It’s easy to get stuck.
You know how the routine goes: tracing your own footsteps (literally and figuratively) and ending up with the same dishes over and over again. Sure, they’re delicious. But eventually you have to break out of our culinary comfort zone to experience and enjoy the incredible variation of Chinese cuisine available to you. Those of us who find ourselves in China are privileged to bear witness to one of the greatest culinary civilizations on earth. You owe it to yourself to pay tribute to that entitlement by sampling all that China has to offer. Because chicken feet, dog meat and pig brain hotpot are as necessary an experience as any other meal you’ll have in China.
As a rule, we tend to stick to what we like. Whether you’ve been in China for two years or ten, you’re likely to be ordering the same dishes on a regular basis. After all, it makes perfect sense: everyone loves the taste of Kungpao Chicken (????) and Fried Shredded Potato (?????) because they’re familiar and mighty tasty. But by sticking to the minority of dishes that you’re familiar with there’s a good chance you’re passing up literally hundreds of unfamiliar dishes which could turn into your favorites.
Perhaps a food allergy, religious affiliation or ethical crusade (vegetarian or vegan) prevents you from going outside of your dietary routine. As legitimate as those reasons are for not ordering an unfamiliar dish in a new restaurant, they’re outnumbered 100 to 1 by laziness. Why take the chance on something new, especially when it falls outside the boundaries of the culinary practices of your own culture?
I vividly remember an encounter I had with a Peruvian English teacher in Chengdu who had spent ten years in Sichuan Province. He couldn’t read Chinese and ordered the same handful of dishes year after year. Ordering outside of his comfort zone or broadening his dietary outlook didn’t even seem to cross his mind. When I inquired about how he’s managed to get by for so long on so little, he justified his position by saying that the dishes he does order taste fine to him. As he fumbled clumsily with his chopsticks the wait staff at the restaurant took note and sneered.
Don’t be that guy.
Approach food with an experimental outlook. If you suspect that you might not like this or that particular dish, go ahead and try it anyway. At the very least it’ll be an experience that connects you more closely with the culinary history of Chinese people.
If you’re having trouble reading the menu at a Chinese restaurant, taking it home and learning all the characters on it is a great practice. You’ll improve your knowledge of local dishes and increase your vocabulary simultaneously. To get you started, check out this Chengdu Living post of A Chinese Menu Fully Translated.
Open Yourself Up to New Experiences
Picky eaters who respond to foreign food cultures with shock and revulsion are the product of narrow mindedness. When you leave your home country, you’re better off leaving behind your reservations about what the rest of the world is or isn’t and just participating. Open your mouth and open your mind.