“The key to eating real Chinese food is to not ask what it is”
- Catherine Roberts
I never believed I was a picky eater. I eat everything. Except fish, seafood, cucumbers, any animal where I can still see its head, corned beef, runny eggs, tripe, certain stewed meats, weirdly textured food, and dry cake (as a baker this really infuriates me). But that’s normal, right? My parents have repeatedly told me that I’m a fussy foodie, but my brother used to be way worse – at one stage he lived on white bread and marmite – and when I compared myself to him, I thought that I was actually quite bold with my food choices.
I arrived in Shenzhen with the positive attitude that I would try all the food that I was offered and on a very empty stomach. I sat down for my first meal with my host family and was told that I was going to eat a traditional Cantonese breakfast. I was ready. They gave me a bowl of rice porridge, which was actually just mushy rice with the water it was boiled in, and salted duck egg. I lost my appetite almost immediately after the first spoonful. A few hours later I felt prepared for dinner and was pleased to see we were eating Chinese hot pot, which I had already been introduced to in South Africa, until I realized the majority of the meat was fish and seafood. I was suddenly less enthusiastic to eat boiled fish tofu and greedily snatched any piece of beef floating around in the metal dish that was giving me hell in form of fish. That I was drinking quite a lot of red wine to try and cope with my situation, combined with fact that I was not over my jet lag, caused me to feel less than fresh the next day.
Luckily, thanks to my all-nighter on the plane, I overslept and missed breakfast. That afternoon we went to a fast food restaurant. It didn’t actually sell fast food, but they just sold food fast. Almost like a cafeteria, you took a bowl of rice and chose whichever vegetables and meat you wanted and then paid for your choice. The food wasn’t unhealthy, they were all traditional Chinese dishes, and it was really cheap. The customers also ate their food extremely quickly, they barely engaged in conversation with each other, and returned to work (the restaurant was situated between a block of office buildings). Who am I kidding? It was a cafeteria.
I quickly learned to identify beef, pork and chicken because many meats were unidentifiable even by the locals. If they tilt their head while looking at it quizzically and say, “Uhm… I think its pork,” then it might not be your best bet. I also learned to eat plain rice and relish it for its blandness. I admitted defeat. I was a picky eater. I started to dread meal times and what might end up on my plate. But I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or hurt anyone’s feelings and I had a constant internal battle that was driving me crazy.
We once sat down to a whole fish with the head still attached and cucumber salad. How was I going to get through this meal? “Sorry, but I literally do not eat everything that’s on the table.” I could feel the blood draining from my face as I stared speechlessly at the table. I almost cheered when Gigi brought out four extra dishes containing pork, beef, chicken, and vegetables. It was then that I learnt the trick to surviving in China as a picky eater.
The Chinese do not eat from one big dish, but each person has a small bowl of rice and eats bits and pieces from a range of different dishes. The amount of dishes on the table is usually also a lucky Chinese number, such as six or nine – seven is surprisingly considered an unlucky number, while thirteen is not. Luckily, they also do not take offence if you do not like a particular dish; my host family had visited South Africa on a number of occasions and knew that there was a huge difference between our diets. South Africans eat large portions of meat and the Chinese eat a lot of rice and noodles. They noticed which foods I liked and made sure there were large varieties in our meals – this would ensure that I would like at least one of the dishes. They mostly just appreciated the fact that I was willing to try most foods, but understood that I drew the line at far out things such as rabbit’s head, pig’s ear and chicken feet.
One thing I did appreciate about their cuisine was their way of drinking tea: they did not use teabags, rarely used strainers and their jasmine tea was just divine. They had teahouses instead of cafes, from which you could choose a multitude of different flavoured teas. And I loved weird and exotic teas. The nicest tea I had was a peach and jasmine infused green ice tea with small rice balls. Quite a mouthful isn’t it? But it was the best drink I had tasted in my life up until that point.
While trying out a range of different meals originating from different provinces, I knew I was bound to come across a few dishes that I would like. While we were in Chengdu, I had the most scrumptious pork dumplings and beef ribs with peas. I also learnt that sometimes the dishes don’t look particularly pleasing, but end up being delicious. I once sat down to a bowl of what appeared to be a mixture of eyeballs in a broth – for breakfast. Turns out the eyeballs were made from sticky rice and were filled with sweet red kidney beans and sweet potato. The broth was sweet and made with red sugar. It was the yummiest breakfast I had eaten since I came to China and I was quite sad when it was finished.
One thing you just have to remember is not to watch how they prepare the food, because it really might put you off your meal. As Calvin Trillin, an American food writer, put it:
“When it comes to Chinese food, I have always operated under the policy that the less known about the preparation the better. A wise diner who is invited to visit the kitchen replies by saying, as politely as possible, that he has a pressing engagement elsewhere.”