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But I Don’t Eat Chinese Food

The phone call which told me I had gotten my first teaching job in Beijing was one of the most exhilarating and petrifying calls of my life. Dumbstruck, I explained to my parents where I was going and I uttered a phrase that stuck with me throughout my trip: “But I don’t eat Chinese food.”

And it was true; I didn’t like the taste of soy sauce, or the grease of Chinese pork, and the one time I have ever had food poisoning immediately followed dinner in a local Chinese restaurant.

On landing in Beijing, I was greeted by a petite and smiley woman called Lisa, who spoke broken English, and whom I immediately liked. She and her husband drove me straight from the airport to their favourite restaurant, where they had booked the banquet room in honour of my arrival. Unused to the heat, sticky after the long journey, and in my perpetual state of ravenous, I just wanted a cold shower, a change of clothes, and a decent bagel.

In that banquet room, however, I managed to lose both my bad mood and my inhibitions about what I would eat for the next six months. Whilst my hosts tried to teach me some Chinese phrases, I unconsciously devoured several tender and well prepared dishes.

The food all arrived together and the table was covered in what appeared to be an uncoordinated array of smells and steam. I started with some pickled cucumber; a dish that sounds simple enough, but which I haven’t found replicated well outside of Beijing. The cucumber is hard and crunchy, and the sour vinegary taste of the sauce is absorbed into the vegetable and overwhelms your palette. Deep fried seaweed and vegetables were battered so lightly that they seemed to crunch loudly then disappear in my mouth. Rice was smothered in boiled tomatoes and mashed eggs, a dish that sounds bland, but with the right blend of herbs and spices soon became my firm favourite. Hot soup with massive chunks of tender pork and a liberal sprinkle of ginger sat along side chicken and mushrooms in a sticky goo of spicy sauce. Perhaps the highlight of my meal, however, was the dough balls: half deep fried, half steamed, served with a liberal bowl of sweetened soured milk to dip them into.

The experience of my very first afternoon in Beijing flavoured the culinary direction of my whole trip. I was soon an enthusiastic eater of Spicy Hotpot: a huge cauldron of spicy water on your table to which you add your own mix of vegetables and meat. I loved to visit the Korean BBQs where the table is a grill onto which you place tender meat and sweet potatoes, and then dip into a weird and wonderful array of sauces. Sichuan restaurants fuelled my addiction to beef so hot it burnt my mouth, served with green peppers and plenty of chilli.

The biggest discovery of my trip, however, was the delights of Beijing’s dusty street food. Egg yolk parcels served with chilli, chives and a generous handful of fresh herbs were griddled in front of me for breakfast every morning. Steamed dough pockets filled with stringy pork, onions and spicy sauce made a perfect lunch, and grilled meat kebabs, corn cobettes, fried vegetables, fresh fish soup, and even popcorn were available whenever you wanted them, for less than the change in your pocket.

Now back in the UK, I won’t say “I don’t like Chinese food” anymore. On the tube in the morning, I daydream about egg parcels for breakfast, and at lunch-time I long to eat spicy exotic food with narrow chopsticks. Chinese foods are a delight for all of the senses, and if you don’t like pandas, pagodas, or walking along very long walls, visit Beijing for a fantastic meal you will never forget.

Tor Brierley is an Editorial Assistant, living and working in London. She has a BA in English Literature from the university of East Anglia, and has written extensively for her university magazine and various local papers. She is passionate about travel, shoes, good food, and Chinese culture, and tries to incorporate these aspects into her writing.

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