We’ve been in Nanjing for two full weeks. It actually feels like it’s been longer, since we’ve done so much.
Some of the best experiences I’ve personally had here in Nanjing have revolved around food. We don’t have a kitchen in the hostel, so we have to eat out for every meal. While I do miss having home-cooked meals, it’s nice to be forced to try all that Nanjing has to offer in terms of food, and this way every meal is made into a small adventure.
We don’t know the names of too many different kinds of foods in Chinese (though we can, ironically, have a conversation about Chinese economic development after the reform and opening up of the country), but our Chinese is just good enough to be able to recognize what kind of meat is in a dish we’re ordering, if there are vegetables, if it’s spicy, if there’s tofu, if there’s fish, and possibly the kind of method used to cook it. Usually, though, we just guess and hope it’s good. The other night we went to a restaurant near us and asked for a dish we had there on a previous night. We couldn’t remember the name of the dish, so we tried to describe it to the waitress. Apparently we didn’t describe it very well, because we were brought something completely different than what we were hoping to eat. It still turned out to be good, though.
A favorite dish of ours has been “qing cai,” which is steamed greens and mushrooms. It’s delicious when eaten with rice and we’ve been ordering it at every chance we get. We’ve often said that we could probably eat nothing but qing cai for the rest of this trip and be perfectly content.
There’s no shortage of foods available for breakfast. We usually grab something to eat at a food stall on the street, since we’re in a rush in the mornings. My favorite option is jianbing, a northeastern street food which is a crepe cooked on a griddle with egg, fried dough, and various garnishes and seasonings, which are different depending on the region of China. The jianbing stand near us puts chili power, some sort of brown sauce, seaweed, shredded cucumbers, and pickled vegetables in theirs. One can also get buns filled with either meat or vegetables, flaky rolls baked with scallions and sesame seeds, or small rolls that have some sort of green vegetable baked inside (we’re still debating whether it’s spinach, scallions, or something else) sold by one of the Muslim restaurants near us.
I was actually surprised by how many Muslim restaurants there are near us. On the same street where we get jianbing there are several Muslim restaurants in a row (I think they’re run by Hui Muslims, one of China’s ethnic minorities), and right across the street from us is a food stand run by people from Xinjiang, who are of a different Muslim ethnic minority in China. Their specialty is mutton kebabs, but they also sell grilled fish, corn on the cob, and a flatbread they call “naan.” We’ve all come to like the Xinjiang stand quite a lot, because the food is cheap, it’s good, and the guys running it have awesome accents. They speak Mandarin with an accent that sounds more Middle Eastern or Central Asian than Chinese, which makes sense, since Xinjiang Province borders Kazakhstan and Pakistan, among a few other countries. Unfortunately, because their accents are so thick, we can’t always understand what they’re saying, but it doesn’t stop us from trying to have conversations with them.
Not surprisingly, there is an abundance of bubble tea stands here in Nanjing. The price for a glass ranges greatly from 2.5 RMB to 7 or 8 RMB (about 25 cents to just over $1) depending on the neighborhood you’re in. There is one particular bubble tea place I prefer to go to near our hostel, because the woman who runs the stand is incredibly nice, ordering gives me a chance to practice my Chinese, learn the names of the different flavors, and it’s only 3.5 RMB for a large glass. I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up drinking my weight in bubble tea by the end of the summer.
There are a surprising number of Western-style bakeries here in Nanjing. All the pastries there have a very distinctive Chinese interpretation of typical Western baked goods. It seems like every pastry has either a meat or red bean filling. Taro is quite a popular pastry filling, too. One of my favorite pastries I’ve discovered in Nanjing are little taro-filled cakes that we buy at a small bakery near Nanjing University. Despite their similar appearance to Western cakes, some of these pastries can be quite deceptive. Last week Eli and I got what we thought was a miniature baguette with melted mozzarella cheese on top, and turned out to be more like a cheese danish.
Generally, my experience with food here as been to keep an open mind, and allow for language barriers to occur and small surprises to happen. The best thing to do if you didn’t get exactly what you wanted is just shrug, laugh about the lack of understanding, and try this unfamiliar dish. Maybe it will be good, maybe it won’t, but at the very least it will be an interesting experience.