As you all I know I love my food. I am a terrible tragic when it comes to good food, good wine and good coffee. I don’t see the point in eating poor quality, poorly prepared food. It just makes me feel sad because in Australia we have some of the best, most fresh and clean food in the world. And then I moved to China.
Upon arrival here I was excited to explore food markets and street food vendors. When I had done this in Thailand or Vietnam it was an easy process. Know what the words were on the sign and then point and hold up the number of fingers to correspond with the number of items you wanted. There is just one… let’s make that… there are just several problems with this ignorant habit of mine in China.
1. None of the signs are written in English Characters. In Vietnam we would pass a sign and I would ask our guide what each word meant. So within a couple of days I knew which vendors sold noodles, rice, beer on tap or by the bottle, even dog meat. I could decipher a sign quite well because all signs were in English characters not Vietnamese characters. In China NO signs are in English characters, they are all in Chinese characters. There are over 3000 Chinese characters. There are 26 letters in the English alphabet… see the issue?
2. The Chinese have hand signals for numbers. They use the left hand only and depending on your finger position and combination you could be asking for 1 or 10. For example the number 3 looks like you are signalling ‘OK’ and the number 6 looks like you are signalling ‘cowabunga dude’ or ‘surfs up’ depending which era you are from. If you use your right hand to signal a number you are possibly insulting the poor vendor to the highest degree. I was at first using my right hand… let’s just say that the customer service wasn’t so friendly towards me.
3. There are not many pictures in the restaurants. In the Chaussie (Chinese-Aussie) restaurants (as I like to term them) there are pictures. Lots and lots of poorly styled food shots so that you pretty much know what will end up in front of you even if you don’t understand the description. In the little Ma and Pa stores or on a street vendors cart there are no such pictorial views of the food. Just signs with Chinese characters. See point number 1.
4. If anyone EVER tells you that English is the hardest language in the world to learn they are wrong. WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! So wrong in fact I believe that theory has spread across the English speaking nations because we are so elitist and wanted to make ourselves feel better. Mandarin has few words but it has 4 tones. So the same word can be said in 4 different ways and mean a totally different thing. For example Jirou means chicken. It also means muscles as in ‘Ooooo you have big muscles’ it also has 2 other meanings in different tones. There may have been a time when I was asking for big muscles when what I really wanted was chicken…
5. Point at what the person next to you is having and smile you may say? Excellent theory and yes I agree. However, can you tell the difference between duck gizzards and squid in a dark soup and noodle dish? Yeah… no me either. So great theory but I am not necessarily confident to bust out that motion very often.
I do have a vegetable lady. She is on the street that I live on. She is in her 50’s with dark skin and a raspy voice. She and her husband work out of a small space selling vegetables. They also live out the back of this space. No length or matter of description can ever describe the conditions in which they live. Their store is open from the very early morning when most people do their daily fresh food shopping until midnight. She is always out the front shelling edamame or de-leafing vegetables, husking corn or shelling peanuts. Her husband is there some of the time and she looks after her grandchildren on occasions too. I really like her. I don’t know why but I do.
I believe in loyalty so I only ever go to her. Every time she sees me coming she rolls her eyes at me and then greets me with a half-smile and a “Ne Hao” I timidly smile and say “Ne Hao” in return. I tried to ask her how she was the other day and she just grunted at me and rolled her eyes again. She is not rude she is just entirely annoyed at me. She knows now that no matter what I buy I will always give her 20RMB. She speaks quickly. Really quickly and I can never understand what she says, so to save my ego I just whip out 20RMB and give it to her. That action usually forces her to give me all of her change. Recently I have been receiving less change and I am fairly certain that she is charging me more for the inconvenience of being a westerner who only gives her 20’s. To put it into perspective 20RMB is about $3.50AUD and if she is making a whole extra dollar out of me then I am ok with that. Her vegetables are always beautiful and fresh so she is worth the extra dollar to me.
She is a pretty smart lady too. She must have worked out that I cook a fair bit of Asian food and was super excited to show me that she had coriander/ cilantro in stock. She nattered on about it in mandarin and I nodded excitedly. The first time she showed me I didn’t need coriander but the second time I bought a heap of it, just to indulge her excitement. She was so pleased with me… my bill strangely went down.
There is a Zhou seller on the street. That means pork. It also means left. And it also means week. Rou means meat. Ji is chicken so for chicken meat you ask for Jirou. Just make sure you get the tone right! Anyway back to the pork seller. The first time I went to him, he was standing watching the TV. I walked up to his little refrigerator and was looking into it. There was a range of piggy pieces from ribs to snouts to trotters and lovely chunks of meat. To get his attention I said hello. He spun around and then let out a little scream. I quickly looked around to see what startled him… I was what startled him! It would be fair to say that he rarely if ever, has large female westerners visit his little fridge. After he got over his initial shock, he smiled at me enthusiastically with his cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I pointed to a piece of beautiful, lean, fresh pork and he picked it up with his bare hands and threw it on the scale for me. Food hygiene is and has been for a long time, a fairly big deal for me so seeing the cigarette laden bare hand touch my future dinner and then hit the scales that hadn’t been wiped clean from the last customer, nearly made me pass out in the summer heat. I gulped down my western ways and smiled as I handed over the money. He tossed it into a plastic bag and handed it to me. I bound off home immediately, washed it, put it in the fridge and said a little prayer to avoid food poisoning. Dinner was lovely and there was no food poisoning. Thank you God!
More recently I tackled the rice lady. There are many varieties of rice to choose from. The street vendors and also from the grocery stores stock several varieties of varying quality and from various regions. The grocery stores only sell rice in 5-10kg bags and our little apartment can’t handle that volume. To the rice lady I ventured. As I walked up towards her store she looked me up and down and then continued watching the TV. I looked at the different types of rice and decided on the more expensive of the varieties on sale. It looked cleaner and more uniform in size. I tried to get her attention. She ignored me. I think she was hoping I would go away. I grabbed a plastic bag from the hook and looked for an implement to scoop the rice out of the huge bag and into my little plastic one. I couldn’t find it, so I made as much noise as I could. Finally she turned towards me and I said hello and pointed towards the bag of rice waving my plastic bag in the air. She rolled her eyes and huffed as she dragged her feet out of the stall. She looked at me with a bit of disdain as I pointed again and smiled. She shuffled around looking for the scooper. It was upside down on the ground behind a big bag of rice. Once again I gulped down my western ideals on food safety. She scooped some into my plastic bag, I gave her the thumbs up and she smiled a bit but rolled her eyes also. I figured she was thinking “Bloody hell who buys such a small quantity of rice? Hardly worth the effort!” If that is what she was thinking she was right about a kilo of her premium rice was roughly 75c.
We also have a noodle lady across the road and some stalls that sell a myriad of eggs and little fresh crabs. I have not yet been brave enough to buy any eggs. Why? Well there are about 10 different varieties on sale and all with a different price. I can tell the duck eggs and the chicken eggs but I don’t know what the differences are in the chicken eggs. I would about die if I bought home a dozen embryo eggs that are so popular here. Yes the name is exactly what it is. There are embryos of chickens and ducks inside the eggs. Pass!
So as time creeps on my bravery to expand my street vendor horizons increases and our dinner repertoire becomes more local. Now if only I could get my tone right and stop asking for muscles…