Steer Clear of Meat on Sticks: Truisms about Food in China
PHOTO: Hot pot ingredients. (photos by Carson Poplin)
The day before I left to spend a year in China, I got some valuable advice from my grandfather: “Don’t eat meat that comes on a stick.” He was worried I’d end up eating dog — or worse, rat — during my stay.
Meat on a stick turned out to be the least of my worries.
Food in China is not the food you get from your local Chinese restaurant in the States. I never once got egg rolls or General Tso’s chicken or beef & broccoli. Instead, I ate things like donkey, a local delicacy. I don’t remember if I liked donkey or not; I never got around the fact that it was donkey. I also tried my hand at various different noodles, the standard for northern China. I successfully avoided meat on sticks and I don’t think I ever ate dog — but I can’t swear to it.
I can’t say Chinese food in China is great. I had some really bad experiences with strange parts of animals. The Chinese seem to enjoy these things, and even go so far as to pair it with a liquor called Baijiu, the drink of the devil himself. I don’t care if you were the president of a fraternity in college — you cannot handle Baijiu. Combine that with some pig intestines and you’ll stop trying to be “worldly” by consuming local food, and head straight to the nearest McDonald’s.
David Sedaris wrote an essay on his similar experience with Chinese food. His bottom line: “I’ll eat it if the alternative means starving.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say I felt the same way, but when I read Sedaris’ account of Chinese cuisine, I was five months in and dying for a hamburger ... something with artificial sweeteners ... anything with lactose. I felt a kinship with Sedaris. His words, however harsh, made me feel more understood than any piece of literature ever has — even more than "Bridget Jones’ Diary."
“Finally,” I thought, “someone put into writing all the uncensored thoughts I have when I’m eating out.”
But as more time passed, I realized that, really, eating out wasn’t all bad. It was hit or miss. Sometimes you ended up with things like “garlic Jello,” which tastes exactly like you think it does. Other times you happened upon something awesome, like “spinach balls.”
PHOTO: Garlic Jello and onions.
When I came across a dish that I liked enough to make it my “go-to” at that restaurant, I would snap a picture. I would use that picture to order it on my next visit, marking the first time I had taken a picture of my food without the intention of posting it on Instagram. Waitresses always thought this was hilarious, when I would simply show them a picture on my phone and hold up the universal symbol for one.
To my credit, it worked every time.
The only exception was a nice street vendor who I called Juan Carlos, to my own great amusement, for the entirety of my stay. He always parked his cart in the same spot and sold what my friends and I dubbed “breakfast burritos” because we could neither pronounce nor remember the Chinese word for it. Juan Carlos figured out early on that my crazy mimes meant, “No eggs, please,” so pictures were never required. This won him my loyal business since I was never able to get that point across to any of the other breakfast burrito vendors.
If you ever go to China, I can wholeheartedly recommend Juan Carlos’ non-egg breakfast burrito. He’s probably parked across the street from Handan No. 1 Middle School.
If you can’t find him, my other favorites — that I’m pretty sure aren’t dog or rat meat — are Peking duck (seriously, a classic and you don’t have to eat the head even though they bring it to you) and a nice hot pot of … hot pot. Hot pot is fabulous because it’s exactly what you make it. It’s a pot of boiling water or broth to which you add spices, meats and vegetables chosen from a long menu of options. You don’t have to order any duck tongues if you you’re not fully committed. Just choose the best food China has to offer.
But, seriously, avoid meat on sticks.
PHOTO: A percolating hot pot.
More by Carson Poplin
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Recent Travel Opinions