I was nervous about the food before heading to China. We heard not to drink the water and to even use bottled water when brushing out teeth, avoid street food, and that we would most likely get sick at some point during the trip. My friend even went to a Chinese restaurant in Nebraska, and asked them to give him the most authentic meal they had for preparation. They brought out something not even on the menu!
The teachers definitely freaked us out, way more than they needed to. However, a part of me understands their extra caution as none of them would want to deal with and be responsible for a severely sick student while half-way around the world. Luckily, I never was sick during the trip, although I think I was the only person in our group of about 30. The food wasn’t as different as I expected, although I could see the Western and American influence on the Chinese food we eat here. In Beijing, and for parts of our meals in Tianjin, we all ate together at a restaurant. This was nice as we never had to order our food, a wide variety of dishes was served to us by lazy Susans. I ate at dumpling restaurants a few times, and tried my first bubble tea, which is something I drink now all the time since my grad school is located in Chinatown of Boston.
I couldn’t have told you everything we ate immediately upon returning home, let alone eight years later. For the most part, I remember enjoying it all, and the excitement of trying new things. The whole fish that was served at one of the restaurants was a surprise! Because we had to avoid drinking tap water, at restaurants we were served soda, bottled water, tea, or heated tap water. The nutritionist in me now cringes at the amount of soda I drank that week. Now when I travel somewhere I can’t drink the tap water, I go out of my way to make sure I have healthier options than soda available, even if that means buying a giant bottle of water and lugging it around with me.
Two of Tianjin’s attractions are Guwenhua Jie, or Culture Street, and Food Street. Culture street provides a taste of ancient Chinese culture, with shops and demonstrations. We walked around here, and I bought most of my souvenirs here, including a clay teapot. One of our teachers bought some scorpions and beetles on sticks and offered them around to try. I wish I had tried them now! Everyday, more research and more product developing is occurring to incorporate insects into our diets as a source of protein. Insects are a much more sustainable form of protein that mammals, and it’s exciting to see as research and development continues and more palatable options are being introduced. Food street was a surprise. It’s inside a building and reminded me so much of a normal mall, except each store or stall was a restaurant or food vendor. We ate ice cream, tried a multitude of candy and sweets, and I bought my mom blooming tea here. Now, I see blooming tea in stores in the US, but at the time, this was a completely new concept to me. A few of my friends found a vendor that made sugar sculptures, including the peacock down below.
It was very interesting stopping in a grocery store. We saw many similar and American products, especially snacks and cereals. However, there were some interesting flavors, such as the blueberry Lay’s chips. They really tasted like blueberries, however the aftertaste was a bit strange.
Once in Tianjin we ate out at restaurants less often. Our daily routine involved going to the school in the morning for culture classes, exploring Tianjin in the afternoon, then returning home with our families. My family cooked breakfast and dinner most of the time. Some of my favorite meals were at their house. For breakfast we normally had steamed buns, hard boiled eggs, and bananas. I remember this so vividly because at the time I didn’t enjoy hard boiled eggs or bananas, but they tasted delicious that week because at least it was something familiar after all the foreign food. For dinner we ate a variety of meals including chicken wings, rice porridge, vegetables, soup, and of course a lot of rice. They served a vegetable one night that I guessing they steam fried. It was cooked but still crunch. It had holes in it and reminded me a bit of swiss cheese. I loved it, and although I’m not quite sure what it was, from my research I would guess lotus root.
We visited China after the height of the Swine Flu epidemic. Our trip was actually postponed from October to April because the Chinese government wasn’t allowing in groups of high school students from the US. After eating with my family, I understood at least one reason that could explain why the Avian Flu had spread so badly and how that increased their worry about Swine Flu. Instead of using serving utensils, members of the family would serve me more food using the chopsticks they were directly eating from.
My favorite food I ate is hot pot. Hot pot is similar to fondue, they place a soup over a lit candle. Then we have raw meat, noodles, dumplings, and veggies that we can cook in the soup. I ate hot pot twice while in China. The first time, a few friends and I went with some of our exchange students. We were each given our own separate, small soup. One of the noodle options was potato noodles. These are extremely long and slimy. It was incredibly difficult to transfer them in and out of the soup using chopsticks, especially once they were cooked. My friend had a noodle that fell on the table, then onto her lap. The restaurant provided aprons to every patron, however us Americans were the only ones wearing them.
I also ate hot pot with the family I lived with. Both times we were given a sauce that is commonly eaten with hot pot. With my family, the restaurant allowed you to mix your own, so you could change the amount of seasoning you wanted. We shared one bowl altogether, although it had the option of having two different kinds of soup, as the cooking food will pick up the flavoring.
My last night my family brought out their traditional tea set. The taught me all about serving traditional tea. While I’ve forgotten most of it, some things stick out in my mind. They boil the water in an electric kettle. They place tea leaves in the clay pot and pour it from one to the next. They also pour it over the outside of the pots, as it helps to keep the pots in good condition. With each pour to the next pot, and then each cycle of tea that gets made, the tea becomes stronger. The tea leaves are filtered out when the tea is poured into the clear pot and is then served.