Breaking the Cycle of Sameness: Food
For me, one of the biggest aids in getting out of the China Blues that we sometimes fall into has been breaking what I call The Cycle of Sameness. Having the same daily routine, going out to the same places with the same type of people, eating the same food, and having the same conversations with Chinese people. Although the routine can be comforting, it can also drag you down and make life feel monotonous.
Here, I want to focus on how to break the cycle when it comes to food and eating. Your well-being is inextricably tied to the food you eat, and being just a bit more conscientious of this area of your life can dramatically improve your experience here.
Source Good, Cheap Food & Cook For Yourself
Let me start by saying I have no natural cooking ability at all. But even I have succeeded cooking up a diverse array of tasty meals for myself here in Chengdu with a limited kitchen set up of burners, a rice cooker and a toaster oven. While most apartments don’t come equipped with a toaster oven, I got mine at Carrefour for just under 700 RMB. There are certainly less pricey ones out there though.
While having a decent kitchen helps, the number one way I’ve improved the experience of cooking for myself was by buying most of my food at open produce markets which are located all around the city. If you’re reading this in Chengdu, there’s a very good chance that there’s one walking distance from where you are sitting right now. Why go to an open market? It’s fresh, it’s cheaper than big supermarket chains, and it’s a great way to discover new ingredients for making interesting dishes.
Here’s what my most recent purchase looked like: chicken breast, ground pork, tofu, potato noodles (tastes like Udon), eggs, red beans, black and brown rice, sweet potatoes, corn, mushrooms, tomatoes, red onions, broccoli, lettuce, leafy greens, garlic, ginger, strawberries, apples and bananas. And I probably spent less that 100 RMB on all of this.
If you’re worried about communicating with vendors, don’t be. You don’t need to speak great Chinese to shop at these markets. Prices are usually standard (per 斤 , or 500 grams). Less than a week ago I found a 500 gram bag of almonds for 30 RMB.
Metro and Carrefour are good for some things and even crucial for others, like olive oil, spices, seasonings, and things like bread and baking ingredients. But trust me, if you start using these outdoor markets as your main source of produce and meat, your diet will expand and improve. I eat healthier here than I did back in the States and I spend a lot less. Food is a crucial element of good living, and making the small effort to exert more control over your diet will benefit your mental and physical wellbeing.
Try New Dishes When Eating Out
During your first months in China, one of the easy eating traps to fall into is finding a dish you like at a restaurant and ordering it every single day. You know what I’m talking about.
My first year in China I probably ate tomato and egg (番茄炒蛋) five times a week, to the point where the very smell of it brought on light nausea. We get stuck in this rut because it’s safe. We know that chickens heads and anonymous innards won’t unexpectedly appear in the dishes we know; we know they’re unlikely to cause an upset stomach; we know the waitress won’t ask us scary questions about the our order that we aren’t ready to answer. But there is a better way.
Learn the basic characters for food in Chinese. These include noodles (面 miàn), rice (饭 fàn，米饭mǐfàn）, soup (汤 tāng), meats (肉 ròu，鸡肉 jīròu，猪肉 zhūròu，牛肉 niúròu，羊肉 yángròu), vegetables (菜 cài), dumplings (饺子 jiǎozi，水饺 shuǐjiǎo) and, of course, spicy (辣 là). These extremely common characters will be the foundation upon which you will build a deeper understanding of cuisine in Chengdu. We have a post about translating a Sichuan restaurant menu which is worth checking out if you are learning this vocabulary.
I also recommend examining what others dining near you are eating. If you see something that looks good, ask the waiter or waitress to bring you the same thing. You might find a new favorite, or make friends with a dining neighbor. I’ve had Chinese people point at what I’m eating and ask for that, so there’s no need to feel awkward about it.
With most foreigners I meet in China, we can all agree on one thing: we miss the food from home. It doesn’t matter which country we’re from, or how much we adore Sichuan cuisine, there’s always the occasional longing from the food of yore. So, from time to time, satisfy your craving.
For me, it’s pizza and hamburgers. Fortunately Chengdu has a number of Western cravings covered with excellent offerings. Pizza, burgers, donuts, sandwiches… Chengdu’s Western offerings are only getting
The quality at many of these establishments is fantastic and they have grown to become well-loved for good reason. Just don’t eat McDonalds every day – you deserve better than that.
Some More Tips
Since the basics are covered, here are some additional tips that I’ve picked up:
Seek Hard-to-find Items on Taobao: Things that aren’t easy to source locally, like avocados, nuts, liquor, spices, sauces or breakfast cereal can be found simply on Taobao. It’s better to search in Chinese, so an online dictionary may be helpful in finding names and phrases that you might not know how to write.
Embrace the Dirty: A lot of the best food you can find in Chengdu comes from shady-looking restaurants. Often these places put 100% of their time and attention into the food. Would I take my mother there? Probably not. But if you’re too conservative, you’ll miss out on a lot of great food.
Look for Crowds: This rule applies pretty much anywhere. If a place is packed, there is something good about it. It could be a particular dish, a great value proposition, or something else.
Try the Tibetan food out near Jin Li and Wu Hou Temple: I honestly prefer this to getting a Western meal as comfort food. It’s very filling, great in the winter, the menus usually have pictures, and they aren’t too expensive. I recommend the yogurt, the meat pies and the Yak butter tea.
Ask for La Jiao (辣椒，spice) when you’re sick: I put it in soup all the time when I have a cold or some congestion, and it works. In fact, I’ve recently been getting extra la jiao from my local dumpling place, and putting in my dishes when I cook at home.
Cook with friends: I went over to Mexican friend’s house the other night for tacos, and it satisfied a craving for Mexican food I’ve had for about a year. Not only does cooking with friends save money, but it’s a great excuse to get together and eat good food that you might not be able to prepare on your own.
I hope these suggestions are helpful, and I’d love to hear in the comment section about your ideas and experiences eating better in Chengdu. Stay tuned for more posts about how to break the Cycle of Sameness!