I have little recollection of eating in the student canteen at Heilongjiang University in 1992 but it must have happened at least a few times in the three months I was there. By contrast however I do remember a number of meals cooked by my Korean roommates in a tiny electric frying pan. If the mass market food I have eaten on this visit so far is anything to go by then it’s no great surprise that I don’t really remember the last extended period. Please don’t get the impression that I don’t like Chinese food: I love it. And in many ways it doesn’t even matter how low end it is; as my gap year travelling companion will attest I have tucked into many unidentifiable substances all around the country.
So what’s my beef? It’s the lack of variety of convenient food, most notably for the solo diner. British food has thankfully improved immeasurably over the last few years, granted off a low base. Perhaps one of the advantages of having had such a rubbish cuisine and being a small island proximate to the gourmands of all nations across the Channel is that once transport and means allowed we were expansively inclusive in our adoption. That and of course the fact that we had a global empire which, among other things, was more to our culinary advantage than it was to that of those we colonised. So quality issues aside, many a London caff will offer a pasta, a curry and rice, a salad, baked potato and sarnies at lunch time.
China being the Middle Kingdom and the centre of Asian civilisation, depending on your viewpoint, has coopted few other cuisines into the mainstream. Yes there is a huge difference between dishes from Sichuan, Hunan, Guangdong and countless other provinces no doubt but for the palate accustomed to a variety of carbohydrates we’re talking variations on a theme of rice or noodles with more or less chilli.
One of the problems is that Chinese food is really meant for sharing. Even within what is a broad and varied cuisine (despite my grumbles) you just can’t appreciate it if you’re only getting rice and two veg. Obviously traditionally rice is the poor man’s post-prandial filler, so it’s not really what the meal is all about when you’re eating at home. But that’s not the case when eating out on the hoof. So far out of about ten meals I’ve had five noodles-plus (happy days! I never let myself eat that much pasta at home), two rice-plus and finally, after much searching, some dumplings (yes, Mum, I’ve skipped a couple). That last meal actually completely illustrates the point: my plate of dumplings carried 30 pieces and since I had to have some greens I ended up ordering an entire bed of stir fried lettuces on the side. A bargain at 4 quid but a ridiculous amount of food for one even if I did manage to put most of it away.
It is true that foreigners have stepped nobly into the fast food/single portion market with Macdonalds, KFC and now Subway all as ubiquitous here as in London. But I suppose what I am also feeling quite acutely is the lack of anything raw. A salad would be nice. What is the Chinese equivalent of a chef’s salad with everything raw but the protein element and a complete meal in itself (without carbs, you note)?
Not that I am anti carbs either. It distresses me just as much that it’s almost impossible to find a decent loaf of bread without undertaking a lengthy pilgrimage. I did pop into my local bakery the other day but anyone who has lived anywhere in Asia is familiar with the kind of cotton wool/sponge/air block that masquerades as a sliced loaf in most of the region, ironically with the exception of Heilongjiang where they got a good recipe from the Russians.
One advance since my last sojourn for which I am grateful and amazed in equal measure is the arrival of the local barrista. I found the local foreign students’ cafe quite by chance on day 2 (it helps if you look up for signs; there is way more to life than the ground floor here) and sank into a cushioned chair in a sunny window with my book and a sigh of bliss. It turns out I don’t even have to go off campus for a decent roast either. I hijacked a cardboard cup wielding Chinese student in our faculty supermarket with an excited gasp of “coffee!”. “Oh yee” he said in broadest Strine, “I got it on the second floor. It’s reelly good too”.
With that said, I’m off to the Bean Tree for an Americano. I expect, as with any new job, it is just a matter of time before I have worked out where the locals go for lunch.