For me, food is a way to really experience other cultures. When I think back on various trips I’ve taken, it’s always a memory of tasting a new dish or sharing a meal with friends that pops into my head. Famous buildings and landmarks blur together in my mind, while the salty, sweet, or spicy flavors of the foods I tried remain clear and distinct. Having visited a fair share of Chinese restaurants prior to coming here, I expected to eat a lot of rice with chunks of meat drowning in various sauces. The reality is quite different.
We have breakfast every morning near the hotel, usually at 7:45 or 8:00am. Luckily it’s buffet-style, so everyone is free to choose what they want. Numerous chafing dishes full of salty, cooked vegetables are intermixed with others full of dried salty fish and “Steams the maize,” a chewy rendition of corn-on-the-cob. There are also hard-boiled eggs, which seem to be popular with our group. On the next table are pots of rice porridge and other oatmeal-like gruel. I really enjoy the rice porridge, especially with a little sugar to sweeten it up. Drinks range from coffee and tea to orange juice and soy milk and are served in miniscule glasses by American standards.
Lunch usually takes place at the student cafeteria. On a scale of 1 to 10 for scariness, our first lunch rated about an 11. Various numbered stands lined two of the walls, some with pictures of their offerings and others with only Chinese characters listing the food they served. That day was particularly crowded and we struggled to understand how to even pay for what we wanted since everyone else was using their student cards. Somehow we figured it out though and no one went hungry. We’ve gone back almost every day and now I question what we were ever worried about. I always go back to the same stand and now the woman there already knows what I want: a plate of thick noodles with beef and cabbage, just a little spicy. What’s most amazing are the prices. A plate of dumplings in only 4RMB, not even a dollar. Noodle dishes range from 7 to 9RMB, or about $1.10-$1.50, and they’re big enough to split between two people! I’m really going to miss the prices.
Dinner is the most adventurous of the meals. Many times Dr. Forest’s Chinese students accompany us, which is helpful since they know what’s good. It’s hard to rely on pictures alone, and the translations are sometimes unintelligible. Today’s menu included delightful options such as Saliva Beef, Mermaid, Moo Meat, and Drunken Fish. Most of the names were so crazy I can’t even remember them. My favorite dinner so far was in the Sichuan style, which is generally spicy. At dinner we order a sampling of dishes to share. The tables usually come equipped with a Lazy Susan so everyone at the table can try everything without too much hassle. This is important because the plates are usually the size of a saucer, so it’s difficult to load on too much food. We usually get some type of tofu dish, eggplant, several meat dishes, and vegetables, as well as a big bowl of rice.