Read Part 1 of my China Food Diary, outlining basic meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – consumed in China!
I drank a ridiculous amount of Chinese bubble tea so you don’t have to. I used to work at a bubble tea café, after all, so naturally I was very concerned with how it’s made and consumed in China, which probably does it better than America, but worse than Taiwan, where it originated.
Bubble tea drinks in China, like most made in America, are either shaken by hand or by a machine.
Abroad, however, I’ve had lots of unique toppings I never could have imagined!
Yan mai is chewy and sugary, and tastes like a combination of corn and barley (top left).
Mini boba is just 1 cm long tapioca balls, not as easy to chew as regular boba, but easier to drink through a straw (bottom right). They’re a bit like chia seeds, except that the boba isn’t healthy for you, and there are no actual seeds.
Besides this, I’ve also seen milk pudding and young coconut (bottom left – left drink) being added as toppings, so you could say China is doing alright.
In regards to price, most boba I had in China was roughly 10 yuan, the price of an average street food meal. Says a lot about the value of boba, doesn’t it?
But enough about bubble tea! Besides this delicious drink, plain tea is also widely consumed. You can read more about my accidental encounter with some of the best tea leaves in China.
Milk often comes packaged in bags, while soymilk comes in what looks like CapriSun packs.
Soymilk is more widely consumed in China than in America; some places serve it fresh, making it hot and thicker than conventional milk, meant to be consumed like soup in a bowl.
Street food stands also sell yogurt-based drinks and mixed nut milk drinks (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it).
Most people tend to avoid iced drinks at mealtimes because it conflicts with the temperature of the rest of their meal, which can cause stomach problems. Instead, they opt for lukewarm water, tea, or hot barley tea.
A word on alcohol
The Chinese drinking age is 18, but high school students rarely feel peer pressure to drink, so there’s no mad rush to the bars.
Adults, however, enjoy consuming alcohol in bars, clubs, and restaurants, as well as at home.
Chinese bars have drink menus and music, with large groups of people playing a popular dice game.
Clubs have a bar counter, couches and tables where you might have to pay to hold a spot. There’s sometimes a dance floor and a DJ.
In restaurants, beer is often enjoyed along with a meal, though the alcohol content of many Chinese beers is rather low.
You can also buy alcohol in convenience stores and supermarkets for much cheaper than what you might pay in a bar or a club, suggesting that what you mainly pay for is the service, entertainment and atmosphere.
Fast food in China
I’m pretty confused about why anyone would bother to eat American fast food in China. Sure, you should try it for yourself if you’re curious, but with the money that you spend on a meal, you could buy a much better meal for yourself and a bubble tea to drink.
It’s no accident that most American fast food restaurants that spread to China are strategically placed near spots frequented by foreigners, such as popular night clubs or the CBD (Central Banking District). They’re there to console those from out of the country having trouble adjusting to the local grub.
But here’s the thing. American fast food in China is more expensive than local food, not as fresh, and simply not as tasty. Street food is cheaper and faster. You can get a proper meal for less than 10 yuan, made to order, ready in seconds.
The chicken was not oily but very crispy, and the outside breading had lots of texture. The rest of the sandwich – iceberg lettuce and mayo – was mediocre.
I could taste the Arabica in the iced coffee, which was a little creamier than I expected. It came with a little container of “flavored syrup” which tasted just like simple syrup (sugar + water).
For 35 yuan (20 for sandwich, 15 for coffee), I did prefer it to the Burger King meal I also had, but I still prefer street food, overall.
I also spent $19 on a Burger King breakfast combo that I now regret. The Croissan’wich featured a mediocre pork patty imbedded with corn kernels, limp lettuce, a lonely slice of tomato, a processed slice of egg, and a drizzle of mayo, all jammed between two halves of a sad, deflated croissant. Oh, and a small cup of coffee.
Besides BK and KFC, other American fast food chains that have made it to China include Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and McDonald’s.
Conclusion: you can do so much better. And to anyone who says that Burger King is the perfect late night food, just check out the Hangzhou late night drunchie scene, coming soon.
A word on Chinese dining etiquette
Just as there are burger joints and delis in America, China has dumpling and noodle shops running up and down its streets. There will be chopsticks and soup spoons readily available, and often there’s a station for free barley tea, or da mai cha.
Your napkin situation will depend on the type of restaurant you’re at. If it’s a small hole in the wall, they probably won’t have any napkins on hand, so you’ll have to bring your own. Most people do anyways, whether they are for wiping their mouth or their bum (most public restrooms don’t provide toilet paper).
If it’s a slightly more upscale restaurant, they’ll have tissues on standby for free, or for 1 yuan per pack.
The most elegant of restaurants, however, offer moist disposable towelettes, or actual moist, scented towels. In China, the napkin situation speaks volumes about the type of food you’re about to enjoy, but not the quality.
When consuming noodles in China, the traditional way of eating it is by holding a pair of chopsticks in your right hand and a large soup spoon in your left.
Grab some noodles with the chopsticks and pile it onto the spoon. Blow on it gently or let it sit until it’s cool enough to eat. Feel free to slurp and don’t be shy about letting others know! It’s often considered a compliment when customers slurp loudly. Continue with noodles or whatever else is in the bowl (dumplings, meat, veggies, tofu) and then drink the broth noisily at the end. Smack lips with satisfaction. FIN.