Tuesday, May 26, 2009

China: Food!

Believe it or not, the food here in China is a little different than the food I am used to eating back home. I know, shocker. To tell you the truth, I was a little worried about what the food would be like here. I had heard the horror stories from the guys who have been here. Fish with the heads still on. Eel, snake, undercooked fish, jet-ass, undrinkable water, etc., etc., etc.

However, I am pleased to say that it is not nearly as bad as everyone has made it out to be. Actually, I’m probably eating better/healthier than I have for quite a long time. First of all, there is no salt here. They don’t put it on the table, so that keeps me from adding it. Hardly anything is deep fried, it’s mostly boiled here. Also, nearly all of the meat dishes come with vegetables, so you get equal parts of both. Sure there have been a few dishes that I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot pole, but that’s to be expected. Fortunately, the way the meals are done here, you can just pass it by and try the next dish.

Here’s how it’s works. Almost all of the meals I have eaten have been family style. We all (and normally there are at least 5 or 6 of us) sit around a round table. This round table has a glass plate in the middle which spins. All of the dishes are put on this middle plate and the plate is rotated so that everyone can get to the food. So far, all of the dinner tables have looked similar to the one in the picture below when we get there. Interesting tidbit, see the napkin that is folded so that it is much taller than all of the other ones? It is always at the seat that is opposite the door and is meant to be for the most important person at the table (the patriarch of the family, the CEO of the company, the person who is paying for the meal, etc.) It is opposite the door so that he can see who is coming in or leaving the room.

He has the place of honor. The most important person beside him is seated to his left, and the third is seated to his right. I have been honored with the 3rd seat at most meals because it is my first time in the country. Daniel, our guide through this part of China and an intermediary for the Chinese companies, normally gets the second seat.

Most of our meals have been in private rooms. Each room has a girl who is the waitress. She serves drinks (always starts with a tea of some sort) and brings the food dishes to the table, and brings in more cigarettes when they run out. She is the only one who helps our table, and she only is in our room. There is no tipping in China, it is included in the price of the meal. It’s amazing how quickly you become accustomed to no one smoking at meals or in buildings. It took me by surprise at first, but now it is commonplace. Most of them smoke. At meetings, at meals, everywhere. But they don’t pressure you if you don’t, so it’s not a big deal. But, I digress.

The meal.
The ordering is done either at the table out of a menu, or it is done separately. At least 2 of the places I have been to have examples of dishes out in the entryway for everyone to look at and choose from. They are shrink-wrapped. There are hundreds of them, as well as a fully stocked aquarium with every type of fish or crustacean you can think of. The white guys don’t pick the food. We just go upstairs to the room.

It starts out, as I’ve said, with tea. Green tea, Black tea, Chamomile tea, you name it, they have it. They drink it instead of water. They have it at meals, at the office, everywhere.
Everyone takes a seat and the meal starts with appetizers. Normally there are peanuts, cucumbers, mushrooms of some sort, maybe another cold vegetable of some sort. Last night we had a dish of sugar cane boiled and coated in an oil vinaigrette of some sort. It was cold. I tried it, but didn’t have seconds, if you know what I mean.

Then they bring out the main course. This is anywhere from 5 to 9 dishes of food. Large dishes. There is always enough for everyone and then some. To not have enough food for everyone would dishonor the group and reflect poorly on the guy who is buying.

The food is everything you can think of. There are always shrimp (head on of course.) Also, they always serve some sort of soup. Chicken, duck, bamboo (not my favorite). I’ve had beef and peppers, a salty fish that must be preserved, boiled fish, beef and potatoes (now you’re talking), as well as many mixed dishes. There are too many to count and I’ll never remember them all. They have an interesting dish which is almost a stirfry. It has vegetables of all sorts, shrimp, and a substance that they call rice cake (or something like that.) It is made from rice, obviously, but they break it down and make it into a firm gelatin. It is cut into strips that are about ¼” thick. It is pretty good. Like rice it doesn’t have a strong taste of its own, but takes on the flavor of the dish. Since the dish is flavored with soy sauce, garlic, and onions, that’s a good thing. It is a good dish when there is drinking going on. The rice cakes are solid and give you a good base.

Speaking of drinking, they do plenty of it here. It is seen as a way of making things more relaxed and getting to know each other. There are 3 main drinks. They have beer (Tsingdao) which was brought here by the Germans about a hundred years ago. It is only 3% alcohol so it just fills you up more than anything. They also have wine. I have seen both rice wine, and red wine. And finally, there is the Baijiu, or rice liquor. Potent stuff, they love it here. So far I have been able to stick to beer, although the other night I had some Baijiu as well. They do pressure you on the drinking part. Especially one guy (we call him Phil). He likes to drink, and he likes us to drink with him. They do a lot of saluting here. They will say something and then say to drink up. They will either make you take a drink, drink half of what you have, or drink the rest. Some good advice I got from Joe is to use a glass with the beer. By using a glass you control how much beer you drink and can stem off the inevitable. Fortunately, as I’ve said the beer is only 3% so I have a bigger chance of getting full than I do of getting too drunk. I believe some of it has to do with my size as well. All of the guys over here want to see how much a big white guy can drink. They want to feel things out a bit. It’s good for me that about 6 beers will impress them enough that I don’t have to get in any real trouble. I’ll leave the Baijiu to them. That stuff will get you in trouble. It can be up to 140 proof and will mess you up. It is inevitable that I will drink some of it (to not drink a toast with them would probably offend them.) But if I keep the baijiu to a few shots and stick to the beer, I should be fine.

If you will believe it, I have impressed them here at meals. Not with the amount, but with my willingness to try multiple things. For those of you who know me best, that will probably shock you quite a bit. I have tried to try most of the dishes that are passed. Again, I’d rather try to avoid offending them by being a prick about the food. That, in combination with the fact that they think I can drink, seems to have impressed them. It helps that they don’t use any of the white cream condiments that we use in the states (ranch sauce, mayo, cream cheese, sour cream) that I’m not a huge fan of. Overall, I like the food and am eating fairly well.

If you have any questions for me, I am getting both my hotmail and outlook email now so I’d be happy to answer your questions.

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