Eating in China
by Judy Smith
I like to eat good food, and worries about food consume many of my waking thoughts. For example, the first thought that crossed my mind as we touched down in Nanning was, “What am I going to have for breakfast?”
It wasn’t an unusual thought. I knew that Chinese, like many Asian people, eat rice: rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner, rice cakes, rice dumplings, fried rice, steamed rice, rice drinks, rice ice cream, rice, rice, and rice.
We had intended on eating largely Chinese food in China— it’s healthy, it’s cheap, and we thought we would like it. The food in this region is largely Cantonese, the stir fried menu we were familiar with in Vancouver; however, because this is a tropical climate where hot peppers flourish, much of the food is also quite spicy, which is fine with me.
We began by exploring the many cafeterias on campus. In the student cafeteria lunch consists of a meat dish, a vegetable, melon, diet Pepsi and rice or dumplings and costs around one dollar. Although cheap by any standards, the choices are limited and rely heavily on frying in pork fat, so we only go there if we’re in a hurry or have nothing to eat at home.
There are a couple of higher-end restaurants on campus. In one, it is difficult to order anything because the menu is only in Mandarin and no one speaks English. (We were served a palatable dish of stir-fried beef after drawing a picture of a cow.) The other has an English menu; however, we were disturbed by rats skittering around and the last time we ate there, we watched a rat gnawing on a woman’s shoe at the next table. When we related this story to a seasoned foreign teacher, she informed us that the restaurant is known as “Rat Haven” and that none of the foreign teachers eat there anymore.
Well, thanks for the information.
By travelling around and being guided by experienced colleagues, we have found Western restaurants that offer more variety than Chinese food in this small city: other than the strongholds of KFC and MacDonald’s, there’s a French restaurant owned and operated by an expatriated French chef, a western-style brunch buffet owned by a Chinese-American who learned how to cook in San Francisco, and a small coffee shop/café just off campus which serves the best BLT in the world.
On Chinese salaries, these restaurants are expensive, but in fact cost no more than $6 Canadian. We recently declined to participate in an American Thanksgiving buffet which cost $25, everything included: it was just too expensive. Too often we have gone out and spent a lot of money for a meal, only to spend the night running to the bathroom. We weren’t ready to hedge our bets on the turkey being prepared properly.
It took a few bouts of diarrhea for us to realize that we’d fare better on our own cooking. Maybe local people and foreigners who have lived here for a while have developed hardened stomachs for food prepared or for meat that is stored in less than hygienic conditions.
How could I buy a chicken, for example, after seeing them piled up on the floor of the supermarket, naked, with heads attached and reeking like they’ve been sitting in the hot sun for a week? I know that this is a different culture, but I am still tied to a culture where chicken comes in sterile plastic wraps, is government inspected and where I carefully sterilize the cutting board after using it. After seeing a truck piled high with live chickens, six or seven barely able to breathe and crammed into a small cage, I decided to take chicken off my menu.
Other foreigners would call me squeamish, I know. Some teachers throw caution to the wind and regularly eat at the “dog hole” where vegetables are chopped on the ground and where food is served from outdoor stands which have no water supply for washing anything. Some people are of the opinion that you must be tough to live here, and are fond of saying, “This is China.” By that, they mean that I must get used to a different life style, a style which is not “anal” about cleanliness, hygiene, or food preparation. These people, I must point out, are the same ones who insisted that one must keep a stock of Imodium on hand at all times. Go figure.
I have decided, instead, to be as careful as I can.
We need to be able to either cook or peel any produce that we buy. Even produce that we peel must first be washed in warm soapy water. This necessarily excludes fruits like grapes—which are large, abundant, and appear delicious—and all green salad vegetables. Tomatoes are boiled, blanched and peeled; cucumbers (English) are also peeled. I nuke peppers in the microwave, just to make sure they’re clean. In addition to sweet red onions, these are our staple raw vegetables.
Fruit in the market reflects the tropical climate of the region: mandarin oranges so sweet and tender they melt in your mouth, melons of all varieties, peaches, plums, kiwi, star fruit, jack fruit, Chinese pears…The apples, not being crossed with anything, are pure brands. To bite into one is biting into the Essence of Apple.
Vegetables are the same as can be found in any Chinatown across Canada; however I was surprised to find quite excellent fresh corn on the cob in the market as well as some lovely—though expensive—fresh red potatoes.
It is, therefore, not difficult to find produce and prepare it safely. What is difficult to find is protein. The smell of the meat department in the supermarkets—Wal Mart included—is enough to make me a vegetarian. Fresh and frozen fish is plentiful, but I don’t recognize most of the fish and don’t know how to prepare it. Sometimes Wal Mart stocks frozen salmon steaks that are not covered with freezer burn, and once we were able to get some excellent sole fillets.
Cheese is only imported, usually from Australia, and is very expensive, plus hard on our arteries. Parmesan cheese (Kraft) is available, but there is no cottage or feta cheese. Eggs are generally purchased loosely—i.e. you fill a bag with eggs, like you would oranges. I tend to buy the more expensive ones because they look clean. The cheaper ones still have chicken excrement on the shells.
The yogurt is made with real fruit and is not very sweet. We have been able to find low-fat milk; however I cannot quite trust dairy products in China after the melamine scare.
Through ingenuity and patience, we have been able to feed ourselves quite well, considering the fact that we have only a 2-burner stove, one large pot, a frying pan and microwave to work with. We can make our own pasta sauce, salsa, soups, stews and chili using all fresh ingredients. Tacos and pasta can be purchased at one of two western food stores, where we have also—for the benefit of those of you who had been concerned about our coffee supply—been able to buy a coffee machine and real coffee.
Bread, to me (being Ukrainian in origin) is the staff of life. The bread made in local bakeries is strictly white sliced; some of it is half purple—I’m not sure why it’s been coloured purple, but it neither looks nor tastes like real bread. I was therefore overjoyed to find a woman who delivers home-made bread on demand. There is also a local coffee shop which stocks heavy rye bread, baguettes, hamburger buns…Pass the peanut butter and get some sugar –free jam from the Western market, and my breakfast is ready!
One of the benefits of living overseas is appreciating what we have back at home. What we have back home in Canada is safe drinking water. Here, we cannot drink the water from the tap; we use it for washing only. The bottled water we buy for drinking, cooking, and brushing our teeth comes in 5-gallon containers and is delivered to our house. We blindly believe that the bottled water is safe for consumption. Nevertheless, after working in other countries for so long, I have gotten so used to the system of using bottled water that I find it difficult to use water straight from the tap when I go home. We Canadians are so privileged, in so many ways, but having a supply of fresh, clean water is something we must strive to preserve.
We also have relatively safe food supplies: food producers, suppliers and providers are government inspected and approved. We have access to safe, organic food. We can walk into any restaurant and be relatively assured of not getting poisoned.
We are what we eat. As tedious as it might seem, let’s strive to ensure that we continue to have clean, safe food and water. Sometimes we don’t miss something until it’s no longer there, and by then it’s too late.
About the Author Judy Smith is the author of Native Blood: Nursing on the Reservation (Oberon Press). She is teaching English at the Sino-Canadian University in Nanning, China. The program is affiliated with the University of Waterloo and was initiated by Prime Minister Chrétien during the trade talks with China. Staff and curriculum are provided by Canada; facilities are provided by China. The university is always looking for qualified teachers, especially retirees.