I love eating, and I especially love eating in China. From the very first day I arrived here, my meal times have been an unpredictable, eclectic and fascinating experience. The unpredictability stems largely from the fact that I cannot seem to acquire any skill with chopsticks, but I refuse to give in and ask for a fork or spoon so I usually end up with a large portion of my meal on the table. This would be slightly embarrassing if I were at home, but thankfully the Chinese uphold a much more blasé attitude toward dining than we do in the UK—it's all about the food, and if you happen to spill a bit it's because you're getting stuck in.
As for the eclectic element, anybody who's spent time here will agree that, thanks to the country's huge size and geographic diversity, the range of different ingredients, cooking styles and dishes on offer is simply staggering. In my neighborhood in Beijing alone, there are restaurants specializing in food from every corner of China, from Xinjiang to Yunnan, and I haven't got around to sampling half of them yet because I'm obsessed with the Sichuan place on my street.
And it's not just the food itself I'm obsessed with here; everything from the exotic menu translations ("entrails spiced with spices" is a personal favorite of mine), to the way the waitress whips your plate away before you've finished chewing your last mouthful, to the intense concentration that Chinese people devote to the process of eating a meal, keeps me endlessly fascinated when I'm eating out, whether I'm in a five-star restaurant or at a street food stall in the local market.
But despite my love affair with Chinese cuisine and all its associated rituals, when I first arrived in the south of China feeding myself was a bit of an issue. My friend and I came into the country overland from Viet Nam, and we spent our first few weeks in the backwaters of Yunnan, where very few restaurants had translated menus. Thanks to our negligible linguistic abilities we found we had to rely on potluck when ordering food—lots of pointing and gesticulating. This method of culinary selection is definitely entertaining (especially for the waitresses) but also rather frustrating if there's something you really, really want to try but you don't know how to ask for it, so when we eventually reached the bright lights of Kunming, we decided to treat ourselves and wandered into a rather smart restaurant full of locals slurping steaming soup from enormous bowls. It was definitely a hot pot restaurant—how hard could it be to get hot pot?
The staff seemed pleased to see a pair of tourists and treated us very well indeed, fetching beer and tea before we'd even asked and digging out a translated menu. You know you're in for an interesting culinary experience when you're given a Bunsen burner, a pair of chopsticks, a ladle, a straw and a pair of rubber gloves, plus an extremely extensive menu containing chef's recommendations of big bone special and spicy duck throats. The general idea seemed to be that you ordered a pot of stock, then a selection of meat, noodles and vegetables to throw in. My friend did the choosing (going for chicken stock plus prawns, beef, cabbage and mushrooms) and a few moments later were presented with a vat (I'm not joking, it was massive) of cloudy, delicious smelling stock, which was set on the burner to boil. Next came the raw prawns, beef and vegetables, ready to throw in when the stock was hot enough, plus an evil selection of chili and garlic sauce. Then, finally, came the chicken bit of the stock…an entire, ash-broiled chicken complete with head, feet, wings and all other anatomical appendages. Our waiter chopped him up with a flourish and dumped him into the vat…it made the process of ladling out the soup ever so much more exciting knowing that at any moment you might be confronted by a beady eye and a blackened beak.
As it turned out, the rubber gloves were a stroke of genius, because things did get a bit messy—I can't even eat an ice cream without ending up wearing it, so after tackling boiling soup, chicken's feet, raw prawns and killer chili, my hands were pretty much the only clean bit of me. I thought I'd handled the whole meal rather well and was congratulating myself as we were walking out, but I suddenly realized I'd made a bad mistake using my straw to drink my tea; on the next table were four pretty Chinese girls sucking the marrow out of an enormous beef bone. What an amateur I am.
The writer is from the UK and lives in Beijing