Don't call it al fresco

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March 2nd 2011
Published: March 2nd 2011
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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.


2nd March 2011

Is that Khao San Road in BKK? Forgot to pack your boa this trip, did you? So now we know the source of all that smog in China, coal-fired veggie burrito griddles:)
3rd March 2011

so have you tried these things - pointing at some dish on some other table or just randomly pointing at something on the menu or can someone write little cards out for you with some basic dishes and you can show the card?
3rd March 2011

Oh yes, I have tried pointing at random things on the menu (a technique taught to me by pbs ) and I have pointed at things coming out of the kitchen too. I have gone into the kitchen and pointed at meat and vegetables. I haven't entirely given up, it is just very disconcerting to someone who is supposed to be an "old Asia hand".
8th March 2011

Hey Joe Sounds like your life continues to be an adventure. I'm truly jealious of your being stuff in nowhere. There have been many days in my life when nowhere sounded pretty nice. Hang in there on the food deal. I once was in a place where I had the same problem. What I did was go to a market and pick out the meat and veggies I wanted cooked and brought them to the resturant and ask them to cook them. They not only did it but added some spices to make it more interesting. Give it a try and let me know what happens. Bob
15th March 2011

Hi Joe it's emily and i was just cheking to see what is going on????
23rd March 2011

a $.46 burrito would be 5 pesos
Let's figure out a way for you to drop-ship these little darlins' by the pallet to L.A. so I can take them around town in my soon-to-be-modified GS with a propane oven. Cash only. After my annual five day Carnaval Fest in Ensenada this month I was fed up (literally) with the fried foods of Mexico; so I feel your pain. The old saying that you only rent beer applies. Yet....a sidewalk fish taco vendor with 10 different salsas grabs my attention and wallet in an instant. Street food has never done me wrong in Mexico. The two times I've had problems was after a sit down meal in a "nice" place. You can't get to Plaskett from the north right now. Landslide. Two months of repair says the L.A. Times. See you.....later. Adios.

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