In China, do they go to Chinese Restaurants? Or just Restaurants?

"Eat anything with four legs except tables and eat anything that flies except airplanes"
-Ancient Confucian saying, circa 2009 A.D

Typical restaurant table - you will note that my plate is empty

Shanghai is not an easy place to be a foodie. If you eat meat, you have the problem of excess and choices to the heavens. If you are a veggie-foodie, things start getting a little dicey. But you can still manage if you plan your meals very very well, and much in advance and after a lot of research. Oh.. you should also deliberately dull your sense of smell, sight, taste, touch and hearing to just eat in a Shanghainese restaurant

Lunching and dining with Chinese colleagues from work was always a challenge, since everyone preferred local food and were great, great meat eaters. For me, I always came away hungrier than I started off. While the rest of the table would gorge on a huge pot of soup, with a whole fish head, or sumptuously snack on the tender bits of a bovine udder, I would be forced to make do with vegetables boiled in salt water and heaven knows what oil.

Chinese dinner tables are round and huge and are made to seat everyone around with a turntable in the middle so that it is easy to pass the dishes around. The Chinese, like us Indians, are huge fans of sharing dishes, unlike in the West where each one gets their own dish ( Joey doesn't share food!!). The turn table would spin round and round passing the dishes and at best, I might be able to grab a couple of grains of rice and a sprig of asparagus to nibble on while I patiently wait for my celery and coriander salad. Somehow, the most exotic sounding dish (Braised duck stewed in Sauteed Oyster and Sichuan peppers) always took a lot less time to arrive at the table than the simplest (Fried Potatoes)

Not cockroaches- just lots of red chillies

And then there was the office party during Chinese New Year where I just sat and stared at a rooster. Not a wing, not a nugget, not a leg. But a WHOLE damn rooster, wings, feer, beak, head, comb and everything. I can swear that it blinked and clucked at me! The same meal saw strawberry cake being served with meat floss topping. puke. Puke! PUUUUKE!!!!

My colleagues were really understanding and tried their best to help the wait-staff understand the concept of vegetarianism

Them :"He is vegetarian - bring chicken"
Me : "I don't eat chicken"
Them: "Oh sorry ! Bring fish then"
Me: "Sorry... no fish either"
Them: "Ok Ok bring the sea cucumbers and clam. He'll love them"
Me: "Whaaaaa....????"

Things noticeably improved over time, the waiter would remove the offending piece of meat from the dish before serving it to me or, simply pick the vegetables around the dish.

But not all was bad, I also used to frequent a restaurant which served dumplings and ONLY dumplings. I picked up enough Mandarin to order "zhege- meiyou rou" (This one without meat)
Being the only Indian, to visit that restaurant, the staff knew me well enough what I wanted everytime I went!

My experience in many restaurants is that they are not flexible with changing the dishes. If you want to swap spaghetti for penne, you have a tough task ahead. The staff find it very very hard to do anything outside what is standard operating procedure. Waiters in China do not receive tips. Its just not done. If you ever go there, don't tip the wait staff... you'll end up spoiling it for the locals.

Chini ishtyle khau-galli in Beijing

Street food is really really special in China. There are many, many varieties of food and I did try quite a few. It was only the lack of language skills that prevented me from having more. I learned enough to ask whether something had meat or if it was sweet or salty. But usually, the vendor wouldn't understand me because he was too dazed by a brown guy speaking in an atrocious accent and was about to break out into a soulful rendition of "Awala goo". The Chinese version of the khau-galli is not too different from India - rows and rows of shops selling food to scores of customers. The atmosphere was the same, the crowds were the same, the confusion identical. But what was different was this :

Don't ask me what THAT is..

...Fried tentacles doesn't seen to be on the menu

Chinese snacks are pretty interesting too. A particular delicacy seems to be pickled chicken feet. Yes. You read that correctly. The feet. The clawy thing at the end of a foot. JUST the foot. Apparently, there is such a large market for it that they have to import chicken feet from the US, where it is a waste by product of the poultry industry. In fact, it is such a staple that it became the center of a trade row between US and China. For those who are interested in details and such, a ton of chicken feet goes for US$ 500 - 750 depending on quality and processing involved.

Another favorite in the office were these small round Ferrero-Rocher type things that at first looked really yummy and chocolatey. But upon closer inspection, you can make out the scales, legs and whiskers of fried cicadas and beetles. I believe that the assorted pack with the peppered praying mantis is a particular favourite of many.

The hot pot is something to relish and gives a fondue like atmosphere and is a great option to catch up with friends, dip food into a pot of boiling water, vegetables and spices. Each person gets their own pot, heated by a wax flame till boiling. Once it starts boiling, you dip the various ingredients - rice sticks, tofu, mushrooms, leeks, cabbage, zucchini, basically anything and everything. Once the bits have become soft, you dip them in various sauces, eat and enjoy.

Dumplings galore

Commode-shaped dishes were a must

Trampled byY Trip at Thursday, May 06, 2010


"just a pen in my hand" said... May 7, 2010 at 4:08 AM  

thank god i was born in India and still live here ! nva wanna leave this place !!!!

Sanjay said... May 7, 2010 at 6:22 AM  

Neat..sets expectations clearly for the 1st timer. Thanks for the tip about the tip; Expected to see some snake pictures..glad there weren't any.

Y Trip said... May 7, 2010 at 12:40 PM  

@Sanjay : I was tempted, but I didnt have a good one :)

@just a pen in my hand : Open your eyes, expand your horizons. become a better person

Nisha said... May 7, 2010 at 8:39 PM  

You know what? I have been thinking of visiting China in next couple of years but this food thing is a major obstacle.
I am not a vegetarian but still can't imagine myself eating snakes & frog's legs etc.

Y Trip said... May 7, 2010 at 9:09 PM  

@Nisha : even if you do eat meat, it is difficult to get by.. so says a friend. If you are really adventurous you may, just may be able to eat properly.

Thanks for stopping by !!

Anirban said... May 8, 2010 at 9:34 AM  

Awesome post dude! I can imagine it being hard as a non-vegetarian Indian person in China. Your post puts even that into perspective.

Take care. :)

Purba said... May 8, 2010 at 9:36 AM  

Even hardcore non vegetarians find it hard to stomach authentic Chinese fare.

The sight is repelling enough..
Scorpions, Sea Horse, Slithery things propped up on a stick...gross

Wonder what the Chinese think about our butter chicken??? Gross???

Y Trip said... May 8, 2010 at 9:51 AM  

@Purba : they say " how do you guys eat such spicy food ???" they just cannot manage. The Chinese spiciness comes from the whole red chillies and the sichuan pepper. Whereas, majority comes from Chilly powder, pepper and other spices, the combination of which makes the concoction all the more potent.

The site must be repelling.. but they say 'slurp yumm, wow'

@Anirban : whenever we travelled, we made sure got some theplas from this gujarati guy. That helped a lot.
oh... and we also printed out directions to the closest pizza hut/papa johns

Radha said... July 6, 2010 at 7:43 PM  

I refused to enter a Chinese khau-galli in Kuala Lumpur because the smell emanating from there scared the hell out of me.. After reading your post, I think I would starve if I were in China.. Or, I would find a house next to a Subway outlet :)

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