I lived in China between 2006 and 2008. I first lived in a small town called Xiantao (near Wuhan) in Hubei province. I then lived in a larger city Zhenjiang (near Nanjing and Shanghai) in Jiangsu province. There is typical Chinese dishes found throughout China, but also foods that are very regional.
Meals in Chinese restaurants tend to be made for sharing. Every one has their bowl of rice and then there are several dishes in the centre of the table for everyone to share, like: soups, meat, fish, vegetables and tofu. Dining out on your own can be tricky. If you’re going solo a Western franchise or street food would probably be your easiest option.
Chinese restaurants will usually bring you complementary boiled water to drink, even if you haven’t asked for it. Most Chinese people tend to prefer drinking boiled water over cold water.
Vegetable dishes sometimes contain animal ingredients. There are some vegetarian restaurants which serve mostly vegan dishes. These eateries will have plant-based versions of traditional Chinese dishes and things like tofu scramble. If you don’t eat pork (猪肉 zhūròu), lamian (soupy noodles) or anything from a lamian shop, will probably be a safe bet, as these stores are usually owned by people following a halaal diet.
You don’t have to be worried about getting dog meat (狗肉 gǒuròu) when you order something else, since it is considered a delicacy. At a buffet though, if you’re unsure ask someone what kind of meat (肉 ròu) it is.
Food usually contains MSG. I could only ever find MSG in supermarkets and never any regular salt (sodium chloride).
Chinese foods I miss:
1.Stinky Tofu chou doufu 臭豆腐
Fried cubes of tofu in various spices, chilies and sauces. Usually served with brown vinegar. It’s a bit of an acquired taste for some, but strangely addictive. Mostly sold as a street food.
2.Re Gan Mian (hot dry noodles) 热干面
Street food. Noodles with spices (including chilies), things like spring onion, fresh coriander (cilantro) and a sesame sauce. I only ever found this in Hubei province, since it is a regional cuisine. This is one of the foods I miss the most.
3.Fresh water-chestnuts 热干面
Chinese people like to eat freshly peeled water chestnuts. You can even buy several water chestnuts on a stick as street food. I ate quite a lot of them. They’re a bit like a fresh pear, yet different. In south Africa you can only buy them in cans from Asian supermarkets. Canned water chestnut taste HORRIBLE raw. They’re okay in stir fries, but I’m not a big fan.
4.Lotus root ou / lian ou 莲藕
The root of the lotus (water plant). It can be prepared in various ways, including: boiled, fried or pickled. Tastiness depends on how it’s cooked. Lotus root is very common in Chinese cuisine and I miss it.
Steamed buns (bao 包) and dumplings (jiao 饺)
There are various types of steamed buns, including plain and with vegetable or meaty fillings. Bao are often eating for breakfast accompanied by a cup of sweet soy milk. Dumplings can be fried or steamed and can also have vegetable or meat fillings. Vegetable fillings may contain animal fat “for flavour”, so be aware of that.
6. Chinese greens vegetable: 蔬菜 shucai
Varies types of leafy greens, shoots and stem vegetables, often made with oil and garlic. (Some cooks will add bacon fat or lard to the veggies, with out specifying. So if you’re vegetarian/vegan/kosher/halaal look out for that.)
7. Pumpkin & Turnip
A restaurant dish. You should be easily able to recognize it from the menu picture. It is shaped like a yin-yang with mashed pumpkin as the one half and mashed turnip as the other. Something like pickeled onions will usually serve as the circles inside the two parts of the yin-yang. These two vegetables complement each other well. Again this is something you could probably easily make at home (Assuming you turnips are readily available and your cohabitants like pumpkin).
8. Fried eggplant eggplant: qiezi 茄子
Eggplant friend in oil with chilies and spices. You could probably make this at home, though I don’t really make a lot of fried foods. In China I ate this all the time. At restaurants, at people’s houses and in school cafeterias (I was an English teacher).
9. Street barbecue
In my first few months in China, before I stopped eating meat, I used to eat a lot of barbecued mutton on skewers. Later, I ate things like barbecue eggplant, corn and other veggies. Barbecued foods reminded me a bit of home. Though I never saw any Chinese people having a backyard barbecue.
10. Milk Tea (bubble tea) naicha 奶茶
I used to drink this all the time. It’s was very popular with my Chinese friends (mostly women in their early twenties) . They have all sorts of flavours including strawberry, watermelon and chocolate. My favourite was taro and black sesame. I once had a lavender flavour which was the best thing ever. Available hot or cold. Chinese people actually drink a lot of hot beverages, even things Westerners would normally drink iced. (A friend once bought me a orange juice from a KFC. It was hot! It completely took me by surprise. )
A few years ago a Asian drinks store selling things like bubble milk opened near my house. It wasn’t as good. Or maybe I just lost my taste for it. I don’r consume a lot of dairy these days, due to my food allergy.
©lowercase v 2017