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Before I moved to China, I lived in Toronto's Chinatown. Before that, I was a frequent diner at Victoria's Dragon Palace. I somehow believed this meager experience would have prepared me for dining in China, but it did not. Because there is no such thing as Lemon Chicken and Twice-Cooked Pork is nowhere to be seen. Egg Foo Young? You've got to be kidding.

My first month in China was a culinary misadventure. At the time we were living in a small village at an airport 40 kilometers from the nearest city. There were three or four restaurants where we could eat, but since we couldn't communicate with the staff (we hadn't yet learned any Chinese), we learned the name of two dishes and proceeded to order them everywhere. One dish, now legendary, is called Yu Xiang Rou Si, which translates to something like "Fish Fragrant Pork Strips." It is so much better than it sounds, in fact it doesn't taste anything at all like fish. The second dish is well-known in North America: Gong Bao Ji Din. You might know it as Kung Pao Chicken. Luckily, we eventually learned the ways of the Chinese restaurant. The first step being discovery of "living menus." Imagine one of those giant supermarket refrigerated cases, the ones that are open, where meats & cheese are displayed. Then imagine it in a restaurant, filled with examples of all the dishes the restaurant is capable of cooking. All you have to do is walk along and point at the things you want. Dishes might also be sitting on a table and tanks of seafood are also available for pointing. A waitress will write the dishes down and send an order to the kitchen. This is the secret of our successful ordering since we speak a pathetic dialect of Mandarin known as survival Chinese, which includes useful phrases such as, "Bring cold beer" and "the check, please!" but not many things like, "and how is that sea cucumber prepared?" or "will the chicken be hacked into bits or left in its natural state?" Living menus are a godsend.

Living Menu

Walk around and choose your food

Since our survival Chinese has not yet reached the point of being able to read signs, we never know the names of the restaurants we like to go to. Instead, we have come up with our own naming system, which includes some sort of descriptor and the word "place." For example, we might want to go to the "roller-skate place" for dinner (where the waiters wear roller skates), or maybe the "Muslim place," (run by Chinese Wu Muslims, this place has got the best lamb legs.) There's always the "Mao place," (they only serve Mao Zedong's favorite dishes) or the "place we once went for that thing." The "business hotel place" is always good, as is the "Korean place." (Only now that is a problem since there are three known Korean places.) I sometimes like to eat at the "place next to McDonald's," but I am not such a fan of the "place where the baby pooped on the floor" restaurant. Yes, I am serious. (Both about the naming and the fact a baby once pooped on the floor of a restaurant while we were eating. Kids generally don't wear diapers here, but that is another post!) My all-time fave is the "lamb place," although I am also looking forward to summer so I can sit outside at the "crawfish place," (which used to be called the "shady hole-in-the-wall place") and have some of the best crawfish this side of the Pecos. (Bet you didn't know crawfish boil is a Chinese specialty!)

Beef Stew

The "cauldron place" serves a mean beef stew

You probably already know that Chinese meals are not like American meals. Meals here are family style and whatever you order gets plopped down in the middle of the table to be eaten by all. You need to have a firm grip (both figuratively and literally) on your chopsticks as there are no forks here. In addition to a variety of dishes (usually one per guest), a staple food is ordered. Staple food is a Chinglish term for the carbohydrate dish, which at one point in time was probably the mainstay of the meal with a little bit of meat or vegetable thrown in. Staple foods can be rice, noodles or some type of bread. Non-staple dishes are known simply as dishes. Here in Shandong Province, seafood dishes are popular since we are close to the coast. We often order clams, octopus and squid. Meat dishes include beef, lamb and pork usually cooked with some kind of vegetable. Tofu dishes also abound. Vegetables are cooked together with meat, but sometimes come served on their own with a sauce. My favorite dishes: Red Cooked Pork (fatty pork belly simmered for hours in a molasses-tinged red sauce), Spare Ribs with Rice (pork ribs cooked with rice wrapped around them), anything with eggplant (they do a mean eggplant here) and the whole eating phenomenon known as Hot Pot, which deserves a post of its own, later this week.

Favorite Dishes

Red Cooked Pork on Right and Spare Ribs with Rice at Top. From the "Mao Place"

Another Dinner

More Red Cooked Pork, squid, bok choy, soup, duck, etc.

A few caveats on Chinese restaurants: Offal is king and if you enjoy a good stomach or organ, you will have no difficulties in China. Spicy is very popular so most everything will feature a hot chili or two. Stir-fried dishes sometimes err on the oily side. And finally, you do really have to be careful when ordering certain dishes, such as chicken. If you are not careful, you will end up with a pot of chicken bits, which is more or less chopped up chicken bones and skin, and don't be surprised if you find the head floating around there somewhere. Not my cup of "chicken soup" if you will. And lastly, it is important to order lots of food. Having leftover food is a sign of abundance and wealth, so at a business dinner or family events such as wedding or childbirth celebrations, you might end up with a table that looks something like this:

Celebration Dinner

More food than we could possibly eat!

Another complaint I have to throw out there is the lack of consistency. We have a large repertoire of restaurants that we frequent, not so much because we like the variety, but because the restaurants are never as good as we remember from one visit to the next. We find that giving the restaurant a miss and returning a few weeks to a month later will somehow renew the quality. I don't know the reason for this inconsistency, but it might be that you end up with a different chef on different days.

I am not going to say that Chinese is the world's best cuisine. They have a lot of good stuff, but to be honest, it suffers from a problem of over-sameness. The same cooking styles, the same spices, the same sauces... I just happen to enjoy these spices and sauces, so it is not a problem for me. The world's best cuisine? For me, a toss up between Spain & Thailand... with a good chicken fried steak thrown in. I do love a good cream gravy!

Now the good news. It's cheap. Or at least, it can be. A meal for two in a mom & pop noodle place: 10RMB ($1.46). At a mid-priced restaurant: 50RMB ($7.31). 5 Star Hotel Restaurant: 100RMB ($14.62). For a group of 4 prices generally range between 100 to 200 RMB ($14.62-29.24) and up depending on restaurant quality.

More good news: there are no starving children in China, so you can go ahead and refuse to eat your brussel sprouts!

Got a question about life in China? Please leave a comment!