My gustatory experiences in Shanghai were definitely adventures all by themselves. This is usually true, of course, when one is traveling, and tasting new and interesting foods is often a highlight of any trip abroad. I won’t dispute that basic tenet, but I certainly stretched my taste buds to the max the four weeks I was in China, and frankly I really looked forward to biting into a good ol’ American bison burger upon my return to the states.
Let me discuss lunch first. I was excited to eat what and where the locals ate, and I was grateful to find out that the University had loaded 200 yuan (roughly $32) on my ID card for use in the school’s cafeteria. This meant I was able to eat most lunches there. My initial experience was after the first day of class when I met Professor Ren Xiao, whom our department invited to Witt for a colloquium talk this September, for lunch. He showed me the procedure for going through the café line. Everything in the line was in a single-serving dish, so you selected what you wanted making sure to take some chopsticks at the end of the line, and a soup spoon if you’d chosen some soup. Then a dour woman promptly rang up your total and you swiped your ID card across a card reader which then told you how much was left on the card for future purchases. Easy enough, of course, and most folks chose about 4 dishes plus some rice which came to around 10 yuan ($1.62)—yeah, really cheap.
At the front of the line were the protein dishes, then the vegetables, then the bowls of rice and soup. The problem with this system was right at the front of the line; it was damn near impossible to figure out what was in the protein dishes (except for the small bowls obviously containing fish heads)! On my first trip through with Professor Ren, I chose what looked like pieces of pork mixed with onions, then slipped a small bowl of cooked cauliflower onto my tray along with a dish of green beans, a bowl of rice, and a banana. I was very hungry since I had not really had time to eat breakfast in my effort to figure out how to get to class that first day. So, as we sat down and dug in, I eagerly picked up a piece of the pork with my chopsticks (which I’m pretty good with, now, by the way), and chomped down hard on a . . . bone! Luckily, I did not break a tooth, but I did have to clumsily take the thing out of my mouth and ponder my next attack. This was my big moment of realization that the Chinese often do not take bones out of their meat, whether it is pork, chicken, duck, or beef. You simply have to let your fingers be your guide and pick the small morsels of protein apart for safe consumption. Unfortunately, since a large percentage of each piece is bone, there is not much satisfaction in finishing a small bowl of the offering. I went away still hungry from that first lunch, but all the wiser just the same.
As the days passed, and I continued to eat lunch in the cafeteria three times a week, I began to eagerly hope for a protein dish that became a favorite one—small pieces of bacon with onions and bok choy. Whenever that wasn’t available, I was reduced to just eating vegetables and soup (usually egg drop soup), and a banana (thank god it’s hard to mess up a banana!). I never looked at the fish heads and thought “mmmm, don’t those look especially tasty today!” I did try a tofu and fungus dish once, but it was too bland, almost tasteless really, although the fungus had an interesting texture.
The vegetables were mostly quite good, and I ate a lot of them. I didn’t know what some of them were, but an especially delicious dish was sliced celery with hominy. Eventually, my taste buds grew tired of this lunch-time challenge, and by late in the third week I found myself having a hard time even finishing my rice. But, I ate because I was hungry as I watched my Chinese colleagues eagerly devouring their meals, including the fish heads they picked apart with impressive proficiency.
On my frequent travels, my TA Chouyen (Celia) was eager for me to try special delights, and during our trip to Nanjing, she and her high school friend Fang, who is an engineering major at Nanjing University and was our tour guide for that day, insisted that I try two delicacies: cold, fried chicken feet and duck blood soup! I must say there is not much meat on chicken feet, so you just suck and chew a little before you’re done. In duck blood soup, the actual blood is congealed and about the texture and size of a small piece of bologna. There are several pieces of this in the soup, while the rest of the protein consists of duck organ meat (quite a bit, actually, and more than I could stand), and bits of tofu. The broth was clear and finished off with celantro and celery. Except for the overload on the organ meat, the soup was pretty tasty! Finally, Chouyen and Fang were eager to try some soy and rice cake desserts while in Nanjing, so she treated us to an option that “looked” delicious. Uh, not so much!
Many evenings I took my dinner at a small family restaurant called the Ding Wang Tea Restaurant which was a block from my apartment. I could usually get a full meal, including a large Tsingtau beer for around 25 yuan ($3.92)! One of my favorite dishes was “Russian style soup” which had a tomato broth with cabbage, carrots, and potatoes (5 yuan–80 cents)! On a couple of occasions I ordered roasted duck and rice and watched as the cook took one of the cooked ducks off a warming hook and sliced it for me before laying it on a bed of rice accompanied by a delicious side of sautéed bok choy . . . Hmmmmmm!
An interesting feature of this restaurant, which tended to help attract the college students was that they showed Chinese soap operas on a screen on the back wall every evening, and on weekends, there would be a movie shown from what appeared to be the Chinese version of Netflix. The pic below shows the movie that was shown one evening while I was there (probably not with full royalties). 🙂
When I got a bit tired of Chinese food thank god for the little Italian place (Ciao Cafe) that served wonderful subs, pizza, salads, and pasta. For breakfast, a great treat was a place called Pancake Day!
Many more food adventures were mine in addition to these I’ve discussed. I remember them fondly (well, mostly)!