Odyssey in the Orient
Dining critic reflects on recent trip to China
I am a very lucky, very privileged person in many ways. After all, I spend much of my time eating and writing, two favorite pursuits for which I never dreamed I’d be paid. In the realm of travel, another passion of mine, I’ve been equally lucky and over the years have toured the States, Central America, Europe and most recently-- as many readers of the column know -- China.
The circumstances of this adventure were unique. An international friend once working in the States was moved to China several years ago, where he met and fell in love with Chinese woman, slight of build and big of heart and spirit. Along with many of their friends and family, we undertook the long (14-hour-time-difference long) journey to attend and celebrate their wedding.
The trip was a cross-cultural adventure in every way. In fact, my husband and I were the only Americans in a wedding party that represented 12 other countries from around the world. For me, though, China was also a cross-interest adventure, mixing my love of travel with my love of food.
For the most part, our journey took place in Xinjiang, China’s largest and most diverse province, which borders eight other countries. Russia, India, Mongolia and five countries ending in “stan.” After the wedding, the party then took a quick but intensely beautiful trip to Tibet. Along the way, I shared my photos and impressions about my eating experiences on Facebook and Twitter.
A trip of this scale, however, cannot be conveyed only in such a condensed way. Now that I’m back, let me share with those who are interested a few more in-depth thoughts and lessons learned during my Oriental odyssey.
- Share and share alike. I suppose Americans are individualistic. We want to choose our one meal off the menu, and it’s *ours*. You can have a bite. Maybe. Sure, take a taste, but this plate is mine. With a few notable exceptions -- parties of 2-3 people, small market cafes or noodle shops -- the Chinese restaurants I experienced were mostly family-style. A long list of dishes is ordered and placed in the center of the table, on which sits a massive, glass Lazy Susan. You spin the disc one way or another to reach each food, spooning it on to your plate. (Helpful hint: Set your digital camera to video mode and place it on the spinner to capture amusing images of everyone at the table.)
- Cleanliness is cultural. Well, to a certain degree. We can all agree that lack of sanitation is not only disgusting, but also dangerous. Even so, China lacks the kind of strict regulation we expect in America and the Western world. Things like plastic gloves and hairnets. In summer, there are flies, and that’s considered normal as long as it’s not excessive. I rarely was able to see the inside of a kitchen, but seeing the customer bathrooms is unavoidable. The sanitation in Chinese bathrooms outside major cities and tourist attractions is … something I do not want to mention in a food column. (Helpful hint: Bring hand sanitizer.) It’s sometimes difficult not to associate the one room’s cleanliness with that of the kitchen, even though I’m assured most are clean and healthy. Eat at well-traveled restaurants where the food turns over quickly; trust locals and your guides for recommendations. And, if the soup looks like dirty dishwater, eat the snacks you stash in your bag for such situations instead.
- No one out-beers Colorado. Coffee is expensive in China. Expect to pay more than the price of one meal for one cup of Joe, even more if you’re at the airport. It’s highway robbery. Beer, on the other hand, is cheap: about 15-30 yuan or $2-$4 per large 20-ounce bottle. Don’t expect much, though. Most Chinese beers, including the Tibetan Lhasa and barley beers, are less that 4 percent alcohol by volume. They’re also pale and light, which can be refreshing in the steaming hot summer but is far from satisfying for this Colorado girl. Plus, Budweiser is everywhere. Even halfway around the world, you cannot escape Anheuser-Busch.
- What’s breakfast? I mentioned in a Facebook post that the Chinese don’t seem to understand the concept of breakfast, that the morning meal should offer a different sort of food than other meals. Instead, the Chinese seem happy to load up on the same dishes available on lunch and dinner menus: garlic broccoli, tofu, stuffed dumplings, noodle soup, eggplant, black fungus, spicy seafood, etc. There are also almost no breakfast restaurants or even bakeries, the latter because there’s little tradition of oven baking in the country. If you want a morning meal, you have to rely on the hotel’s buffet. Having eaten a few hotel buffet dinners, I can confirm: The same exact dishes are often wheeled out for breakfast. By the end of the trip, I was jonesing for eggs. In fact, I ate every bite of a tin-encased meal of omelet, grey sausage and mushy potatoes on the flight back to America. Every spongy bite of reheated egg.
- Go local. I know, I said trust your guide. Do trust him or her for the most part, but local restaurants often give guides kickbacks if they guide groups to the eatery’s tables. You can find yourself eating at the same kind of place day after day, the kind of place that’s easy and maybe has pictures or English text on the menu. Rewards can be found where the locals eat, too. I had the best homemade noodles of the trip at a tiny noodle shop we happened to stumbled on. Two white-coated men in the back were stretching a thick cord of dough the length of the kitchen. They sectioned that into two, then with a flurry of motion hard to follow, stretched it around and in between their hands into strands hanging between their fingers, throwing the batch directly into a steaming pot. There was no English. Instead, I saw a plate of something that looked good and used pantomime to suggest I wanted something similar. I was not disappointed.
The memories of friends, historic sites, beautiful scenery, Chinese culture and Chinese food from such a once-in-a-lifetime trip will stay with me forever. And I hope sharing a small part of that trip has been an interesting journey for readers, as well. I also hope that everyone someday has the luck in travel that I’ve been privileged to experience.
That said, can someone out there please fall in love in another foreign place and invite me to the wedding? New Zealand or Australia would be excellent choices. Or, I’ve heard Peruvians are quite attractive…