While we were planning our trip to China, we were inundated with suggestions about how to eat in China. Most Indians have a horror of the kind of food they will find in China. Most of this turns out to be untrue. The Family had never been to China, and did not trust my suggestion that she will not dislike Chinese food: I’ve been labelled as a person who will enjoy the strangest kind of food. So a fair fraction of our baggage allowance was long-lasting Indian food.
But now, as we near the end of our trip, a large weight of food is left over, because we enjoyed the food and ate a lot. And, of course, we have put on a few kilos each. We will have to work hard to shed them when we get back to Mumbai. One of my colleagues from India, who is also here on work, is a strict vegetarian, and has never gone hungry in China. So The Family and I thought we would put together some advise for Indians eating in China.
Rule Zero: You will begin to miss Indian food if you travel in China (or any other country) for a while. So carry snacks, and decide how you are going to deal with the sudden urge to eat dal. Will you carry some heat-and-eat packets, or use the Indian embassy’s list of Indian restaurant?
Vegetarians: Do not go to fast food places, they are mainly meat based, and it is unlikely that someone will speak enough English to be able to help you. Restaurants inside malls are reasonably priced, there are lots of choices, and the picture menus (subtitles in English and Chinese) help you to decide whether or not something is vegetarian. You can eat calmly (or qualm-lessly) in these place. There are many vegetarian dishes: cabbage, cauliflower, eggplant, bhindi, pumpkin, lotus, yams, mushrooms, tofu. Point and order. Plain boiled rice is called mifan, and can be ordered separately even if it is not on the menu. The Chinese make a thing like a stuffed paratha, but their translation into English is pancakes. We had a wonderful pumpkin filled paratha/pancake. If the paratha has a meat filling, then the menu will say it.
Cautious non-vegetarian: Again, avoid fast food places and go to malls. The picture menus with English and Chinese subtitles are useful. Mutton is called yang rou, chicken is called ji rou. Fish is good. Eggs can be strange. Pancakes can taste very Indian. Beef is called niu rou, pork is zhu rou, no is mei you (so, no beef becomes mei you niu rou). There are many Muslim restaurants which will give you things which are like kababs. Muslim restaurants serve mostly mutton. Just memorize the names of the meats.
Bakeries and cafes: There are many western style bakeries and cafe chains. They all have completely recognizable food: breads, cakes, sandwiches, waffles. If you cannot survive on green tea, then you can get coffees and teas at these cafes. Be warned two cups of coffee may cost you as much as your dinner.
Typically our dinners are three dishes: a vegetable dish, a meat, and a fish, along with two bowls of plain boiled rice. This costs us RMB 120 to 200. Purely vegetarian meals can be a little cheaper. In malls you can expect to be able to get knives and forks if you want. Hot water is free, every other drink comes at a cost.
Do not panic, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says.