halfway done - food update

We are done with the first 4 of 8 weeks here at Princeton in Beijing. I've supposedly taken the equivalent of a 15 week semester's worth of Chinese so far with one more semester to go. Although I came here under the pretext of studying language, once I arrived in Asia, I quickly stopped deceiving myself and started to focus on my true motivation: food. If you are not interested in reading about food, stop now. Also, I wrote this when I had a lot of free time, so it's really long. Don't feel obliged to read it all in one sitting or anything.

I haven't explored Beijing nearly as much as Hong Kong, Bangkok, or Hanoi, but even the food options within walking distance of my (re-)education facility have the power to make me pretty glad to be alive.

First up, tapioca milk tea. There are two vendors within a 10-minute walk of my dorm. It's not anything I can't get in Berkeley, but here it's about 1/3 the cost. I drink too much of it. Actually, Chinese people love tea in general, including cold tea sold in plastic bottles at the supermarket. My first week here I bought tea bags and was drinking tea exclusively. I think the caffeine from 10 cups of tea a day contributed to my feeling nervous and not being able to sleep. So it's back to water for me.

Right around the corner from the closest milk tea vendor is a little stall that sells, among other things:
Rice porridge (zhōu) – $0.14 / cup
Meat pancake things (zhuàngyuan ròu bǐng) - $0.28 each
Egg cake with lettuce and hot sauce (jīdàn {something} bǐng) - $0.28 each
These are all pretty solid and really fast for when I need to get back to studying.

A few steps farther away is a market that sells what I am truly addicted to: zhǔshí, or “primary food”. This consists of a lot of cake-like things made of wheat, flour, sesame seeds, and a bunch of stuff I don't know about. I speculate that the original meaning of “primary food” was just the plain cakes and buns, but now most vendors offer both plain and stuffed versions. The little sesame bread cakes that I'm so addicted to (shāo bǐng) can come stuffed with eggplant, chives and eggs, red bean paste, or just sugar. In only four weeks I've already become a regular at this place. The lady who works there only needs to ask me, “How many (red bean paste shāo bǐng)?”

When the powers that be finally gave us our student ID cards (not until the 4th week!), this opened up the possibility of eating in the campus cafeterias. Food here is as ridiculously cheap as at the aforementioned food stalls, but there's more variety available, as well as the luxury of tables and chairs. My first time in the cafeteria I just got what one of my teachers got, thinking that she'd know what's good. She chose a fish dish, and unfortunately for me I don't have the Kung-fu required to eat Chinese fish dishes in any reasonable amount of time without swallowing lots of spines.

Besides the total lack of knives and forks, the cafeteria's major difference from UC Berkeley's is that people are expected to leave waste (like fish spines) on their tables, whereas at Cal everybody has a tray under his plate on which to put unwanted waste. Cheap Chinese labor comes around and wipes each table down as soon as one group departs.

I wouldn't say the food at the cafeteria's great, but so far I'd say it's better than Berkeley's. Besides the quality food, I also enjoy the huge number of options and sitting across from the Chinese intelligentsia, including my own teachers. Also, at restaurants I tend to stick with items whose ingredients I can somewhat decipher from the Chinese characters on the menu, but in the cafeteria, where all the food is already prepared and visible, I can try something new after deciding that it looks appetizing.

I've covered all the on-campus, super cheap options. I could write forever about middle-of-the-road places, but I'll spare anyone whose made it this far and just skip to the really classy places. Last Saturday, a classmate took me to the best Korean barbeque place in the city. It's called 烤肉乐,which is either pronounced kǎoròu lè or kǎoròu yùe, I'm not sure (Chinese characters suck). It's right next to Tsinghua and Peking Universities, and apparently a lot of Koreans live, work, and hangout in the area. My friend who took me is from Korea, and he's spent a fair deal of time in Beijing, so he knows where it's at. We ordered some raw beef, condiments, and soju. Wrapping the beef in some lettuce and dipping it sauce made for a surprisingly light tasting dinner. This great meal at the best place in town cost us each $7.50. My friend told me it would cost at least twice as much in Korea (I'm referring of course to the country where people regularly eat).

I have to mention one more fancy place. To celebrate the end of the first semester, some classmates and I went to one of the two most famous Peking Duck (aka běijīng kǎoyā) restaurants in Beijing (aka Peking). Luckily I've started to become friends with a wonderful young lady named Yuhwen who knows her way around Beijing. When we first walked in, I was very impressed, but also worried that dinner would cost a fortune. There were a lot of people in business attire, both Chinese and foreigners, and the décor included handwritten messages from the ambassadors of several nations, as well who I assume are famous Chinese people.

We had to wait thirty minutes for a table, but for once I was more than happy to wait to be seated. The waiting area was right in front of the kitchen, which was surrounded by clear glass, giving us all a clear view of the ducks being oh-so-enticingly roasted. As if the thank you notes and kitchen action weren't enough to keep us happy, we were also free to help ourselves to free drinks! And not just tea, but soda, white wine, red wine, and my personal favorite, plum juice.

After being seated, we actually had to wait a long time before a waiter came to take our order. I think the absence of tips really discourages speedy service in China. We ordered two ducks, and got to watch them get sliced up, which was fun. After eating the best duck I've had since I got to Beijing, I was treate to free fruit and dessert. Thanks for the memories, dàdòng kǎoyā diàn!

One last food related story; this one's really really embarrassing. It was really late at night after eating roast duck, and i wanted to get some fruit for the next day's breakfast. We went into a little convenience store that sold ice cream and bottled drinks and such, and I was pleasantly surprised to see some fruit. In retrospect, it was strange that there was only a little bit and there was only one kind of fruit all laid out on one plate, but at the time I thought nothing of it. I started inspecting it, and it felt pretty ripe to me, so I asked “How much?”. When the salesperson looked puzzled, I realized that I was asking to buy fruit that was an offering at a little shrine! When I realized this, I quickly said “Oh, I'm sorry, I don't want it,” but the lady went ahead and put some fruit in a bag and insisted and so I paid for it and eventually ate it. If I die in China under strange circumstances, it's actually somebody's ancestors getting revenge on me for stealing their fruit sacrifice.

Here's a link to more pictures if you're interested.