Food: the great end-all be-all. The button to your coat. The hinge to your door. The joint to your…. knee? For those who know me, you know I’m closing my left eye, curling the left corner of my mouth, and shaking my head right now. You know. And you also know that nobody on this great green and gray Earth cannot survive without food. So, with that in mind, who exactly decided that finding and ordering food should be so effing hard?
Imagine ordering a meal at a typical American restaurant. “I’ll have the pan fried steak with roasted vegetables and a side of garlic mashed potatoes,” you say to the waiter/waitress, not batting an eyelash. And they absolutely know what you said.
Now, imagine seeing that cluster of description words on a Chinese menu and picking out the food you want when there are no pictures. “我只要鸡肉,” you feverishly think in your steaming brain, and yet you cannot find the simple word for chicken anywhere— it’s hidden in between the words for “braised” and “ginger” and “bean” that you never learned. The waiter/waitress taps their pen on their clicker, probably thinking “白人” in exasperation. You’re thinking it too.
I always end up pointing to something with a character or two that I know and saying, “这个.”
It is with great surprise that I have stumbled upon a server that can speak English. They tend to be very helpful and understanding, probably thinking back to their similar attempts at learning the much-harder English language. At a restaurant called 东北农家菜馆 (a Dong Bei-style restaurant just down the street), the waiter patiently helped us figure out whether a dish was spicy or not, what didn’t have mushrooms, and which dishes came with what type of meat.
And although you get the occasional help, you still end up accidentally trying things you would absolutely never eat. Squid, octopus, and fungus aren’t my cup of tea, yet they undoubtedly ended up on my plate at one time or another. An adventurous eater I am not, yet adventurous eating I still shall do. Or something like that.
Though this discouraging rash of difficult yet delightful cuisine experiences has dampened my hopes of eating totally well enough, I have found some genuinely good food. I’ve found modern-looking cafes, modest restaurants, fast food joints, and places that look like actual holes in the wall, all harboring surprisingly good fare. If you ask anyone in my program about “the chicken place,” they could direct you to a small…. shack?… in an alleyway close to our classroom building where you can buy, essentially, a chicken and egg McMuffin for 6块元, or about 90 cents.
You can also find stellar prices like that on “cheap street,” where I partook in 素包子(vegetarian baozi). Or, for a higher and yet well-deserved priced, you could go to Zoo Cafe. I hope to make their waffles and ice cream, accompanied, of course, by a latte or mocha, my after-class and weekend morning ritual. I don’t even care if they classify waffles as dessert—what’s up with that anyway?
Despite the trial and error, successes and failures, I have yet to encounter a dish that I didn’t actually like. I am continually flabbergasted by the quality of the food here, both in a tangible and intangible way. All the cooks here smoke and play candy crush while at the same time preparing food, making me wonder how they have time to make their food taste so good. I wish I could do that, let alone cook at all.