Thursday, September 28, 2006

Food fun in Beibei!

Well, we have been in Beibei for four weeks now, so I guess that makes me an expert of sorts. One topic that seems to interest most folks—a reflection of biological necessity no doubt—is “what do you eat?” So, today’s topic is food. To whet your appetite, I heartily recommend the recent addendum written by Honor’s own Vickrama Rangala concerning Indian cuisine and Balti traditions in particular.

My wife and I have spent a good deal of time living in other countries (mostly in Latin America), so we consider ourselves rather resourceful when it comes to the essence of human survival—eating. Nonetheless, a common warning that we received from friends and colleagues who had visited China was that it was going to be difficult dealing with food. One colleague who had visited China reported that he had lost ten pounds in ten days. At least two people specifically recommended putting several packages of crackers in our luggage so we would have something to tide us over between sparse meals.

With the perspective of fours weeks on the ground, I am happy to report that we are eating well and that the prospect of either of us returning in December weighing slightly more than our baggage is, so to speak, slim. We sure aren’t eating what we normally eat in Gainesville, but we are eating well and have no problem finding adequate refreshment.

We mainly eat at small shops in the student ghetto which is adjacent to Southwest University (photo). As with any university, this small area is filled with small shops catering to the needs of the 50,000 students at SWU. Along our little strip of stores, there are two bicycle repair shops, two office supply stores, one water store (everyone buys drinking water in 5 gallon containers), numerous unisex barber/beauty shops, and lots of small sit-down restaurants. Most of these restaurants serve 15-30 patrons from a small mom and pop kitchen in the back.

These restaurants are not terribly attractive by American standards. Most are crowded, with poor ventilation, lots of flies, and some trash on the floor. If you are not too hungry, you can peek in the back to see dishes being washed by hand in used, cold water. Stated another way, if you want to eat, there are some things you learn to ignore. These restaurants come in two varieties depending on the cooking/eating method. The regional specialty is what are known as “hot pot “restaurants. The rest are more like a typical American café with sit-down service and a varied menu from which the patron selects his or her meal. There will be more on “hot pots” next week.

Most restaurants have similar fare, but each has its own specialties and unique characteristics. In general, your meal will come from one of two sources—either the broth pot or the wok. The broth pot is a large pot of beef or chicken stock that is kept hot at all times. Typically you get broth with noodles cooked to order (usually a very thin noodles) along with some veggies and/or a little bit of meat thrown in. The meat, veggies, and noodles are captured with your chopsticks. Then you pick up the bowl and drink the remaining broth. It is a good, satisfying meal and my wife is delighted that I am eating more veggies than I would ever consume in Gainesville. Most of these meals will run you well under $1.00 per bowl. Many locals will supplement a bowl of noodles with a bowl of rice.

The wok produces a little more variety. One favorite restaurant cooks up noodles (the flat kind) with chopped veggies, meat, oil, and spices. It all goes in the wok and is cooked at a very high temperature for a short period of time. It is really quite good and nutritious. The alternative is more like what you would normally get at a “Chinese” restaurant in the States. This is a dish of meat and/or veggies that has been cooked in the wok with plenty of oil. It is served with a large bowl of sticky (steamed) rice on the side. The amount of rice served is way more than you will ever eat; but don’t worry, the leftovers get recycled into the fare of the next customer. Last night we had a very nice chicken with peanuts dish cooked in an oily sauce with spices that give Sichaun food its reputation for being hot and spicy fare. These dishes usually run in the $1.00 to $1.50 range per plate, depending on how much meat is included.

There are two other peculiarities about restaurants that require some adjustment. First, there is no tipping. In fact, tips are considered an insult. Second, with the exception of beer at some restaurants, drinks are on your own. It is perfectly accepted to bring in your own bottle of water or soda for your meal. I think the reason most restaurants don’t bother with drinks is that they don’t want to deal with inventory and refrigeration issues.

Back to the original advice we received before we left: crackers are very plentiful. At our little store where we buy snacks and accessories, there is about ten feet of shelf space, from top to bottom, filled with crackers and cookies. And, the crackers are tasty, fresh, and cheap. In hindsight, I am very glad we did not bring a lot of crackers to China. Now, how about a pizza?


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