Indisputably, one of the must have experiences while traveling is eating local cuisine. Hands down, nothing but food will let you know a culture more intimately. I have noticed that in many places I have traveled how small culinary differences can sometimes unravel an entire cultural outlook on existence. The customs of eating a dinner can represent the morals of a people just as well sometimes as a moral treatise.
Chinese cuisine is no exception to this rule, and this is why I try to go out and eat different Chinese foods almost every day I live in Beijing.
Beijing’s street food is a must have. Not only is it dirt cheap – you may find yourself spending only 4 kuai, the equivalent of $0.75, on a meal – but it is also an experience, similar to getting a hot dog in Times Square. On many street corners there are food peddlers showing off their goods to thousands of people each night. There are fried meats on a stick, meat and veggie wraps, 包子bāozi, noodles, candy carts, and much more, from fruit to sweet potatoes and roasted nuts.
My favorite street food is a delectable treat that is a Beijing original: 糖葫芦 tánghúlu. Essentially, all it is are a bunch of fruits on a stick and covered in hot melted sugar and then cooled so that the sugar forms an ice-like casing of sweetness around the fruit. It is like a magical fruit salad that is portable and even better than fruit salad – sorry fruit salad, you know I still love you! I like the strawberry ones the most, but they come in many varieties, including mixtures of kiwi, grapes, pineapple, tomatoes, strawberries, hawthorn, and more.
I also love roaming around Beijing and looking for small restaurants, that most other foreigners are too sketched out by to eat in. These restaurants serve genuine Chinese food, that most Chinese people actually eat. One such place I found is in 五道口Wǔdàokǒu and it is called 成都小吃Chéngdū xiǎochī, literally meaning ‘Chengdu snacks.’ Chengdu is the capital city of 四川Sìchuān province China, a province well-known for its 辣味儿là wèir, spicy flavor. Often while there, I order 麻婆豆腐má pó dòufu, a traditional type of soft tofu drenched in a thick spicy soup, and 宫保鸡丁gōng bǎo jī ding, which is exactly what it sounds like: Kung pao chicken. Except this Kung pao chicken has 四川花椒Sìchuān huājiāo Sichuan flower peppers, which after a few bits will numb your mouth, making everything you taste far more intriguing.
Unlike in America, the way to eat this food is by having a bowl of rice for yourself and taking from communal dishes what you are eating. Usually, when I think of ordering food at a restaurant, I order something and other people order their own dishes and we eat from our individual plates. Though it may be argued that sharing dishes at the center of a table is not exactly hygienic, it also opens conversation up by encouraging interaction with others at the table. It is also common courtesy to make sure everyone at the table always has enough food. Imagine a Thanksgiving dinner and how everyone is always happy and talking to one another as they get each other food, that is what the Chinese style of eating is like.
In addition to having simply amazing spicy food – I am pretty much in love with Sichuanese food! This small restaurant does not cater too much to foreigners, meaning that it gives a more authentic Chinese feel. It is a great place to practice some 汉语Hànyǔ – Chinese – and observe customs. One of my favorite observations is how Chinese men – though it may be more of a Sichuanese custom – drink beer from tall bottles, but they always pour the beer into what is almost a shot glass. It appears to be that throughout history Chinese have never drank from a tall glass, but instead have had a larger container that they pour into smaller cups or bowls. This is mostly founded on how historically Chinese have drunk their tea; they are drinking the beer in a way that is culturally molded by centuries of tea drinking. Also, their glasses are never empty because if someone drinks theirs another will fill his and then toast him. This is a way for men to enjoy each other and for them to gain ‘face.’
面子miànzi, noun: face; reputation; prestige, etc.
‘Face’ is a cultural concept in China that helps mold social order. It is one’s reputation as a polite individual. The concept is more complicated than I can fully explain here, but in the instance of the man pouring the other man more beer he is showing that he is kind and unselfish. Qualities such as parsimony, fickleness, and being ungrateful hurt one’s ‘face,’ so by sharing beer and encouraging the other to have a good time, this man is building his ‘face.’ At the same time, the fact that the other man cheers the one who pours the beer and drinks with him is a way of giving him ‘face.’ If he did not drink the beer he would be harming his friend’s ‘face.’ It is important to work on building one’s ‘face’ in China, but it is also important to 给面子gěimiànzi, meaning literally to ‘give face.’ This concept runs back far into Chinese history, back to the Confucian concept that life should be well-ordered, and people should be respectful of one another. Confucius even believed that ritual and music, as Lin Yutang wrote in The Wisdom of Confucius, were needed to create a “moral harmony which should make government itself unnecessary” (Yutang, 8). ‘Ritual and music’ means social interactions and customs, as well as ritual and musical performance, and this cultural concern with ‘face’ is a direct product of this philosophy. It makes it amazing to see how the philosophy of a man who lived over 2500 years ago is still in practice today, even in a small Sichuanese restaurant down a back alley in modern steel and glass Beijing. To be part of that is a great privilege I have. Whenever I go to this restaurant with a friend, I always make sure to keep his glass filled and his face smiling.