How do you choose what to eat when you come to China for the first time and only know how to say nǐ hǎo and xiè xie? You’re only background in Chinese food is the Americanized version, the typical beef, and broccoli, egg fried rice or wonton soup.
You get to a neighborhood restaurant, and the place smells delicious. Your stomach is growling, but you can’t order Chinese food by just saying nǐ hǎo. Sometimes the answer is just pointing at the menu if it has pictures, and politely nod your head. It’s the draw of the cards. You never know what you’ll get. But you do know it’s either rice or noodles or some type of vegetable.
I haven’t gone wrong yet with my choices, but I know the day will come when I’ll choose some Chinese food, and I’ll regret my decision.
Stick with familiar pictures
If you’re not an adventurous eater, stick with the pictures of Chinese food that you’re absolutely sure of. Stick with the ones that show a clear image of the meat. An example being beef noodle soup, niú ròu miàn. You can’t miss it. It’s a picture resembling Japanese ramen, with a red or brown broth with chunks of beef on top. The soup is usually served with bok choy, green onions and sometimes other vegetables. It’s easily one of my go to Chinese food choices.
You also can’t go wrong with a picture of fried rice. It may be different at a sit-down establishment, but if you walk into a place from the street, you usually will find egg and vegetables cooked in the dish. If you’re a vegetarian, double check to see if it has pieces of chicken. Ask, “Zhè shìfǒu yǒu ròu ma?” or “Does this have meat?”
The lottery of Chinese food buffets
I’ve only experienced a buffet once while here in Beijing. My roommates took me out my first weekend here and decided a Chinese food buffet was more bang for the buck. Which was true. 15RMB for all you can eat. Granted; there wasn’t a wide selection, but there were a few tasty looking numbers. And plus if nothing else, there was rice and mán tou, steamed buns.
I don’t know what I ate exactly, but it’s win or lose when you’re eating at a Chinese food buffet and know nothing about the local cuisine. I think there was chicken. And I hope it was eggplant, it was slimy, with the usual sautéed eggplant look.
If you’re going to a buffet by yourself, good luck. But if some local Chinese friends are taking you out and you don’t want to put anything completely foreign on your plate, ask for the vegetables.
Or the beauty of Mr. G Kitchen. If you don’t know about Mr. G, and you like trying different things, get acquainted with this place. It resembles a school cafeteria, but with loads of different food choices. There are some traditional Chinese food options, as well as some Korean fare.
It’s crowded during lunch time, but if you find yourself here a number of occasions, experiment and try some new things. My method is scooting my way through the crowd to see what order is up on the counter. If it looks interesting, I point, pay and wait for my food.
The last meal was chosen at random and ended up being a rice noodle soup with a tomato broth. It came with a small dish of cooked ground beef and already had chicken inside. It was really good, reminded me of tomato soup at home during colder months.
But if you find yourself here, don’t worry, there are pictures to choose from. Or if you want to take a ride on the wild side, use my method and wait to see what Chinese food is being served next.
You are what you eat
If you don’t have any dire allergies, you should be alright using this technique. If not, just go for it and point out random Chinese food dishes to enjoy. China is a place to exercise all your senses, especially your taste buds.
Be open to new dishes. You didn’t come to China to stick to the same old fried rice dishes or instant noodle cups. I know I didn’t. So just point, or ask a local what their favorite traditional Chinese food dishes are and where to get them. You’ll be happier if you left knowing you experienced all the things this overwhelmingly grand country has to offer.