When people ask me “Why did you choose to study Chinese?” my reply is usually “Because I like Chinese food so it seemed like a good idea.” Four years later and I am now in Qingdao, China, as an exchange student. Before coming here, I was a bit nervous about the food. After two weeks I want to give you an overview of what I’ve experienced so far.
Street FoodAfter seeing programs like An Idiot Abroad, I expected the street food to be scorpions and spiders on sticks. So far I have only seen chicken, quail eggs, octopus tentacles, pork, etc. on sticks – which is a relief! Outside the university at breakfast, lunch and dinner times there are people who come and sell food to the students. They arrive on motorbikes which have mini kitchens/hot stoves on the back; there’s even a van with a kebab machine in the boot too! Here you can get fried rice with duck, vegetable pancakes, or meat wraps which may or may not come with belly ache and numerous trips to the toilet after! The food looks and smells kind of appetising at times, but it’s full of oil and you can’t be sure how long the food has been exposed to the polluted air. It’s dead cheap, with a meal costing 60-80p on average, but it’s not my favourite and I try to avoid it.
Chinese restaurants (here they just call them restaurants)In the restaurants, the menus are all in Chinese. There are no explanations of what the food is; the name could be “red fried chicken rice” but you don’t know if the red refers to red peppers, tomatoes, paprika or something else. I tend to choose chicken and then whether I want rice or noodles…I normally want noodles but end up choosing rice as it’s much easier to eat with chopsticks! Eating out is not expensive; in some restaurants you can have a meal for as little as £1 and I think the most I’ve paid has been £6.
The food can be hit and miss and often the other diners are off putting. Chinese people aren’t big on table manners. I’ve seen people eating fish with chopsticks and then spitting out the bones into a pile on the table. There’s also a tiny bin next to every table where you can put any type of rubbish – chopstick wrappers, tissues, meat bones, cigarette butts (you’re allowed to smoke) and also spit. People slurp, spit, burp and talk with their mouths full; it’s a kind of ‘anything goes’ rule for China.
Disregarding the lack of table manners, eating out in China can be fun. I’ve had some good meals and some entertaining times. The sweet and sour dishes are tasty and I have had some nice fish dishes too. And no, I cannot remember the names. Aubergine meals are a favourite with me and my friends as they comes piping hot, covered in soy sauce. Many people enjoy clams here in Qingdao as it is a coastal city with many fishing boats out at sea. However, I still find the idea of eating something that’s come out of a shell a bit weird so I haven’t tried this delicacy and may not. Remember, you also have to grab the clam in the parting with the chopsticks and kind of slurp the flesh out. It’s not my idea of an easy meal.
The food is definitely different to UK Chinese takeaways, but is it better or worse? I’m still not sure I can answer that. I’m still struggling to come to terms with the fact that I’m not eating prawn crackers every day. However, the fun factor is definitely better than UK restaurants. With the language barrier, something funny/bizarre normally happens; my favourite so far was when the restaurant owner started a live whistling show – he was some type of national champion with his pictures all on the wall! Basically, China is crazy and anything can happen.
Edited by Luisa Parnell