That time we were faced with a chicken’s head on a plate…
We don’t know about you, but when we were a full-time working couple, the first Friday night after ‘Pay Day’ was always typically characterised as ‘Chinese Take Away Night’.
We loved ordering our usual ‘B for 2’ from our local Chinese Take Away and savouring every mouthful of the aromatic crispy duck and General Tsao’s famous chicken! We thought nothing of spending £30+ on one meal and washing it down with a few authentic Tsing Tao beers. That’s what pay day is all about right? Having a bit of a splurge!
So on our first visit to China, we were excited to think we could be eating sweet & sour pork, crispy fried beef and even more of our favourite dishes every single night for a fraction of our usual cost!
Little did we know… That in reality, Chinese food in China is not like the Chinese food we get back home here in England. Yes it’s remarkably cheap – but it was really not what we were expecting at all.
Enjoying our first Sichuan Hot Pot with a local student in Baoguo Village.
Our first visit to China…
Wen Chang Chicken – A signature dish on Hainan Island.
Wen Chang Chicken – Not for us!
Back in 2007, our first realisation of this came when we were faced with a chicken’s head on a plate! At the time, not very appetising to us, especially as the chicken was yellow and pink and didn’t really look cooked. We avoided eating it and even had to cover the head with a napkin as it was putting us off the rest of our food. The waiting staff around us eyed us suspiciously when we didn’t tuck straight in. We just couldn’t force ourselves to try it – but we loved the egg fried rice, and eating it with a spoon out of a small bowl was a nifty thing to do.
We thought it was nice that the waiting staff diligently kept topping up our rice bowls – and having good English manners we politely kept eating it – to the point we were going to burst and couldn’t eat any more! It wasn’t until we read in our guide book later that as part of Chinese etiquette, rice should be the last dish finished, or this is a signal to the host that you are still hungry. No wonder they kept topping up our rice bowls!
We vowed not to make the same mistake again and thought we needed to stop being so wimpy and broaden our food horizons! Maybe that’s why we now have guts of steel and very rarely get Delhi-belly on our travels.
Kaifeng Food Night Market – Lots of weird & wonderful things on offer!
Fresh food in a local restaurant in Chengdu. Pick your ingredients and the chef will cook it!
What? – You even eat the chicken’s foot?
Deep Fried Chicken’s Foot in Sweet & Sour Sauce.
Wayne was braver than me – I still couldn’t force myself to try it!
Waste not, want not?
On our return to China in 2011, after a lot more travelling experiences, our attitude had changed. We found it exciting that there is such a vast array of dishes on offer, which vary so much between regions, made using every possible part of an animal! The Chinese simply do not like to waste anything – a good tip for us ‘wasteful’ Westeners and our throw away society.
But it definitely took us a while to get used to seeing tanks of fish, and cages with rabbits and chickens outside restaurants ready for the customer to make their meal selection. You can’t get much fresher than that. We found it quite disturbing in a food market to see a chef take a customer’s chosen fish from the tank and whack it on the ground before preparing it for the wok.
As we’re browsing down the meat aisle in our local supermarket back home we’re far removed from how the meat actually got there, and we never really think about it too much. Maybe we should…
You can’t get ‘fresher’ – From tank to plate!
Take your pick – you can’t get fresher than these guys!
Fresh Crab in a tank outside a restaurant in Sanya.
Frog and Mini-Lobster outside a restaurant in Leshan.
Chopsticks to Conversations…
Sampling another Sichuan Hot Pot – we love SPICY!
We read up on ‘Chinese Food Etiquette’ and agreed we’d try our best to use chopsticks. This became our best conversation starter with locals and waiting staff. Not only was it a peculiar sight for them to see a ‘long nose’ in their home-town, they found it strange that we would want to use chopsticks at all as they were eager to learn to use a knife and fork. We actually found this quite sad, as we had wanted to immerse ourselves in true Chinese culture, whilst it seemed the Chinese were striving to become evermore western.
The time I’m talking about was before the Beijing 2008 Olympics, which thereafter saw a massive influx of foreign tourists. It’s incredible that China is now the third most visited country in the world. Now, unless we are in a little village in the Chinese countryside, we don’t get the ‘stares’ any more. ‘Westeners’ are ten-a-penny in big cities as we noted during our 3-month stay in 2011. We quite liked having such a ‘celebrity’ status!
Eating Noodles & Fried Bread Cakes in Rilong.
As we mastered the art of using chop sticks at every meal opportunity, we had both staff and diners watching us bemused. One old Chinese guy even complimented Wayne on his technique. I, on the other hand, struggled for a long time! On the plus side, they are really great if you are counting calories and don’t want to over indulge, as you simply can’t pick enough up. I was working hard to pick up 1 pea at a time! I am pleased to say that after our latest 3-month stay, we have now become very adept at using them – and would choose chopsticks over a knife and fork every time.
Spicy Noodles for breakfast in Rilong.
You can get some beautifully decorated and lacquered chopsticks from local markets. We even found shops dedicated purely to selling different sets of chopsticks in every colour, pattern and style imaginable.
Wonderful sets of Chopsticks on sale.
Thank goodness for picture menus!
We still have trouble with our ordering technique though. We take a small phrase book around with us that contains a section on ‘ordering food’. We use this as a guide to show waiting staff what we would like as the words are written in English, then Chinese script. The phrase book also has everything translated into ‘Pinyin’, which is the official phonetic system for transcribing the sound of Chinese characters – but our pronunciation is still not great!
So our best tried and tested method are picture menus. A lot of cafes and restaurants have pictures of every meal either in a menu on the table or covering the walls as posters. You can usually guess the main ingredients of each dish, although the type of meat is not always very clear. Just avoid the dishes that look like intestines, testicles or brains and you should be fine!
Pig Snouts, Ears and other ‘items’ to choose from! (Or avoid)
The ‘I spy’ then point and nod method…
Another way of getting a tasty dish is to spy what other diners are eating and when the waiter comes to take your order, gesture to where the diner is sitting and point and nod that you would like the same. In all honesty, we have had both good and bad experiences with this method. The worst being my fault, as I thought I spied a sweet & sour vegetable dish with beansprouts, mushrooms. The waiter eagerly took my order with a great smile on his face…
‘Black Pickled Chicken’ to aid fertility!
In reality, what we had ordered was chicken, and not of the KFC variety! It was actually black and tasted of vinegar, so it must have been pickled in some way to make it like this. (Looking across at someone else’s table, this is what I thought were the mushrooms.) The dish was also cold and the sauce was not sweet & sour but wholly spicy with lots of fresh red chillis! It really was not very appetising at all. It wasn’t until we had a conversation about it later with a student that we found out this dish is a real delicacy. Eating black pickled chicken apparently improves a woman’s fertility. No wonder the waiter was smiling!
At the ‘Food Market’…
Our whole food experiences and opinions have definitely changed over time. Now we don’t always eat in cafes and restaurants. On a backpacker’s budget means eating local and cheaply, so one of our favourite activities is to browse the local food markets to see what is on offer. Lots of things look really delicious and it has become a treat for us to try something new. How could you resist some of these?
Food Market in Chengdu.
Various ‘Meat’ skewers for sale.
More snacks – Barbecued Pigeon, Fish, Spring Rolls and Flat Breads.
Buffet Selection at an outdoor Street Cafe, Chengdu.
Our favourite ‘Noodle Man’ making us fresh noodles in Yangshuo.
Lovely ladies selling barbecued meats at the end of a hike in Rilong.
A real eye-opener…
A real eye-opener for us was visiting the Night Food Market in Beijing. There we so many different things on offer from the weird and wonderful – some things we’d never even thought of eating – such as a star fish! Yes I tried one! I am a lot braver now – but you still wouldn’t get me near a chicken’s foot! You actually have to break off the hard outer shell of the starfish, to get to the soft fleshy meaty part inside, which to me tasted like eating a fish finger. The scorpion, of course crunchy, but had very little other taste. And the cicadas, really very nice when smothered in cumin and chilli.
Deep Fried Star Fish on a stick!
Just tastes like a fish finger! Not sure if Captain Birdseye would agree!
Scorpion to try. These were one of the most expensive food items.
Fancy either of these?
Cicadas on a stick. Deep Fried with Cumin & Chilli.
Tasty treats – honestly they were good!
Baby Shark on offer at Beijing Night Food Market.
Food heaven or food hell?
We can honestly say that despite our western taste buds and our western expectations, we have grown to love Chinese food – the real Chinese food. Throughout the different regions we have tasted some fantastic treats. Wild mushroom and yak stew in the Sichuan village of Rilong was one of our local favourites, and something so simple such as pak choi fried with garlic is something we now cook at home because we loved it so much.
Yak & Mushroom Stew – A local dish in Rilong.
Sichuan Pork & Chilli, another local favourite.
Authentic Beijing Crispy Duck.
Crispy fried duck remains firmly at the top of our ‘food heaven’ list. We had to sample this in Beijing and we weren’t disappointed. It’s not something we found on many menus across the rest of China however.
It’s all about the dumplings…
I have to say though, that the food we miss the most, and probably ate the most of whilst in China, are ‘dumplings’. There are 2 main varieties. The pasta type that have either a vegetable or meat filling or the type that look like a bread bun. Both are very tasty. The pasta type are usually served either boiled in a soup or broth, or they are deep-fried and served with a dip.
We enjoyed them as a snack or as part of a meal and loved them so much we joined a cookery class to learn how to make them!
Filled Dumplings. Perfect snack!
Learning how to make Chinese dumplings at a cookery class.
Snacking on both varieties of dumpling.
What is your opinion of Chinese food? Do you have a favourite dish or dishes like us? Have you ever tasted anything weird but wonderful? Can you recommend anything we haven’t tried but should?
We’d love you to share your food tales with us because we certainly love our food!