Chambers at Large: Eating Out in China
“You’ll find the food very different!” said one world weary friend grimacing. “And for goodness sake take a knife and fork with you, a spork if necessary. You won’t see cutlery the whole time you’re there!”
“Better take some biscuits or energy bars to keep you going,” said another, pulling faces. “The food is unpalatable!”
I tend to not listen to fellow travellers and their nightmare holidays from hell, thinking many exaggerate or are just plain fussy. However, when it comes to food, I wasn’t going to take a chance, so I packed a knife and fork and pushed an array of energy bars into every available crevice of my suitcase, fully prepared to keep hunger at bay.
All, but one, of the restaurants I visited had Western toilets and supplied knives and forks. I can therefore confidently report the eateries were as salubrious as any Chinese restaurant at home, all having clean napery, china plates and sparkling glasses. (In one, the crockery came wrapped in sealed plastic. Very hygienic, but not environmentally friendly.)
I dined with at least seven others each evening and the experience was very much the same. A Lazy Susan was in the centre of a round table and dishes were placed upon it by several waitrons and we were invited to help ourselves. First and foremost a large dish of sticky rice was placed on the turntable followed by multiple veg dishes, fried prawns, sweet and sour pork, strips of beef and chicken, a variety of soups, lotus flowers and homemade warm crisps. We all tucked in and Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “The only thing to do with advice is pass it on. It’s never any use to oneself.” Because, I can say, hand on heart, all the meals I had were delicious. So much for being told Chinese food was nothing like it was at home. It was better!
The lotus flower was strong, but crunchy and I loved the bok choi cabbage, which I polished off. I didn’t chance the soup, wary of the water, but others said it was hot, as in peppery. A free glass of beer accompanied every meal, which was cold and refreshing, unlike my fellow travellers, who were warm and forthcoming.
One minor drawback was the absence of desserts. The Chinese do not do sugar. Perhaps they consider themselves sweet enough. If a dessert was served, it was watermelon, therefore I was thankful for my toffee energy bars.
The sun shone the entire time I was in China and as my newfound friends and I were forever on the go, we took ten minutes most mornings to have a coffee. One fellow traveller was overheard to ask for a Skinny Latté.
‘Good luck with that,’ I laughed and even my guide smiled, as if the woman had asked for a pot of gold.
The village of Zhijaoijaio, aptly described as a mini-Venice, is a quaint little spot just outside Shanghai. It is over 1000 years old, with narrow streets adjacent to canals on which are sampans: flat boats constructed in three parts. There are cruisers too. Side streets are lined with stalls selling all sorts of foodstuffs including stuffed cabbage leaves, quail (on sticks), glazed pork, fruits, and souvenirs, mainly T-shirts emblazoned with Chinese lettering, I was told said: peace, good health, happiness and the like.
Of course, I found a bar and was joined by several others, only to pay 50 yuan for a beer, an exorbitant tourist price (£6), for not much more than half a pint. Yet, we all agreed we could have been sitting by the Thames in Kingston or the River Nidd in Knaresborough, if it wasn’t for the extraordinary noise of some of the boats passing by.
The China of pagodas and ladies in tight kimonos is most certainly a thing of the past in the environs of Shanghai, although there was a pagoda by the canal, an orange/yellow three-storey structure with a red front door. I can’t say it was very attractive, the wood being more of a dusky grey than a polished brown.
What was certainly very unattractive was the evening I chose to eat duck in a restaurant in Yangshou, a beautiful area in southern China, remarkable for its karsks and the price of beer being 12 yuan for half a litre! Although this did not put me off my meal, the whole bird was sliced and plated, including the head! I covered it with a paper napkin, not wanting to be reminded that the meat staring at me was once swimming and flying around the waters of rural China.
In the same restaurant, at 5pm, the young twenty-something staff lined up in three straight rows and the manageress stood before them. All dressed in similar black and white attire the manager said something, and the group responded by clapping in sync: clap, clap, clap. In an army like briefing she spoke to them, her speech interspersed with the response of a rhythmic, clap-clap-clap. I watched, fascinated, presuming this was a means of motivation and the “meeting” finished with a cheer and concluding clap-clap-clap. I ate at this restaurant three times and have to say it was entertaining as well as an experience, thus if the staff weren’t motivated, I was.
Overall, eating out in China proved to be a pleasure, but in one Shanghai restaurant a pretty twenty something waitress was wearing a black T-shirt, on which was written, in gold lettering, a message I wish to convey to those who give advice: “Fuck Off Arseholes!” But it left me wondering what was really written on the T-shirts?