The University of Iowa

Follow the Crowd: On Dining Out in China

July 17th, 2012

This is the fifth article in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich.

My stomach growling in anticipation, I follow my nose and compliantly slip out of the drizzle into the bright restaurant to my right. It is astonishingly small, just a few tables packed snugly into a dingy storefront. The menus consist of single sheets of paper with lists of indecipherable Chinese characters, and though I always hope for menus with pictures, a good option for the illiterate eater in China is to find something you like and stick with it. In my case, this is the famous, the magical, Gong Bao ji ding (Kung Pao chicken).

The best on earth

Everyone knows local dives are the best places to eat when exploring a new place and I will argue with Le Cordon Bleu on my deathbed that the best Kung Pao chicken in the People’s Republic (and consequently, the world) can be found at this unassuming hole-in-the-wall eatery around the corner from my apartment. It bears no flashy sign (or any sign at all) to indicate the ambrosial delights that lay within. The proprietor is a very jolly round sort of man who has become a legendary character within our foreign friendship group and our endless taste for his Kung Pao chicken seemed to entertain him to no end. He smiles and busily ushers me to an open seat as a scampering tabby kitten with the biggest eyes I have ever seen darts underneath my feet. I hear the telltale sizzling of chicken and bamboo and smell the spicy aromas of peppers, ginger and garlic wafting from the back room. These are the moments when I love China.

At Lao Ma Tou with friends

They may look a little sketchy, but it is places like these- leaky ceilings and all- that really allow you to delve into the local cuisines of China (as well as make friends through your loyal patronage). It is especially fun to explore their menus using the random point-and-pick method whereby you might find yourself nibbling on anything from bamboo shoots to barbecued rabbit. Of course, things like my flea-ridden kitten friend, poor sanitation, and horrendous cost-cutting practices (see the recent crack-down on the use of recycled “gutter” oil) can make some places unfit for the foreign visitor. I chose to go by the old rule of thumb: if there’s a line, it’s probably worth waiting for.

My school district took the foreign teachers to an elegant hotpot restaurant

Sectioned off hotpot for mild and spicy

Live acrobatic entertainment during our dinner

There are a few restaurants in Chengdu that never fail to attract flocks of diners, and the most popular are vendors of famous Sichuan hot pot. Though I could never seem to get enough Gong Bao, it is hot pot (huǒ guō) that rules supreme for entertaining guests in Chengdu. This dish is as much a cultural activity as a culinary one and the go-to choice for locals, tourists, families and friends alike. Hot pot is similar to fondue- raw ingredients are plunged into vats of boiling oil and stock in the center of the table until cooked then drenched in oily sauces and consumed with vigor. 

The ingredient possibilities are boundless- I’ve seen any and all parts of cows, pigs and poultry; water creatures of all sorts and endless varieties of vegetables (try the delicious lotus root). Frenzied is the most appropriate word I can think of to describe the atmosphere of the typical hot pot restaurant. Small local places are popular- like the fish hot pot on my neighborhood corner that, even in its building’s deteriorating state, is packed with people every evening until its tables and chairs spill far out into the street. At Lao Ma Tou, Chengdu’s most famous hot pot restaurant, steam fills the cavernous white room, people drink tea outside while waiting for a table, and men indoors yell for more beer with increasingly boisterous animation as the hours pass.

The custom of treating at dinners is difficult one for a lot of foreigners to accept. In China, no one would ever consider splitting the bill or even buying individual drinks at a bar. Instead, one person (and usually a dozen) will eagerly volunteer for the privilege of footing the bill for the entire party and proceed to engage in a social tango of refusals and insistent offers until one person barges their way to the counter. This act is such an honor that some sly characters, under the guise of going to the bathroom, even slip away half way through the meal to pay the tab.

There are a few Chinese owned and run Western restaurants in Chengdu, but they tend to serve strange approximations of Western dishes (think spaghetti with sickly sweet sauce and topped with pork floss). After one failed experience with Origus: Pizza Buffet, we tended to stick to the handful of comforting (but pricey) foreign-run places. But the infiltration of Western food has made its most fascinating appearance in the form of fast food.

Thanksgiving dinner at Peter's Tex Mex - my comfort food savior

A particularly swanky Pizza Hut

McDonald’s famously made a breakthrough in the Chinese market over 30 years ago, but today there are dozens of chains that rival its ubiquity. “KFC!” is what my students will shout if I ask them what we eat in America or the name of their favorite restaurant. Perhaps it is the way it has adapted to the market that makes it so popular. McDonald’s substitutes the native purple taro for its apple pies and more fish and chicken than beef (I'd personally like to see a Kung Pao McChicken in the future), but KFC’s Chinese menu is almost unrecognizable from its American counterpart. Other than the Colonel’s signature chicken, everything on the menu has been customized to a fast-food version of the local cuisine. Breakfast menus consist of porridges with dried fruit and they serve up rice rather than mashed potato side dishes.

KFC and Pizza Hut (both owned by Yum! brands), have completely revamped their images for the Chinese market. Pizza Hut is a five-star restaurant with a full menu of steaks, pastas and wine and a high-class atmosphere complete with candle-lit, cloth clad tables. Indulging in Western cuisine is a symbol of status and wealth, and the more expensive the good, the more popular it seems to be. Haagen-Dazs’s exorbitantly priced restaurant/bistro in the center of town was a romantic hot spot for wealthy men seeking to impress their girlfriends, and even McDonald’s seems to be pushing the drinks of their upscale McCafe over the lowly burger.

Bonus: both McDonalds and KFC do door deliveries in China

Grand Opening of a KFC

The rapid physical growth of China has resulted in a plethora of establishments modeled after Western culture, but the depth of its integration into Chinese culture is a thin veneer. At a McDonald’s in Beijing, I watched with some amusement as a woman delicately balanced a hamburger upside down on her fingertips and gingerly nibbled at the bun. On another McDonald’s occasion I saw a little girl ingeniously using two straws as chopsticks to eat her French fries. It seems funny, but the so-called Westernization of China has occurred without any kind of cultural understanding outside of market forces, and the result is a genuine hybrid of food culture. Take the time I was seated one evening at Peter’s Tex-Mex, my favorite Western restaurant in Chengdu, at a table next to a young couple who had ordered a hamburger and fries, a full pizza, a plate of nachos and a burrito platter. I was thoroughly confused until I realized that they were ordering Chinese-style with a variety of dishes to share between them. By the end of the evening, most of it lay untouched but had been faithfully documented on their iPhones in an extensive photo shoot.

Fast food has become a universal symbol for America and the Western lifestyle, and the demand for Western goods is only increasing. Many middle-class Chinese people hold up the West as the pinnacle of the ideal lifestyle. By eating at Pizza Hut and getting coffee from Starbucks, middle-class Chinese people are displaying their wealth, progressive attitude, and worldliness. As I sadly discovered one fateful night when Pizza Hut was out of pizza and KFC had run out of chicken, the food is very much secondary to the experience of eating there.

Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.