on eating in beijing

eating abroad is hard, no matter where you are or who you are. it’s hardest when you’re travelling solo. no manner of language skills can ease the agony of looking into the windows of a restaurant you know you should go into and thinking, dear god help me. what will i order and will they serve it? what if everyone looks at me when i come in by myself? what if they don’t have “it”, whatever it is that i am agonisingly not sure i’m going to order? what if, worst case scenario, i am for some reason turned away and everyone laughs at me as i leave? or i sit down and try to order whatever it is that i am agonisingly not sure i’m going to order and the server says “what? what is that? we don’t have that? you are a fucking joke!”

i love eating. eating is one of my favourite things about travel. food glorious food in all its forms is something i take great pleasure in, and i think that food is probably the best way to understand another culture. and yet i still have these feelings almost daily when i am on the road somewhere. a friend of mine at work often regales us with his tales of being terrible at choosing a restaurant or food when travelling – and ending up walking for miles before finally stuffing some sort of awful junk/fast food into his mouth and skulking away in shame. i consider myself to be a ‘foodie’ although i hate that word and all of its connotations, but this is still my experience, too.

asia has the reputation of being a great place to eat, and as a continent it really is. but you have to know your way around. and even then things don’t always go well. it depends largely on the place you’re in and the culture of that place.

which brings me to my point. beijing is a tough place to eat. don’t get me wrong, there are bags of good food here. you can have almost anything you want, from perfectly crispy peking duck (local specialty) to simmering thai food, hand-pulled noodles from western china, pizza or, these days, a kimchi burger. that doesn’t mean it’s an easy place to fill your stomach.

first of all, beijing is giant. it is like an american city times a thousand: perfectly straight, giant five-lane highways, i mean roads, criss-cross the city in arrow-straight lines. the roads are giant, as are the distances between subway stations, and there are a lot of subway stations in beijing now. so getting anywhere is your first issue, particularly if you don’t live locally and have a scooter like most people here. you get off at a subway station and might still be walking for 20 minutes to reach your destination.

which brings me to my next point: you need to have a destination. there might’ve been a time, hundreds of years ago, when beijing was a town of neighbourhoods, but now it’s just giant block after giant block of giant glass buildings, hidden underground malls and under-junction stairway tunnels. it sounds awful, and it can be if you don’t have a plan.

there is no way to have a bit of a wander in beijing. to let the city take you where it wants you to go. i am a big fan of this – flaneuring, to give it its french name – and it works so well in the old cities of europe and even north america. please, friends, do not try this in beijing. you will end up walking 3-5 miles with the unintended consequence of low-blood-sugar rage, disorientation and carbon monoxide lightheadedness.

the best way to eat in beijing is to make a plan. do your research. define your target (a recommended restaurant, even a hole-in-the-wall) and make a break for it. do not pass go, do not collect two hundred yuan. and do not try to ‘wing it’.

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