a pot luck. For the foreigners they ordered two massive Turkeys. Or so they claim. But as the facts stand, we are working during that party, and thus we eat last. By the time we get a chance to eat, those two birds are stripped down to their succulent bones which, I am assuming, we foreign monkeys are meant to chew on. Oddly enough, there were just heaps of Chinese food left over. The cupcakes we ordered were gone, but the plate of the aforementioned chicken’s feet was overflowing. The mashed potatoes a foreign teacher brought in were consumed to the last gram, but the vegetables fried beyond recognition in trans-atlantic freighter oil were still there.
And this would be fine, were the Chinese not so stubborn as to never admit that their food sucks. I guess it must be some act of patriotism that pushes them to it, but they will insist till their blue in the face that Chinese food is great.
Keep telling yourselves that. Maybe one day it will become true.
As another very fast anecdote, I’ll bring up the class I taught once. The target language was words to describe food, and among the vocabulary was the word oily. As part of a content checking activity, I asked the students which words were positive, which negative, and which neutral. None of the students ever nominated the word oily as a negative. At best, I could get them to concede that it was a matter of taste.
This will explain a whole lot if you ever come here, as you will find as I have that all the food is greasy. That or they were afraid it would stick to the pan.
The majority of Chinese food is really unimpressive.
One I first arrived in China I tried a lot of it, because that is what you are meant to do when you move to a new place. Most of it was not terribly memorable, but the little of it that was got to be that way because it terrified me out of eating. But every now and again something was so mediocre as to be memorable for its incredible mediocrity. On one of my early days at work my boss was ordering food and I asked him to pick some things up for me. I found myself with some over-spiced anonymous nuggets of meat fried with vegetables. My lasting impression was that, if I knew as little about flavor combinations as the idiot who made this dish, I too was fairly sure I could reproduce this at home exactly as it was.
On a second occasion I was not so lucky. The boss ordered for me again and I ended up with a fairly popular dish of potatoes meant to be served in extremely thin strings. In defense of the chef, I can imagine this dish to be rather difficult to get right, as cook the potatoes to much and they lose their form, and cook them too little and they will be, well, raw potatoes. I got the raw potato variety, and they tasted about as good as raw potatoes can get. It didn’t taste of much else.
The Muslim restaurants in China serve something called Ro Gia Mo, jokingly called a ‘Roger Moore’ by the expat community. It is effectively China’s answer to a kebab, only not nearly as good. There are two places that make them near my house, but I’ve not tried one as when I enered the restaurant I was shoo’d away being told that they don’t speak English. But at the other place I have come to find that the Chinese kebab is a great big disappointment. Part of the reason is because instead of giving you meat, they mostly give you lettuce which they soak in the fat drippings first so that it tastes of something. The sandwich is rather insubstantial.
A friend invited me out one night to meet up with his friends way out in the middle of nowhere. I tend to finish work late, so I asked him if we would find food there. He assured me I would. Lo and behold, when I got the bar it turned out that there was no food there. What’s worse, just as I arrived all the people he had been with decided right then and there that they needed to get to bed (admittedly, these were proper responsible people, and not shit-bag teachers like your-truly). So me and my friend took a walk till we found a place that was serving food. After some time we stumbled upon a block and found a whole row of restaurants. We ended up at a Chinese place where we got the same frozen dumplings that you can get pretty much anywhere. But I looked around at some of the dishes the other people were eating, and it seemed to me that everything was covered in a layer of oil.
Of all the dishes I saw there, particularly haunting was a cluster of eggplant that sat like an island in a lake of oil dyed bright range from the spices it was cooked in. Anyone who has cooked with eggplant knows that the vegetable is little more than a sponge, and if you cook it in oil it will absorb a lot of it. I can only imagine how painful the resulting fatty liver disease must have been from eating such a dish.
I’d be an asshole if I didn’t give the devil her due. I have had some great food here. Dish of note that readers (Hi Eric) may not be aware of is Dong Po Ro, or Dong Po pork, or 东坡肉. This shit is fucking phenomenal. I have had this repeatedly at varying levels of quality, and even at its worst I found myself thinking “Yea, I could put back another portion of this.” And not ordering a second portion is an effort. I dont think I can properly describe what this dish is like, but if you see it on the menu somewhere, get it.
And to be completely fair to this city there are a handful of good restaurants. Mind you, they are extremely expensive and you will only go their occasionally. There are as well a handful of reasonably priced mediocre restaurants, which I find myself frequenting more and more often. This comes in cycles, as I will eventually either get sick of them, or the lazy Susan of this game will not look on me favorably and I will get food poisoning from one of them.
All of this is to say that China has been terrible for my health and my waistline. If I cant be fucked to cook, its McDonalds or nothing. There is a dumpling place close to my house that is alright, but it works really shitty hours and for the most part I never manage to catch it open. I was doing well for myself for a time, as I hated the food so much that I was constantly managing to prepare myself healthy meals. But after a while my discipline wanned and I fell of the wagon hard. Now I am doing my damnedest to get back on. Combine this with the fact that I never want to go anywhere to save my lungs from the polution, and you end up in a situation where the pounds back themselves on.
I blame China.
In short, if you like good food this is not the country for you.