Breaking the Cycle of Sameness: Food

Cycle of SamenessFor 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 ? , or 500 grams). Less than a week ago I found a 500 gram bag of almonds for 30 RMB.

Browsing fruit in a local Yulin market

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 (????) 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.

Items on a common Sichuan restaurant menu

Learn the basic characters for food in Chinese. These include noodles (? miàn), rice (? fàn???m?fàn?, soup (? t?ng), meats (? ròu??? j?ròu??? zh?ròu??? niúròu??? yángròu), vegetables (? cài), dumplings (?? ji?ozi??? shu?ji?o) and, of course, spicy (? 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.

Treat Yourself

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 TaobaoThings 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 DirtyA 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 (???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.

In Conclusion

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!

17 thoughts on “Breaking the Cycle of Sameness: Food”

  1. Tons of great tips in here. Cooking at home is something that I always mean to do but rarely actually get around to. Restaurants are too cheap and delicious, but I do worry about the nutritional value of food, especially the abundance of oil and salt and the lack of protein.

    Eating around the Tibetan district of Chengdu is so great. I rarely see foreigners in most of those restaurants and they are delicious and an excellent break from traditional Sichuan food. Typically not as cheap, but worth it, and usually much cheaper than eating Western food in Chengdu. Yak butter tea is great in the winter in particular.

    Looking forward to the other upcoming parts of this series. Congrats on your first post, Deven.

  2. Buy from the open markets? Where there is no inspection and the goods come from any farm, anywhere? You know what they do to unregulated agricultural products in China, right? They’re coated in pesticides and other carcinogens. There’s a reason that they’re cheap.

    All the knowledgeable Chinese people you know, where do they buy their food? At least at Carrefour, etc., there is a bare minimum of inspection going on and they will reject shipments if quality does not measure up.

    Try this: buy a bunch of food from the open markets, and invite all your Chinese friends to dinner. I bet none of them will come, and one may take you aside to explain things quietly.

    • How do you know that supermarkets and wet markets are any different? I have not noticed a difference or heard anyone say that you should buy vegetables at Carrefour. You should be going in with the expectation that all vegetables you get will have been exposed to pesticides, there are informative articles on that subject like this: Banned pesticides in Chinese produce. We all have pesticides in our bodies, pretty much regardless of where we live. There’s a lot of documentation on that of course, like produce guidelines on which types of fruits and vegetables carry the highest levels, and so on. A lot of that is out of the scope of a 1,200 word article which touches on so many topics, but it is a good point to bring up.

      We are recording a podcast within the next week with someone very knowledgeable on health, nutrition and diet in China. We will be sure to talk about this.

    • I’d like to believe that the produce at Carrefour is more regulated, but from what I’ve seen/heard about agriculture production in China I don’t see it as a much better alternative. Unless all of what you buy is imported then I don’t see you escaping Chinese pesticides, and even then there’s a huge difference between Chinese company saying they regulate food quality and actually doing it.

      As for the Chinese friends thing, I’ve eaten dinner at countless Chinese friends’ houses, and almost all of them get their produce from the outdoor markets. That’s how I got into buying there in the first place.

      Buying all your produce at Carrefour etc. is in no way a bad thing, but it can get to be quite expensive and time-consuming.

      • Carrefour/Auchan/etc = possibly some protection

        Wet market = guaranteed none at all

        Remember the stories a few years back when Carrefour got into hot water because one of their stores was measured by a government regulator as being not up to standard, and there was a frenzy of anti-foreign sentiment? There ARE inspections. Ever heard of a scandal at a wet market?

        There are just some foreigners that have a fascination with being as “Chinese” as possible, even when it’s clearly unwise. Don’t buy food from the wet markets, it’s filthy. Don’t eat food from street vendors, it’s covered in fecal coliform. If your Chinese friends won’t eat there, you shouldn’t either.

        • You’re right about the Carrefour thing, and honestly if you have the money/opportunity to buy all your groceries at one of these stores then it’s a fantastic option. For me, the main reason I started shopping at the wet markets was because it was much more convenient and affordable. I in no way do it because I want to be as “Chinese” as possible. I

          I feel healthier and better overall after eating stuff I’ve cooked at home than I do eating out at restaurants etc. in China. I should add that I eat almost nothing here (besides fruit) raw. I cook all my veggies before eating them, which might not kill off all bacteria but it’s better than eating them raw in my opinion.

        • Open markets can’t really fall victim to a widespread scandal in the same way because they are independent and are not publicly-traded multi-national corporations. I don’t think it’s true that there’s a guarantee that no one at a wet market cares about the quality of the product they sell. Have you ever spoken to vendors there, or gotten to know them? I used to have a wet market below my apartment and got to know some of the vendors. These are markets where people are handling and inspecting each item of food that they buy. In my anecdotal experience, the produce at Carrefour appears to be in more of a sad state than what you see that the produce market. I know that this isn’t rock-solid convincing evidence to prove my point, but your evidence is equally anecdotal.

    • Even though market veggies are not the safest, you should be fine if they’re cleaned and cooked properly. As to meat, I do not recommend buying it in the market, or even in places like Carrefour.
      The real risk is when you go to a sketchy place (or even fancy restaurant in some cases) and their cooking methods are just horribly unhygienic.

  3. Market-bought vegies are fine, just soak them in a suitable dishwashing liquid for 15 minutes, then rinse thoroughly.

  4. Good piece! I definitely agree that one of the best ways (if not the only one in Chengdu) to change with the monotony, or sameness as you call it, is changing where you eat. Going out to restaurants or hosting dinners are the main social events, from what I’ve seen. In China, with food being so cheap and all, I’ve been able to learn many new recipes and host diverse dinners. Here’s definitely a good place to learn some cooking skills! The only thing I would disagree with is the “embrace the dirtiness” advice. I mean, you kind of have to if you want to enjoy eating here.. But I would still add -don’t forget the cost- or something like that. There are so many viruses and bacteria we are exposing ourselves to when we’re not careful (and even when being careful); and many of the effects it might have in our bodies are irreversible.

    • Yeah I totally understand your feelings on that. I mean, I eat much less meat in China than I do back home because I don’t like how restaurants leave it out for so long etc. That point was more there to say “don’t ignore the small, hole-in-the-wall places when you’re choosing Chinese food”. Just because their appearance is more shabby doesn’t mean the food is worse than more sterile looking restaurants. I think the worst, most bland Chinese food is the stuff you get in malls or at chain restaurants. That’s what makes me sick more than any local noodle or dumpling place.

  5. Another couple tips to add: If you’re struggling with ordering off a Chinese menu, start by looking at the last character in the name of the dish. This is where you’ll find out if it’s rice, noodles etc. Also, for home cooking, getting some good spices, and always having garlic, ginger, soy sauce and maybe one other sauce around will help you add some variety to simple dishes like fried rice etc.

  6. @Eurolander: You’re living in a dreamworld, my friend. China scares the shit out of you, apparently. Why? More importantly, how can you live here?


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