It is fairly safe to say that eating in Chinese restaurants in the West does not make you an expert on Chinese cuisine. Although I knew that the food I would be eating out in China would be a far cry from the ‘Chinese’ food I was accustomed to in London, I did not realize quite how far.
In Beijing, and indeed in most of China, it is not customary for each person at the dinner table to have only their own plate of food to eat from. Rather, each person has their own small bowl of 主食 (Zhǔshí – staple food of rice or another form of grain), and the 菜 (Cài – dishes of vegetables and meat and everything else!) are placed in the middle of the table for everyone to tuck into. I have to say that to me this form of eating not only seems more sociable and friendly, but makes much more sense, as rather than having a set amount of food to tackle each meal, you can pick and choose what you eat and how much of it you eat depending on your appetite at the time.
I never imagined that I could eat something three times a day without becoming sick of it, as in the UK I guess we don’t have anything that you could call a 主食 （Zhǔshí）. However, I guess being in China has changed that, as I’ve been eating rice at least twice a day and have never once felt sick of it. This may be because of the wonderful variety of all the different 菜 (Cài) that my homestay family prepare every evening. They keep asking me which of the various dishes they have prepared for me is my favourite, but it’s impossible to answer as there are so many and I can honestly say every single one is fantastic. Hardly a single dish I’ve had with my host family has been similar to what I would normally eat in England. This is most apparent to me when I think of the vegetables. Back home growing up vegetables was always something you ate because you had to, and it usually consisted of plain steamed broccoli or something else equally bland. In China it’s a different story, as every vegetable dish is flavoured wonderfully and has its own unique tastes.
I’ve no doubt that when the time comes to return to England, the food is going to be sorely missed, perhaps above all else.