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Traditional Chinese Food, Shameful Scams And Walking The Wall: My 4 Week Trip To China


September 24th, 2014Travel, Asia, Culture
By Zack Sanderson

Traditional Chinese Food

Image courtesy of Flickr, Tony George

Last year I journeyed to the most populous and culturally diverse country in the world - China. I was to spend a month in Chengdu, interning with an international company based there.

During my month in China, I was also lucky enough to make the 950 mile journey to Beijing. From the lantern-lit streets of chilled-out Chengdu to the intense crowds and pace of life in the capital, I was blown away by China.

Sampling some traditional Chinese food was something that I had been both looking forward to and dreading in equal measure. As it happens, some of my most memorable experiences from the trip did end up involving the local food and drink in some way. In this blog, I’m going to share some of my favourites.

An awful lot of offal

The Sichuan hot pot

Image courtesy of Zack Sanderson

I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy food, but I am willing to give most things a go. So when my work colleagues invited me out to, what they called, ‘the best hot pot restaurant in China’, I put on a brave face.

The Sichuan hot pot is placed at the centre of the table. Everybody then helps themselves. Contained in the middle of the hot pot is the ‘mild’ broth. This is surrounded by oil and spices and served alongside a selection of meats and vegetables. The meat had been chosen by my colleagues and included cow’s stomach, pig’s intestines and an assortment of more familiar cuts.

I soon learnt to stop asking what body part I was munching my way through – I really didn’t want to know. I just tried my best to persevere and enjoy the new and intriguing tastes and textures.

Meanwhile, my mouth is on fire. It was incredibly spicy! I tried to numb the sensation with Tsingtao, an excellent Chinese beer of which I had numerous in the battle against the hot pot spice.

However, regardless of the spice, I did actually enjoy the meal. Some of the meat was really nice and it was great to embrace the local culture by eating a traditional Sichuan dish.

My colleagues also told me a bit about the origins of the hot pot. Apparently it came about because the working class could not afford to buy regular, more expensive cuts of meat so looked for a way to cook cheap cuts and offal. This they did by boiling them in an extremely spicy broth, the intention of which was originally to disguise the awful taste of the animal’s organs. Thus the Sichuan hot pot came into being.

Food fit for an emperor

Twice cooked spicy pork

Image courtesy of Flickr, t-mizo

The first time I had ‘twice cooked spicy pork’ was again with my work colleagues. I would definitely recommend trying to talk to as many locals as possible to ensure you really taste the best of the Chinese cuisine.

This dish I would describe simply as heaven on a plate! It was just amazing and after finishing it for the first time “Huí Guō Ròu (回锅肉)” was permanently saved into my iPhone’s notes. I wasn’t having a huge amount of success when it came to speaking Mandarin, so instead I would get my phone out in a restaurant and point to my Chinese notes with a smile. It worked every time.

Twice cooked pork is believed to have originated from the Qing dynasty. It is said that when the Qianlong Emperor toured the Sichuan region, he demanded a feast was laid out in every village in which he stopped.

However, as he approached one particular village, the locals became troubled. The crop yield had not been overly productive that year and they did not have enough food to host the emperor and his party.

Fearing the worst, the villagers hurriedly deposited their leftover pork and vegetables into a pot and cooked them for the second time. The resulting dish they presented to the emperor.

To their great surprise, he thoroughly enjoyed it. Thus ‘twice cooked pork’ became a famous Sichuan dish.

Having visited the Forbidden City in Beijing and, in doing so, learnt a great deal about the Chinese dynasty, I can fully understand why the villagers were so scared of the emperor. The prestige, wealth and power of the dynasty during this period must have been formidable.

Back to the present day. This mouth-watering pork is to die for and a must for any visit to Chengdu. I am just glad that they no longer use leftovers for this dish.

Peeking over the Great Wall

Peking duck in China

Image courtesy of Flickr, joyosity

Before visiting China I would indulge in the occasional Chinese takeaway and my favourite has always been the duck. So, when visiting Beijing for a few days, how could I pass up the opportunity to tuck into some Peking duck?

One of the main reasons for visiting the capital was to hike The Great Wall of China with the Beijing Hikers. This is something that I would highly recommend because it took up a full day and allowed you to experience both the renovated and un-renovated parts of the wall. We walked for around 7 hours, had a real adventure and I truly feel it is an experience worth paying for.

The Great Wall of China

Image courtesy of Zack Sanderson

Back to the food! The Peking roast duck was served with pancakes and a generous serving of plum sauce and was delicious. You’d be hard pressed to find a more traditional dish in Beijing. If your mouth isn’t watering just at the thought of a succulent duck breast then you clearly haven’t been to Beijing! Go and try it for yourself.

I was staying with family friends in Beijing which allowed me to explore the city with in-the-know locals. Following their recommendations, I visited one of the capital’s best restaurants, The Private Kitchen, and also enjoyed a traditional Chinese massage. The massage in particular I would definitely recommend but beware – when they say ‘full body massage’ they really do mean it. Don’t expect to be allowed to keep any of your clothes on. Luckily, I wasn’t offered a happy ending!

My hosts also accompanied me to a local market and ensured I got a good deal. They helped me to haggle, reducing a t-shirt from the tourist price of 300RMB (around £30) to the local price of 30RMB. If you are planning on visiting China, then be prepared to haggle when shopping for souvenirs! It will certainly save you a few bob.

Teahouse treachery

Following on from this, allow me to share an experience which will hopefully prevent you losing a significant amount of money!

It was my first day in Beijing and, before visiting the Forbidden City, I thought I’d check out Tiananmen Square. I was taking a few photos when two friendly Chinese people began to chat to me, asking where I was from and the like. They both spoke excellent English.

One was apparently a University lecturer named Thomas and the other his female student. They were visiting as tourists themselves. They seemed kind, trusting and friendly.

They suggested that I visit Emperors walk, which was just past the Square and lined with shops and restaurants. They then asked if I wanted to join them for a drink in a traditional tea house. I was in an adventurous and touristy mood so I thought ‘Why not?!’

They chose the teahouse but there was no menu or pricelist to be seen. I did query the price before ordering, but was assured by my two new friends that it was very cheap. This I believed - after all, the teahouse was certainly nothing special. Alarm bells should have started ringing.

We ordered two pots of tea and some small Chinese nibbles. Being the true tourist that I am, I of course wanted to take a photo of the tearoom and my new found friends. They, however, were not comfortable with this owing to their Buddhist faith. Why were the alarm bells not ringing at full volume?!

Teahouse scams in China

Image courtesy of Flickr, kyle simourd

When they asked to order a third pot of tea, those bells were finally audible. I declined and said that I needed to get to the Forbidden City before it shut.

The bill arrived. The two pots of ‘cheap’ tea and the tiny plate of nibbles came to a grand total of 1260RMB (approximately £130). I realised then that I had fallen victim to the teahouse scam.

I was pretty embarrassed, relatively unnerved and extremely angry. My friends expected me to pick up the whole bill of course. I only had 300RMB in cash, which led to questions about whether or not I had a visa card on me. I did, but I was at least awake enough to lie and say I didn’t.

I said how very sorry I was that I couldn’t pay the remainder (I wasn’t sorry in the slightest) and told them I was leaving.

Having spent all of my money on the most expensive tea in China and, in the process, lined the pockets of con-artists, I was unable to visit the Forbidden City that day. Infuriated, I went home knowing I’d been taken to the cleaners.

Let my foolishness and naivety be a lesson to anybody travelling in China. My mum had warned me of such scams but I believed I was more than capable of avoiding them. I was wrong! It is so easy to fall into their trap and they are very good at what they do.

Oodles of noodles

Noodles in China

Image courtesy of Zack Sanderson

Noodles are a key part of traditional Chinese food. They are like pasta to an Italian or potatoes to us Brits.

Before visiting China, I really wasn’t a noodle fan. My first taste of noodles in China certainly didn’t change my opinion, but this might have something to do with the fact that I chose to sample a pot noodle from a local supermarket. It was pretty disgusting.

Later in my trip I visited a noodle bar in Tongzilin neighbourhood in Chengdu. Whilst my chopstick skills were on par with my Mandarin, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and noodles soon became a staple diet for the remainder of my stay.

This tasty, yet simple dish is also very affordable. Chicken and noodles, beef and noodles, noodle soup - they all come in a massive bowl for prices of around 8-15RMB (£0.80-£1.50). The noodles in China are far superior to the Chinese takeaway noodles I’m accustomed to in my home county of West Sussex.

I never quite got the knack of using chopsticks and my clothes did suffer as a consequence. This proved a bit of a problem and, not least, an embarrassment, when out for lunch with my colleagues on one occasion.

Noodles in Chengdu

Image courtesy of Flickr, Helga’s Lobster Stew

I was enjoying a noodle soup but really struggling to contain the slippery little buggers. By the time I’d finished, my smart (and only) plain white shirt was covered in oily, orange droplets. I received a fair few odd looks on my walk back to the office and spent the rest of my day attempting to hide the mess I’d made.

Nevertheless, wherever I went the noodles were delicious and since arriving back in the UK I have noodles far more often - though they don’t quite live up to those I had in Chengdu and Beijing.

Frog hot pot – live and kicking!

Now I’m adventurous, but not that adventurous and some of the food I saw in China I just couldn’t bring myself to try.

Whilst walking through Chengdu on my first day, I became aware of a strong, and not particularly pleasant, stench coming from some of the side streets.

Upon closer inspection I realised that the unfavourable aroma was coming from buckets piled high with live frogs. It became quickly apparent that these creatures weren’t a fondly thought of pet in China, but more a fondly thought of food.

The smell, coupled with the fact that it was a frog(!), prevented me from even considering consuming it.

I later heard that some restaurants serve frogs alive (but skinned) alongside a hot pot. I was truly horrified but, after reading more online, realised it isn’t particularly common.

The octopus kebab

Octopus kebabs

Image courtesy of Flickr, adactio

I’m a big West Ham United supporter and, after getting my first season ticket at the age of 15, I would travel up by myself and meet a friend who lived in London. Having such independence was fantastic. I also used this independent time to make the most of the greasy kebab shops of East London.

A large doner kebab was my lunch of choice and I never missed the opportunity to indulge in one, knowing I could burn some of it off playing football myself the next day.

In China, however, I finally came across a kebab that I had to turn down. Octopus kebab – tentacles and everything! I mean really?! It did not look appealing at all, although I will admit that doner kebabs don’t exactly scream appetising either. The octopus just smelt and looked way too fishy for my liking so I decided to give this kebab a miss.

My trip to China in a nutshell

Visiting a Chinese monastery

Image courtesy of Zack Sanderson

Overall, the time I spent in China was truly amazing. Chengdu is a fantastic city with plenty of culture and traditional food to die for. The tourist hot spots such as The Giant Panda Research Base, the Giant Buddha and the various monasteries were fascinating and the people I met and worked with couldn’t have been more friendly and welcoming.

Beijing is an awesome city and I enjoyed every minute of my 4 day trip there (teahouse scam aside). I’m pleased to say that I did eventually make it to The Forbidden City which, along with The Great Wall and The Summer Palace, I would recommend to anyone – you get a real feel for the heritage of the Chinese dynasty.

Chengdu and Beijing couldn’t have been more different and I’m so glad I got to experience them both. China is a country that I love and I hope I get a chance to return.

The Giant Panda Research Base

Have you been to China? Did you try any traditional Chinese food? We want to hear from you. Please leave your comments below.

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