Kenji's Excellent Asian Adventures, Part 3: The Best Way to Order Food in China

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Lamb buns in Xi'an [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Last year I took a three-month trip through China and Southeast Asia, keeping an on-again off-again diary for the whole trip. This is the third part of my Excellent Asian Adventures.

Day 4 Redux: The Best Way to Order Food in China

Location: Mysterious alley in Beijing, China

I'll have to apologize. While physical diaries are neatly laid out in chronological order, digital diaries have a tendency to get a little jumbled. We're going to jump back a few days to the meal that Adri and I had on the evening of the day that we spent taking in the Great Wall.

"I've done the Great Wall" is a phrase you will never hear me utter except to point out that I won't be uttering it.

It's that word "done" in there. This thought is not spurred by any specific sight today, but a general pet peeve of mine that bubbles up when I'm surrounded by other travelers. Does it bother anyone else when people say things like "We've done the Grand Canyon," or "Oh, we've done India." It's as if foreign countries and cultural experiences are roller coaster rides that you can hop on, go for a circuit, and leave, knowing that you've experienced all there is to experience. Even the Disney World "It's a Small World" ride takes at least two or three trips around before you've seen every little dancing doll in action (though by that point you're ready to tear their little mechanical heads off as the theme song rapidly drives you to madness).

I hope that I'm never at a point where I can say I've "done" a culture to completion, because man, would it make traveling boring.

After a long day of hiking along (not doing) the Great Wall, Adri and I weren't in the mood to do anything fancy for dinner, so we took a walk down the street and employed the basic rule that has yet to fail to lead us to something delicious. Rule #1: If you see an alley with smoke or steam coming out of it, investigate. Our investigations led us to a smallish restaurant filled with mostly men, loudly cheering each other with glasses of the cheap Yanjing beer they serve everywhere for about 5 RMB for a half liter bottle (that's about 80¢), picking at plates of dumplings and noodles, along with miniature woks emitting clouds of delicious steam. They were set on top of tabletop racks filled with hot coals.

Want to know the secret to eating well and cheap in China without having to speak a lick of Chinese?

Walk into any loud, raucous restaurant, look for the table that looks like it's having the most fun (in this case it was easy, as one table yelled a toast at us as soon as we walked into the joint), point at what they're eating, and point at your belly.

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That's how we ended up with two giant beers and a bowl of perfectly respectable zha jiang mian on our table. My mom used to serve us a dish she called "Peking noodles," which always tasted like a vaguely Chinese spaghetti Bolognese. The real stuff is much funkier, colder, fresher, and at least in Beijing, less meaty as well.

It wasn't quite as fancy or tasty as the version we had at Siji Minfu, the Peking duck restaurant a couple nights before, and it was a little skimpy on its selection of toppings (just cucumber, watermelon radish, and a oily, funky, vegetarian bean paste), but the noodles were fresh-made, and we weren't complaining.

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Looks good, right?

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Next up was something I would have never thought to order (nor would I have recognized it on a Chinese-only menu), but it was fan-freaking-tastic. Chunks of bone-in, deep-fried chicken cooked with dried chilies and fermented bean paste, along with fresh green hot capsicum and crunchy celery. It vaguely resembled the Sichuan dish of la zi ji (spicy deep fried chicken), and perhaps was the restaurant's interpretation of the dish—far greener and vegetable-heavy than the dried chili-packed real version.

We picked through the chunks of chicken, sucking off bits of crisp skin and tender spiced meat, and discovered that the bottom of the wok was filled with thinly sliced onions—onions that had been slowly caramelizing over the coal fire the wok was set on, all while absorbing the juices from the meat and vegetables above. Delicious.

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Last up was these finger-shaped dumplings, which in many ways resembled the huo shao we'd eaten a few days before, except these had sealed ends. All the better for trapping in delicious juices. These were the first dumplings we had in China that came with no sauce for dipping, which was quite alright, as their pork and leek fillings were heavily-seasoned with vinegar and soy, and juicier than you could hope for inside.

Day 6: You Want Some Creepy Crawlies?

Location: Wangfujing Food Market in Beijing, China

The Wangfujing food market is the daytime equivalent of the nighttime Dong Hua food market which I mentioned the other day, and it's packed with just as many tourists, though during the day, most of the tourists seem to be Chinese, not Australian.

It's a good street to stroll down if you want to view a bunch of creepy-crawlies stuck on sticks (like live scorpions, with their barbs still flailing and pincers still pinching), though again, not the best place to go if you actually want the best food to eat. Almost all of it is a half-assed version of things you can find better elsewhere in the city, and at more reasonable prices.

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Walk past the scorpion vendors and the men behind the counter will slam their hands down, sending the live scorpions into flurries of movement. Not sure how I feel about live animals on sticks being used as entertainment. Luckily the seahorses are already dead and dried. You can get anything grilled or deep-fried, along with giant spiders, silkworm chrysalises, and even larger scorpions.

Adri and I tasted our way up and down the stalls and while fun, nothing blew us away with flavor. Like I said, it's kind of a tourist trap. Here's some of what we had:

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Rice sticks done Korean-style in not-too-spicy chili sauce.

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Japanese tako-yaki—octopus-filled spherical cakes that seem to be getting popular all over China in a rare example of reverse culture flow (many popular Japanese dishes—ramen and gyoza, for instance—are heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, not so much the other way around)

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Steamed, pork-filled bao, along with bowls of tofu with chili oil and vinegar. I'm pretty sure those are standard-issue corn dogs on the table as well, though we didn't try them (word to the wise: hot dogs are not worth trying in China).

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Looks like noodles, smells like shit, quite literally. Those are strips of thinly sliced tripe. They're served with black vinegar, chili, and scallions, and depending on the vendor can range from mildly odorous to outright gag-inducing. I'm generally an avid tripe-eater, but no amount of chili oil or vinegar could get me to stomach this stuff. At least not with a decent Western toilet within butt-clenched running distance.

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Sheng jian bao—pork filled leavened buns that are crisped up on a griddle with black sesame seeds and scallions. They're served with vinegar for dipping and at this particular location, about as good as you'll find in New York's Chinatown. I'm waiting to get to Shanghai for the real deal.

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Quail eggs cooked in what looks like a mini aebelskiver pan until crisp on the bottom, then shoved onto a stick. Actually quite tasty, but, as I soon found out, nothing compared to version you can get where we were headed tonight on an overnight sleeper train: Xi'an. But more on that later...

Day 7: Terra So-What-A?

Location: Xi'an, China

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Xi'an's Muslim Quarter

This morning I overheard a conversation a girl was having with another girl in the lobby of our hostel. I couldn't quite place where she was from. Israel, perhaps? Anyhow, it went something like this:

Her: Have you been here long?

Nice Family Traveling With Kids: Oh, just a couple of days.

H: Have you found anything good to eat here?

Please bear in mind: we're in Xi'an. The terminus of the Silk Road. Where European, Arab, Persian, and Indian cultures have been imported into China for over two millenia. It's one of the most culinarily rich breeding grounds on the planet, and she was wondering if there's anything good to eat?

NFTWK: Yeah! Actually, there's a good noodle shop just down the street here.

The kid then chimed in with a nod of approval and a "oh yeah, those were yummy spicy noodles!"

H: Hmm, I don't really like noodles, and I don't like spicy food.

NFTWK: Well what are you looking for? They have Western food in some restaurants here too.

H: No, I like Chinese food, I was thinking something more like egg rolls though.

At this point I sort of tuned out. Mostly at my wife's behest, I do my very very best to try and be as un-snobby as possible, but that level of... I'm not sure what it is. Cultural ignorance? I suppose she's traveled all the way here so is seems she's probably at least trying to educate herself. Cultural indifference perhaps? Or is it just a failure to appreciate how large a role culinary history and tradition plays into culture?

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Some of the best damn noodles in the world are just down the street!

Let's just go with that. That level of culinary indifference simply doesn't sit right with me. And you see it all the time. The backpackers paying 30 RMB for French toast and bacon in the hostel dining room when you can get the best fucking liangpi noodles you've ever had for 4 RMB twenty feet down the street. The Australian girl we met who had just come from a month-long trek in Tibet who made a face and said Oh god, no! when I asked her if she had tried po cha, the famous Tibetan drink.

I mean, who wouldn't want to taste hyper-concentrated tea churned with fermented yak butter?

Then again, people probably think the same of me as my eyes start to glaze over when they start talking emphatically about the historical sites they've visited.

There was a Radiolab episode I listened to the other day called Things, in which one of the hosts, Robert Krulwich, talks about his obsession with objects of historical significance. He speaks about how by simply touching an object that he knows has historical significance—a piece of cloth that was taken to the moon by Neil Armstrong, for instance—he feels a connection to history, an electric jolt of sorts.

His wife, on the other hand, feels none of it. Her reaction to sitting in the seat once reserved for the Dowager Empress Cixi, the last Empress of China? Meh. I would have ordered my servants to make more comfortable chairs.

I'm right there with her. I can count the number of times I've been excited by the man-made history of an object on two fingers, and both of those fingers would be counting personal items that have been autographed by Beatles.

Natural history? Bring it on. Mountains? Oceans? Fossils? The cosmos? I can't get enough. But old temples and ancient monuments? Yawn.

Even the Great Wall, while impressive in scope, was interesting to me more for its feats of engineering and awe-inspiring scale than for its historical significance.

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Which is all to say that the least exciting portion of our visit to Xi'an was what by all rights should have been the most. I mean, the Terracotta Warrior Army is rated #1 on Trip Advisor's top attractions in Xi'an. Judging from the hordes of people, the inflated entrance fee, and the jostling to get a good view of the four-times-a-football-field-sized pit in the first of its three large enclosures, there are plenty of folks who actually do find it extremely interesting.

What isn't interesting about seeing over 8,000 life-sized clay statues, each one completely different, depicting the armies of the first Emperor of China? These things are over 2,200 years old, and until they were accidentally discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974, were completely unknown to the world.

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All of that is intellectually impressive to me, and in fact interesting—I read through their Wikipedia entry with rapt fascination. But looking at them? No electric shocks, no tingles, no oppressive weight of history upon my shoulders. My brain simply isn't wired to connect physical objects to their stories. Food on the other hand, is all about its stories.

All I could think as I was literally elbowed out of the way by a thin Chinese woman so that she could selfie herself in front of the clay soldiers was I wonder if that noodle shop by the bus station is any good?

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The building it's housed in is actually pretty cool. It's big enough that the far end is partially obscured by haze. I've always been fascinated by airplane hangars, and large truss system analysis was my favorite part of the structures classes I had to take for my now-useless architecture degree.

Man, I sound like an obnoxious, ungrateful, first-world-problem-riddled git, don't I? For all you history buffs out there who would give an arm and a leg to visit this site, I truly hope you make it here one day and appreciate it extra hard to make up for my nonchalance.

Adri wanted to take my photograph in front of the largest pit and I did my very best to look excited. This is how it turned out:

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I'm really terrible at faking emotions.

After looking at this picture, it occurred to me that there were several thousand other people in this room who were at least as bored as I was:

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I guess I'd've been bored too if Qin, the first Emperor of China had just declared "Okay troops, now, stand still please—we're going to capture your exact likenesses and despite our fabulous recent technological advances in the realms of writing, the printing press, and archery, we haven't quite yet gotten around to photographs or 3D scanners yet so we're gonna have to do this the old fashioned way, and... Hey! Ming! Quit it with the rabbit ears, will you? We'll do a fun one afterwards, I promise, okay?"

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So why did we come here? Well, it's for the same reason that made me want to facepalm when I heard that girl asking where you can get egg rolls in Xi'an: I'd have to be a complete jerk to travel half way around the world to the site of what's recognized as one of the world's greatest archaeological finds and not spend the half a day it takes to take it in.

That and Adri certainly enjoys this kind of in situ historical-type stuff*

* I've always had the bored-to-tears-by-museums gene and have never been afraid to admit it. What I only found out two days ago is that Adri happens to have that gene as well. When we got married and she found out that I have it, she was so relieved to know that she wouldn't have to spend a lifetime pretending to be interested in them just for my benefit. I find it very endearing and probably quite indicative of how much our relationship has progressed since then. These days she'd have no problem letting me know that something bore her, even if it's the most exciting thing in the world for me.

I have a sneaking suspicion that at least a handful of the hundreds of folks who gave those five-star ratings on Trip Advisor feel the same way I do but fake some excitement out of a sense of obligation to history. To all of you out there: it's okay to not be enthralled by that which you should be enthralled by!

Anyhow, I don't mean this to sound like I'm having anything other than a blast and a half. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we've been saving and planning for for half a decade, and while the historical sites might not be on the top of my list, the culinary and cultural experience has been nothing short of spectacular so far, nowhere more so than in Xi'an. Turns out the noodle shop by the bus station actually wasn't particularly good, but we made up for that meal in spades later on in the evening when we were eating these:

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and these:

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and these:

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Check out my guide to Xi'an's Muslim Quarter for an in-depth look at some of the cross-cultural food you find in the city.