“Oh, this looks good!” I sigh, drooling in front of the food pictures displayed on the wall at the restaurant. “Wait a minute… are these silkworms? Okay, never mind. The veggies looked nice, though.”
Silkworms, really? Come on, people! This was in a small eatery by the train station, one of these places that offers standard fares such as noodles, dumplings are fried rice. Who arrives in Shenyang by train and think “gee, I haven’t had silk worms in ages, let’s go for it!”
I was surprised because insects are rarely on the menu. Dog meat isn’t either, even though I did spot the word “dog” in dishes that were not “hot dogs”. And in Shenyang’s suburb, we saw… ahem, very effective marketing advertising: a dead dog hung in front of a restaurant specializing in, you guessed it, dog meat (warning, graphic pic below!).
These days, you can find Beijing Duck in Yunnan, traditional Sichuan spicy food in Mongolia and Shanghainese dumpling in Hong Kong—regional foods are now available countrywide.
Yet, the “东北饭” (Northeast China food) has several specialties.
It all starts with “jiaozi” (饺子), aka “Chinese raviolis”. They look a bit like Italian raviolis or Ukrainian perigee (spelling? Google is blocked in China!) and can be filled with beef or pork, often mixed with cabbage, celery or Chinese leeks. Each order comes steamy hot in a bamboo or metal basket. You make your own sauce, a mix of vinegar, soy sauce and chili and dip the jiaozi in it.
“Baozi” (包子, steamed buns) are also common in the North. These fluffy buns are filled with meat and cabbage, some are vegetarian (typically cabbage, a bit of tofu and mushrooms) and some are sweet (often filled with red bean paste, peanuts, or sugar).
“Bing” (饼) are a general term that loosely translates into “pancake”. There are hundreds of kinds of “bing”, some fried, some baked, some savory, some sweet, some eaten hot and some eaten cold. Popular fillings include pork or beef, peanuts, red bean, or Chinese leeks.
These foods are considered street food and are very cheap, often about 50 cents apiece or less.
Other popular street foods include hot sweet potatoes (烤地瓜), corn (玉米), meat skewers, fried dough stick (油条) and hot dogs. Fried squid seems very popular, and I can’t help wondering where Chinese people source all these squids. Plus I find them alien-like scary impaled on a stick.
In restaurants, you can order potato strings (土豆丝, often mix with tomatoes), potatoes coated in sugar (拉丝土豆), fried eggplants (鱼香茄子), spicy tofu (麻辣豆腐), ribs (排骨), sour cabbage and an endless list of “cai”(菜) (dishes accompanying rice or noodles).
“Cold noodles” (冷面) are very popular, especially the 炸酱面kind—thick wheat noodles served lukewarm topped with cucumbers and a salty fermented soybean paste. Noodles can also be fried with whatever you want, or come in a soup (good luck eating without making a mess!). Hand-pulled noodles(拉面, la mian) restaurants are often managed by Hui Chinese, the Muslim ethnic minority, and are a popular place for those who don’t eat meat (they have true vegetarian dishes) or pork (the food is halal).
Ordering can be either super easy or super hard. For street food, it’s easy: you can see what people are making and eating, and the food is right in front of you. It’s often explicit as well, at least if you can read Chinese: “beef noodles”, “veggie bun”, etc. In restaurants, it can be harder, because even if you recognize all the characters, the name of the dish doesn’t tell you much about its contents. For instance, the “three treasures” can be either a mix of eggplants, celery and pepper or a mix of liver, stomach and pig intestines.
If you eat as group, you typically order several dishes (three, four, five… ten…!) that come randomly (i.e. you can get the meat first, or the veggies, or the soup… it doesn’t matter) and are placed on a revolving platter at the centre of the table. Everyone has a very small bowl or plate, you pick in each dish with your chopstick, and place the food in your bowl. I’ve heard some Westerners find it very unhygienic (“double dipping”) but on the upside, you get to taste many dishes and you can focus on what you like best.
We had several formal lunches and dinners with Feng’s family, and they all involved copious amounts of food, alcohol and cigarettes. You eat, drink, smoke and repeat. Bonus: Mark learned a very useful life skill—opening beer bottles. Please, don’t call child protective services on me, I wasn’t the one who taught it (blame Feng’s third uncle and second aunt).
Chinese also seem to like bakeries. You can find bread and sweet bread in any supermarket, but they are now franchises and independent bakeries selling Western-style delicacies (croissants, brioche, ham and egg toasts, pies, etc.) and Chinese snack, savoury or sweet, such as egg tarts and pumpkin bread. Oh, and let’s not forget the very sour Chinese yogurts (often not refrigerated). You drink them from the cup with a straw, it’s a handy snack—plus every time I stick the straw through the lid in one swift motion, it reminds me of Uma Thurman ODing in Pulp Fiction and coming back to life as she gets the shot.
So, where do you buy groceries? You can shop at the market (side streets packed with fruit, meat and vegetable stalls) or at the supermarket, including at Carrefour and Walmart. Supermarkets aren’t that different from their Western counterparts at first glance, although the kind of food they sell is. For instance, there are entire aisles dedicated to soy sauce and oil, noodles or candies. Eggs come without a carton (people put them in a plastic bag!), those packaged are often boiled. Chinese love candies and there are aisles of sweets individually wrapped (chocolate isn’t as popular).
Korean food is fairly popular in Shenyang (it’s the closest foreign country around!). Sadly, Western food is represented by all the fast-food franchises, like KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, so you’re better off eating tasty local food!