Friday, June 1, 2012

Tips before a trip to China, #3 - Food

“What did you eat in China?” Friends ask me.
Er, Chinese food?...

Well, not exactly. That is to say, not what the average Westerner is used to having at his local Chinese restaurant, be it in New York, London or Tel Aviv. Our travel agency, Oriental Travel, assures its clients that they do not take them, (or us, in this case) to restaurants catering especially to Western tourists and thus offering a commercially-westernized version of Chinese food. Rather, it attempted to take us to places where Chinese tourists – of which there are millions – eat. Indeed, some of the restaurants we were taken to were huge, built to cater to hundreds of people at the same time. That’s because, in the height of the tourist season, hundreds of people eat there at the same time. The size of China is hard to grasp and get used to. Everything is on a huge scale: huge cities, huge office buildings, huge residential apartment blocks, huge flyovers, huge traffic jams and huge restaurants to accommodate a huge number of diners.

If you’re a fussy eater, have special dietary needs, or insist on kosher/vegetarian/vegan/organic food, you’re in trouble. Either reconsider your plans and travel elsewhere; or shut your eyes and just eat. I wouldn’t recommend schlepping tinned food and crackers from home, wherever home is. And I wouldn’t recommend relying on local produce and supermarket food, because you probably won’t know what to buy and how much to pay. Remember – all the labels will be Greek to you (unless you’re Greek, of course, ha-ha, groan). 

Dizzying decor at the dining room of the Crowne Plaza Chengdu Panda Garden
For us, breakfast was the easiest meal to navigate. We stayed at top hotels: The Crowne Plaza Beijing, the Crowne Plaza at Chengdu Panda Garden, The Garden Hotel in Suzhou, the Green Lotus Hotel in Yangshuo, the Guilin Bravo Hotel in Guilin, Day’s Inn in Xi’an, the Mercure in Shanghai, and of course the floating dining room of the Century Sun. Some of these were more sumptuous than others in décor and amenities, but all offered a decent buffet breakfast. I’d say at least 60 or 70 percent of the food was aimed at Chinese tourists, and comprised what to the Western tourist seemed like a full dinner: all sorts of cooked dishes, including soup, vegetables, meat, and unidentified doughy-looking things. Then on the other side of the dining room were the Western-style dishes: bacon and eggs, bread, butter, marge, yogurt, muesli, branflakes, cornflakes, fresh fruit, tinned fruit, a token platter of hard cheese, and would-be baked goods in the shape of croissants, cupcakes, and other baked goods. So far, so good?
Misleadingly pretty pastries at Chengdu Panda Garden Crowne Plaza

Ahem. Things aren’t always what they seem to be. I believe the bacon-and-eggs were fairly bona fide; and the fresh pineapple was delicious. But many of the other items were slightly disappointing. They looked the part, but didn’t taste the part. You took one bite of a cupcake or Danish, and more-likely-than-not left the rest on your plate. As for the coffee and tea – Unspeakable. “What?! “ You say in disbelief, “The TEA in CHINA is not nice? How can that be?” Well, that’s just it. Of all the places in the world, you expect China to have aromatic Chinese tea. Instead, you are served either nondescript teabag tea, or a pale brew tasting like boiled barley. As for the coffee – I find hotel coffee lousy everywhere, so at least it wasn’t a big surprise or let-down. 

Lunch and dinner: On the whole, enough dishes were served at every meal, so that no one left the table hungry. If you didn’t trust the suspicious-looking blobs of meat, you liked the chicken; if you didn’t like the spicy soup, you could have the bland soup with noodles; we all liked the steamed or boiled green veggies; and we all gorged ourselves on the dumplings at the Dumpling Banquet at Defangchag Restaurant in Xi’an

Hot pot dinner; notice the pots in front of Colin & Susan
One of the more unique meals was the hot-pot, where each person is served a pot of either very spicy or mild soup (or half a portion of each in the same, partitioned pot), kept a-boiling on a hot-plate; and a platter of thinly sliced raw meat of various kinds, which you plonk into your boiling soup:  Nearby there was a big selection of sauces. Pity we had no way of knowing which was what. “Just smell them,” said Julia, our 14-year-old-looking guide.

Enough about food; don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry. (But you can see a few more related pics below).

Restaurant-in-an-indoor-garden, Yichang
Enjoying the hot-pot meal. Didn't think to ask whether the aprons were mandatory.
Or you could rely on old, familiar fare: Jane's Pub in Suzhou: Manchester City vs. QPR  on TV and beer:
Jane's Pub Bar, Suzhou
Jane's Pub Bar, Suzhou

 Starbucks in the Old Quarter of Shanghai: Coffee was fine, when you managed to get to the front of the line at the tiny place; but even a simple sandwich with a familiar name, say bacon-lettuce-tomato, has an added local sauce that gives it a distinctly Chinese flavor. Caveat emptor.
Starbucks in Shaghai Old Quarter & Tourist Trap.

(No idea who the people in the pic are; just tired wayfarers like ourselves.)


  1. The Forbidden City is one of the best place to go to when you visit China. It is a must to go place.
    study in china

  2. The motley crew:

    Boys on bokes:


    On a Yangtze river cruise:


  3. Thanks, Pete! Great pics, wonderful memories.