A first stop in the city of Datong on the way to Beijing was ideal to make friends with Chinese signs, ATM machines and… of course food! The Chinese are obsessed with food. „Liking“ the taste of what they eat is not that important, it is more about consistency, effect on health and well-being and the social factor of meals. Absolutely my cup of tea! Following Taoist principles, Chinese cooking aims for harmony of tastes, textures, ingredients and cooking techniques. If one dish is steamed, the other should be grilled or fried. Certain foods have yang (warming) or yin (cooling) properties and should be eaten appropriately. Zhang, a student I met on the train, explained that the giant lichees I had bought from a friendly street-seller were not good for the inner heat we have during the hot and humid Beijing summer, watermelons or apricots are better. And they are all thin. Linda, a Chinese marketing professional I met over “green drinks” in bookshop-café Bookworm, explained: “In China we eat well in the morning, so that we are full at lunchtime and little in the evening. We don’t drink much alcohol, we prefer tea with no sugar. We don’t eat bread and we cook with little fat. And we don’t eat chocolate!” Sweets and biscuits are all packed into individual bite-sizes, no XXL mars bars here.
Beijing is known for having more wheat-based dishes compared to Southern China where they grow more rice. Steamed buns, pancakes, spring rolls and fried ravioli-style wontons were the stars of Beijing’s night market. I didn’t try the chòu dòufu (smelly tofu) but it is supposed to be the equivalent of very smelly French cheese! The North is also known for it’s oily and salty dishes. Apart from once having mistaken finely chopped intestines for mushrooms (yuk!) it is easy to find vegetarian meals. Food stalls have tables and stools outside and you can point at the dishes and pans. More and more menus are in English – sometimes with very funny translations like bacteria instead of fermented or chicken with no sex instead of spring chicken!
There sadly doesn’t seem to be enough space for organic animal farming in China. Those not wanting to contribute to the suffering of animals simply eat in one of the many vegetarian restaurants. They are near Buddhist temples and listed in the free city magazines Time Out or The Beijinger. Friendly Fairy Su, cosily decorated Baihe and the big vegan place with no name off shopping mall street Wangfujing had mouth-watering menus with typical dishes such as crispy roast duck, chicken gong bào, spicy eggplant, griddle-fried mushrooms and all sorts of delicious greens. They simply replace the meat with soya and wheat-protein, even my non-vegan travel pal thought they tasted great!
China has it’s good share of food scares. Recent scandals include “filling up” milk and infant formula with chemicals to reach higher protein levels (very good Wikipedia article about it here), “recycling” used cooking oil from the sewers (an estimated 80% of cooking oil is recycled!) and frequent abuse of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. These contribute to the very bad reputation Chinese produce has in other countries. Neighbour Mongolia for example is very skeptical of everything Chinese. Our tour guide Suren avoided Chinese products as much as she could. The market for organic food is taking off fast here now, the Chinese version of the world’s biggest organic trade show BioFach celebrated it’s 5th birthday this year, however to me it still feels more like a marketing argument than an honest consciousness change. I didn’t see any organic food in Beijing’s supermarkets, only in a few little restaurants but there are some organic farms on the city’s outskirts, Chinese student Selena told me. The island of Chongming with it’s eco-villages and an urban gardening club I read about are on my to-do list for Shanghai to understand more. The soil, the animals and the people here would all profit from a more harmonious, Taoist relationship to nature.