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Published: March 2nd 2011
One might think that Shandong would be the perfect place to eat Chinese food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it would be, I suppose, if I could read or speak some Chinese, but I cannot.
Here, the menus are written in Chinese, not in English. Printed menus are often not available and even when they are, the Chinese text isn't accompanied by any helpful, color photographs showing a serving suggestion. This sure ain't P.F. Changs
I am clearly inept in ordering food here. Before I came to China, I predicted all sorts of culture shock, but never this. I have traveled far and wide and never run into a food-ordering problem before. In the past though, I was usually on some sort of hippie backpacker tourist trail
in countries where English is the del facto second language, not living in Hooterville, China.
Whenever I have mustered up enough courage to order food in a restaurant, it has always gone horribly pear-shaped. When I try to speak Chinese, I butcher the pronunciation so badly that nobody has a clue what I am trying to say. I am given puzzled looks by the staff and then everyone else in the place stops, looks
up from their meal and stares at me in bewilderment. Figuring that I am not only clueless but plainly hard of hearing as well, people usually just raise their voices and repeat everything they just said in an effort to help me. I smile, grimace, flee and never come back.
Street food is another matter. If I can clearly see what is being cooked (and I want some) I can just point. Street food usually doesn't feature a dining room, tablecloths or proper sanitation practices
, but I don't need to put on any fancy clothes
and it's always within my budget.
There is supposed to be unlimited interesting street food available in Asia, and perhaps there is, in Singapore. But I am not in Singapore, I am in rural Shandong and the tastes here are far more pedestrian. Much of the street food here is not all that interesting and a lot of it is deep-fried beyond recognition.
Lately, I have been eating a regional snack called a “Cai Jian Bing”
. Because I have trouble pronouncing that, I call it the “Kind Veggie Burrito”
. Around town there are funky carts owned and operated by funky, middle-aged ladies. These carts are
equipped with a coal-fired stove and a round griddle. On this griddle, they make crepe-like wrappers which are then plied with grilled, shredded vegetables and rolled up to serve.
Ingredients include grated Chinese cabbage, carrot, onion and some sort of dark green, leafy thing that, if I ever found any of it growing in my own garden, I would probably spray it with Roundup.
The Chef dumps a handful of each vegetable into a bowl, adds some salt, pepper, sugar, chile powder and about ½ cup of suspicious-looking oil, mixes it all up and then all that gets grilled for about 30 seconds on the super hot griddle.
The cooked veggies are then transferred onto a flour-tortilla-like wrapper, a handful of chopped, fresh cilantro is tossed on, then another wrapper is placed on top of the veggies. The whole thing is then flipped a few times. When both sides are suitably browned, it is rolled up, chopped in half and served in a clear, plastic bag for easy carrying. Price is 3¥, or about 46¢.
One of these is enough for dinner and they're yummy.
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