Navigating China can be difficult when you don't speak Chinese, and probably even when you do. In fact, our experience in China was that everything was more difficult than we thought it should be -- but hey, that's the challenge and reward of being in a truly foreign culture, right? (And I say this as a Chinese American - modern Chinese culture is very foreign to me.) But don't worry, I am here to tell you how to eat all the best things in China, and liberate you from the need to visit only restaurants with an English menu -- because, how boring would that be?.
1. go where there's a line.
Chinese people are willing to stand in line for good food, and while you're there, you should be too. This applies especially at night markets and for street food, but in Shanghai and in Taipei there were also plenty of lines for dumpling restaurants. This rule is just an extension of a principle I apply universally: if a restaurant is full, it's probably good.
2. point at what other people are eating.
This is a trick I learned from my dad. Can't read the menu? No picture menus on the wall? Then just look at what other people are eating and point at what looks tasty. This is good advice, I promise - there is no use in resting on useless, anti-pointing decorum. It is also common for a restaurant to have one specialty dish that everybody goes there for, so don't you want to eat that too?? Combined with rule #1, the principle here is: eat what other people are eating. There is wisdom in the crowd. And if somehow you end up with something you don't like, at least you can say you ate like the locals.
3. eat all the dumplings.
I am a dumpling lover. My favorite remains the classic pork xiaolongbao, a Shanghai specialty, often called soup dumplings because of the delicious fatty broth inside. They take a little practice to eat, but my god they are delicious. And they have a cult following, too. New to me in Shanghai were the fried soup dumplings, shengjianbao, which were the favorite of Hannes' cousin Roman, who had been studying in Shanghai for a semester. I made a point of eating a new dumpling every day we were in Shanghai, and believe me, 4 days was far too few.
4. and the noodles, too.
We had two outstanding noodle experiences in China. One was in a noodle shop tucked into a Beijing side street where we watched our noodles being hand cut into our soup broth with a technique reminiscent of the traditional way to make German spätzle. The resulting soup was ridiculously delicious, and it cost all of about $2 per person. The second new and awesome noodle experience was the hand-pulled la mien, a traditional Muslim Chinese food. Through the window to the restaurant kitchen, we watched our noodles being made with a technique that seemed like magic -- at first the dough is rolled, and then it's whipped back and forth through the air like a rubber band, and then somehow out of the roll of dough comes a band of noodles - and super long ones at that. I watched this feat several times (check out my video) but still don't understand the moment when dough ball becomes noodle. Conclusion: freshly made pasta, yum!
5. if you have dietary restrictions, have someone write it down for you.
One of the reasons I love Chinese food is that I can eat everything -- it's a cuisine that's pretty much entirely free of milk products, which I need to avoid. Being vegetarian, on the other hand, is not so easy in China. If you order a vegetable dish, there is a very high likelihood that the vegetables have been cooked in pork fat, or that the vegetables will come with small chunks of pork. In Beijing and Shanghai you can find 100% vegetarian restaurants in the Buddhist tradition, where they make all sorts of delicious dishes featuring imitation meat made out of soy and seitan. (We can highly recommend Baihe Vegetarian in Beijing, which was both beautiful and delicious.) But in general, the best way to go is have someone who speaks Chinese write something down for you that you can show to the restaurant staff. This is not 100% foolproof, but written communication tends to work more smoothly than spoken communication (i.e., me botching the pronunciation).
6. don't feel guilty about choosing Western food every once in a while
Sometimes you just need a little taste of home. When I was working in Taipei, one of my favorite splurges was to go for a coffee break at the nearby Starbucks (yes, you find them in China too) and order a cinnamon bun. A cinnamon bun!! Amazingly sweet and gooey and not Chinese food. Western food comes at Western prices, but you can generally find it if you're in a city. And while I will totally judge you if you go to China and eat only Kentucky Fried Chicken (this is probably possible, KFC is everywhere), it's perfectly normal to take a break from the (extremely delicious) Chinese food once in a while. After all, you're only human. And also, you might need a coffee now and then -- which is so not Chinese, btw.