Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ni Hao China Part 3 - The Food Episode

I think I left you looking at a display of bugs on sticks in a street vendor’s booth. There was one small detail you couldn’t tell from the picture, if you look closely...

Needless to say, I passed on that one. I was much more partial to dumplings, noodles, and ‘normal’ meats on sticks.

I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘foodie’, except perhaps in matters of desserts frozen of course, but I do believe food should definitely be a big part of any travel experience. I think you would agree. Luckily, I spent the first week in China with my brother and his family, so I had help with immersing myself in China's culinary culture. They’ve been there for almost a year now and although I wouldn’t call them fluent yet, they can speak enough Mandarin to navigate a menu and answer a taxi driver’s basic questions. No small feat in either case, as I discovered.

Our first adventure to downtown Shanghai took us to the top of the Oriental Pearl tower.

The highlight of that was the floor with the glass floor. The kids were fearless, but we adults took a little longer to feel comfortable walking on glass a few thousand feet in the air.

Next was a walk down East Nanjing Road, a popular pedestrian street somewhat larger a version of Boston’s downtown crossing but with thousands of Asian people scurrying about. I’d been warned to not be swayed by locals peddling ‘massages’, however you imagine that experience, but we didn’t encounter any of that.

Of course, when I went back there a few days later by myself, it was a whole different story. It seems a foreigner male walking alone may as well have a big X on his back. “Dvd's, watches, massage?’ These guys (the ladies who would perform such services were kept safe in whatever room they would bring you too, should you be foolish enough to accept their offer). After being followed and re-accosted five or six times in a four block stretch, I figured it was time to retreat to the safety of my brother's ex-pat bubble.

But I digress. We were talking about food. This was another top five meal in China..

I must confess, although I rarely do fast food here at home, a couple times while on my own I just wanted simple and easy. Most of the servers at Mickey D's and the even more common KFC still didn’t speak English, but at least they had a laminated placemat with pictures of all the meal options.

Another helpful visual aid for food ordering was the ‘exhibit A’ approach. At this local fast-food place, you just point to the dishes you want as the server writes them down. After you take that list to the cashier to pay, your food is cooked and brought to your table.

This was another one of my favorites, the anatomically-correct squirrel fish.

As I mentioned, many Chinese have no kitchens, which would explain the nearly two block stretch of street food vendors I came across in Beijing. So many choices. I usually kept it pretty simple with dumplings and what I’d hoped was either chicken or beef on sticks.

Here’s a shot of my brother ordering a bunch of stuff on sticks for us.

The server took our order outside where this guy cooked it up for us on his grill.

The last night in Shanghai, my brother and I went to his favorite local Chinese restaurant. It was a Tuesday night and the place was jammed. I knew we were in for a treat when we walked by a room full of aquariums, fostering at least one of our entrees.

It was certainly odd to see people smoking at their tables. Made me appreciate the smoke-free lifestyle we enjoy in our country. Large groups of what seemed like Asian businessmen sat around tables overflowing with dishes of food and Tsing Tao beers. My brother told me about the business dinners he attends nearly weekly where they just keep bringing out dish after dish. It’s impolite to not toast and empty your glass when someone raises theirs to you. He confessed he'd left many a dinner stuffed and happy to have a taxi drive him home. Our dinner was tasty and filling, but we saved room for a nightcap or two on the way home.

For that, we went to my brother’s go-to place - The Big Bamboo, his pub away from home. Smokey like the restaurant but full of Budweiser-drinking ex-pats and chicken wings. It was like stepping out of China and into the Brass Cat.  A table full of Canadians screamed at a hockey game on a big screen.   My brother and I tossed down a couple Coopers Pale Ales as he told me all about life as an American in China. It was long 7000 mile trip to get to that bar stool but well worth it. Skype just couldn’t do that conversation justice.

Since this has become the food issue, here are a few of my favorite food shots...

An original 'pop-up shop', fresh pomegranates from the back of a bicycle..

Cornish Game Peking Ducks?..

Roasted chestnut anyone?

My nephews enjoying, none other than, Dairy Queen Blizzards.   What can I say, it must be in the genes...

One giant burger (meat imported from Australia), Blue Frog, Shanghai.   Mmm.

Ok, one more, from the Carrefour supermarket near my brother's house...

Not sure what you would do with one of those, but intriguing nonetheless.

Not sure if that made you more or less hungry than you were when you started.   Suffice to say, eating in China was an adventure in itself, not to mention having to learn how to operate chopsticks in a hurry.    I was glad I took a few chances in that area without being reckless with my insides, taking my brother's advice, 'when in doubt, don't ask what it is until after you've eaten it.'

Next up, taking the fast train to X’ian to see the Terracotta Warriors and on to Beijing to walk on that big old wall.

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