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Fortune cookies are unknown in China. In fact, most of the time you don’t get desserts on the menu in restaurants. But when you slide open the door in an ice-cream chest you see a really large number of colourful packets. It would be fun to trace the history of ice cream in a country where sweets are not a big thing. Many of the flavours are pretty exotic, I haven’t always figured out what I’m tasting. The Family has more experience in these matters, but she can’t always figured it out either. That didn’t keep us from trying them out again and again, especially since Beijing seems to have slid into summer a little early. I guess part of the fun is that we can’t read the wrappers.

Can anyone help with the wrappers in the photo?

The familiar dumpling

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Until yesterday I subscribed to the myth that Chinese food in India is nothing like the real Chinese food. But yesterday I walked into one of a chain of dumpling restaurants called Meituan. The menu was in Chinese, the English part was not a translation, but Pinyin: Chinese written out in the Roman script. This left us a little flummoxed. Our terror grew when the waiter explained with gestures that when we made our choices we should enter them into a printed form that was on the table. Eventually this turned out to be easier than it first seemed, because every dish was numbered, and the form had the corresponding number.

This problem being resolved, we turned to the more pleasant job of deciphering the Chinese from the photos. The first discovery was that wontons were on the menu but they were called hun tun in Mandarin (the word we are familiar with comes from Cantonese). Siu mai was also on the menu, but called shao mai. We decided to have one of each, and then add some dumplings which looked familiar, and one which didn’t. When they arrived, these tasted completely familiar: exactly what I have eaten in Chinese restaurants in India. We confidently spiced the wonton soup with the chili sauce and soya to make a complete Indian potage out of it. The unfamiliar looking dumpling was dark in colour and the skin had a very nice flavour. Perhaps it was made of millets.

There were many things which were new to us. Among them was something which had been recommended by a friend: er ba. These are glutinous rice balls rolled in bamboo leaves and then stuffed inside the hollow stem of bamboo to be steamed. We ordered a plate. They were unfamiliar but very good: the flavour of bamboo reminded me of the Kerala breakfast dish called puttu. But the rice has a different taste, and it had little crunchy pieces of something fairly aromatic which added to the experience.

The most surprising items were the other two whose photos are alongside. The Shou Gong Ci Ba was the one dish The Family was dubious about, “I hope it is not egg”. It was the first thing to arrive at the table. I looked at the deep brown sauce and the light tan dusting of garnish over it and said it reminded me of something sweet. It was. The dark sauce was molasses, with a wonderful dark and earthy taste, and the filling in the dumpling was sweet. It reminded me of a traditional Bengali sweet called pitha which my grandmother used to make.

From the fact that the balls came in so many colours, we figured that the Du Jia Zhan Fen Tang Yuan would be sweet. It was the last to arrive. The garnish was sweet: crushed biscuits and peanuts, and the filling was mildly sweet. A good end to a satisfying meal.

Interestingly, the eight dishes we had ordered cost very little. With the beer added on, we paid a touch over RMB 100 for the meal. The Family pronounces it a good meal and the best value we have got from an unrecommended restaurant.

Try to eat something new

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Tired of eating the same things day in and day out? Try out this lovely white and purple cold cooked fish skin. Guaranteed to be crunchy without being gritty, and at the same time somewhat clammy. Not much taste, but a new sensation in the mouth. Never fear, you will survive.

Don’t worry (too much) about eating in China

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.

2015-05-29 21.16.12Bakeries 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.

Noodle shops

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We discovered noodle shops in Shanghai as we walked through the lilongs of Xintiandi. At lunch time they filled up suddenly. The first noodle shop we ate in was crowded with young and well-dressed working people. The food was slow to arrive, belying the name of fast food places, but very good. There were all kinds of delicious little add ons. The one I tried is the famous Chinese tea egg.

After arriving in Beijing I tried a quick lunch in a noodle shop a few times. This was less pleasant. One of these places was run by a Muslim family from Xinjiang, and they made “hand-pulled noodles” right in the shop. This was fascinating to watch. Dough was fulled into flat sheets by hand, folded over repeatedly, and divided each time into thinner and thinner pieces, until you had thin noodles. This was quickly boiled, slapped into a bowl, filled with a simmering broth, pieces of lamb added in, and a hot sauce slapped on top (see photo above). Interesting to watch, but not great to eat.

We tried a few other noodle places, and were equally disappointed. I wonder whether the difference is between Shanghai and Beijing, or between a place frequented by salaried young people versus one which caters to students. Whatever it is, I gave up on noodle shops in Haidian very quickly.

Street food of Xi’an: persimmons


You know that you are at one end of the old silk route when you go to a market in Xi’an and shops sell you dates and dried persimmons. The dates are very good, and cheaper than in India. The dried persimmons were new to me. They are sweeter than dried apricots, very flavourful, and large.

Street food in Xi’an: octopus

Street food in Xi’an is exciting. In a street full of different kinds of stalls I found this guy selling octopus fritters. I’ve had a toasted octopus while strolling on the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong, but the fritters are new to me. They seem to be as popular as lollipops. I saw people eating them in Shanghai, and now again in Xi’an. Unfortunately I see them after I’ve already eaten. I hope Beijing has them too, because I really want to taste them.

Ordering food in China

Two things about ordering food in restaurants in China take getting used to.

The first is that you order everything together. There is no real distinction between appetizer and the main dishes. You choose all that you think you will find edible, order it, and it will arrive as it gets ready: do not expect appetizers to arrive first. We reconciled it with our Indian experience by thinking of a Gujarati thali, where again, everything arrives in any order whatever, and you can go back and forth. Exactly like that, in Chinese restaurants, the rice is more or less the end of the meal.

The second is when to pay. In some restaurants you get a bill at the end of the meal. In some, especially the smaller establishments, you order and pay and then find a table for yourself; only then should you even expect the food to arrive. There is also the third method: the food and the bill arrive together, and you pay before you begin to tuck in to the meal. We do see all three methods in India, the problem is that our expectation of which restaurant will use which method is wildly off.

That’s cultural differences for you.