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Reiland: Scenes from a Chinese restaurant

BY JORDYN REILAND | JUNE 21, 2013 5:00 AM

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BEIJING — Walking into a kitchen with no refrigerator, no microwave, and a stove completely in Chinese was not how I hoped to start my morning.

This was not my Mom’s kitchen, or the new apartment I would live in during my fall semester at the University of Iowa. However, it didn’t take me long to familiarize myself with my current surroundings. I was still in Beijing and eager to try new foods, but with no kitchen appliances, this task seemed like it was going to be more difficult than originally anticipated. 

I knew after the initial inspection of my dormitory it wasn’t going to have everything, but the thought of living without basic kitchen appliances was something that hadn’t crossed my mind.

My blood pressure decreased slightly when I remembered that the Human Resources director told me that I was able to eat one free meal in the cafeteria at China Daily, but that still left two meals unspoken for. I knew I could probably get away with skipping breakfast, because that’s what I did for most of the time I was in high school, but it didn’t seem all that satisfying, and the idea of it left an even bigger pit in my stomach.

At the time, I only knew of one restaurant I would consider going back to because I went there for lunch a few days earlier with some of my coworkers as an icebreaker. Its English menu and various types of homemade paninis and fresh salads made it a comfort from home, plus the English-speaking staff was a bonus. 

I couldn’t rely on paninis and milkshakes for the remainder of my stay, and I didn’t want to. The supermarket wasn’t going to be as helpful as I originally anticipated, considering all I could get from it were non-perishables.

So this problem compelled me to make some friends who knew the area fast. 

And two weeks later, after eating out nearly every meal, I haven’t touched a single inch of the kitchen, and I have only been to the American restaurant twice.

Most restaurants here are nestled in the crowded storefronts alongside bakeries, convenience stores, and small gift shops. Ranging from Korean barbeque to Dim Sum and Southern Chinese cuisine, I realized that the kind of Chinese food I was used to eating at home hadn’t even touched the surface of what my taste buds were going to experience.

There are no fortune cookies, and the ramen in China isn’t wrapped in plastic with a powdery sauce. Instead, its often covered in a soy-based sauce intertwined with small bits of various meats.

Almost every restaurant in China attempts a different style of Chinese cuisine. Each region of China is known for a different flavor or spice, and the styles of food reflect that. Many of the residents think the Southern style cuisine of China is something that most closely resembles American Chinese food. Fried egg mixed with chives cooked over hot rocks, tender pork covered in traditional spices, lamb, and various types of long noodles are all things included on their menus. 

Cold water is a premium at nearly all of the restaurants, because of the poor quality of water in the area, and the fear of what constantly drinking cold water could do to their digestive systems. To a foreigner who drinks cold water on a normal basis, it made little sense, but I went with the ways and quickly learned to drink tea — my favorite being a sweet almost citrus-like fruit tea.

The one thing that remained constant in each table I’ve sat at is the abundance of food. Several appetizers greet you almost immediately, alongside either tea or water. The appetizers are often a small amount of fish, a vegetable, and a mild pumpkin soup. Once those are all eaten, the expectation is to order three or four entrées. Meat, noodles or rice, a vegetable, and another meat or appetizer is often how the decision is made. 

And so after walking through the doors of close to 20 different restaurants, I am able to sit down at each table now, chopsticks in hand with a sort of newly found confidence and curiosity for what my taste buds will experience next. 

Sometimes there’s a lot of pointing to the menu, and I can’t say I haven’t dropped a few things onto my lap with my chopsticks, but each time it's an adventure, and I realized a long time ago that an adventure was exactly what this trip to Beijing was going to be.

Daily Iowan staffer Jordyn Reiland is spending the summer interning for the China Daily in Beijing. Look for her weekly columns each Friday in the DI.


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