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Three Tips for Eating Well in China (Even With Limited Mandarin)

tip1As I was watching Dig Mandarin’s wonderful video Ordering and Eating Hot Pot in China, I was reminded of my own experiences with this culinary delight in Beijing. I first became aware of this type of cuisine when I asked one of my Chinese students about a restaurant across from the 西门(xī mén, west gate) of the PKU campus called, mysteriously (to me), in English, “Famed Restaurant for Rinse and Grill Meat.” “That’s a 火锅 (huŏ guō, hot pot) restaurant,” she explained. Never having heard of this type of restaurant before, I was happy when some time later a Chinese friend invited me to dinner at one, where the concoction we assembled in a large wok in the middle of the table looked like this:

(That red thing in the center is a spicy crab—yum!)
(That red thing in the center is a spicy crab—yum!)

So all of this reminiscing made me think about how important a role food plays in one’s quest to understand a culture and its language. Indeed, the most common question I would get, after telling someone that I had just gotten back from China, was “How was the food?” I would tell them that 90% of what I had to eat in China was absolutely delicious—Peking Roast Duck (北京烤鸭, Běi jīng kǎo yā), Sweet and Sour Mandarin Fish (松鼠桂鱼sōngshǔ guì yú), any stir-fried vegetable (especially green beans or broccoli), and my favorite of all time, dumplings (饺子,jiăozi). The other 10% of the food I occasionally encountered was a little weird (fried scorpions on a stick, little white sautéed silk worms, a mélange of duck tongues, and a tureen of chicken soup with AN ENTIRE CHICKEN, FEET AND HEAD INCLUDED inside), but I could easily pass up any of those for the majority of really tasty Chinese dishes.

The problem was how to order such wonderful food if I was on my own in China. Left to my own devices and forced to eat out nearly every day (because my hotel room had no cooking facilities), I quickly figured out some useful ways to keep from starving (or avoid eating goose intestines). Here are three of them:

  1. Try to find a restaurant that has menus in English. As Beijing, Shanghai, and other large Chinese cities become ever more cosmopolitan and internationally oriented, more and more restaurants provide such menus. (The translations on these menus are often hilarious: One listed a dish that was called “Eggplant and Fried Bees”; another, “Oven Bread and Gruel”; and another, “Rice Glue Balls.”) The word for menu in Chinese is 菜单 (cài dān): 你们有没有英文菜单 (nĭ men yŏu méi yŏu yīng wén cài dān) means, “Do you have an English menu?”
  2. If there is no English menu, see if there are at least pictures to help you out; then you can just point to what looks good to you. (You can also say, 这个, zhè ge, meaning “this one” as you point.) Be warned, however. Sometimes food that looks good on the page might turn out to be something you would not normally eat. When a Chinese friend asked me, “Which looks good to you on the menu?” I pointed to one tasty-looking dish and said, “This one. What is it?” “Dog,” she replied.
  3. tip3Be adventurous! You are a stranger in a stranger land, so expect that the food will be a little strange, too. Don’t ask what it is; you might just be surprised at how much you like food you have never eaten before. Although I’m not sure I’ll go out of my way again to eat frog dumplings (like I was trying to do in the picture), I do remember one night in Beijing when my colleague Deb Riegel and I went to a highly recommended dumpling restaurant, only to find that the menu had no English and no pictures. Deb is a vegetarian and knew how to say 我不吃肉 (wŏ bù chī ròu, “I don’t eat meat”) and then we left it up to the waitress to pick out dumplings for us. We had no idea what non-meat fillings those dumplings had, but they were delicious and we gobbled them up.

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Ellen Dowling

Ellen Dowling is a former visiting professor at Peking University, where she first fell in love with the Chinese language and Chinese culture. She has been studying Chinese for three years now in the States and is most gratified to share what she has learned with other students. She also has her own blog about her adventures in China and her explorations of all things Chinese.

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