I LOVE food, as anyone who knows me is well aware. Everyday eating brings me such happiness. Here’s how I ate healthfully in China.
When I travel, I do my best to experience the local food while maintaining my healthy habits, which include balanced eating and being physically active. Here’s how I did the healthy thing in Beijing during a 9-day trip, which overlapped with my husband’s conference.
One highlight of my trip was taking a market tour and two cooking lessons with Chao of the Beijing Cooking School. Very few people speak English in Beijing, but Chao’s English was fabulous and only bested by his teaching skills. Both times we prepared four dishes. All I told him was that I like vegetables, fish, tofu and other healthful foods. He selected the perfect recipes, helped me use the giant knife that makes me feel like my own knives are toys, showed me new ingredients, and helped me feel like a master in the kitchen. Each of the eight dishes were so fabulous that it’s hard for me to keep from posting a photo of each one.
During my two lessons, we prepared 2 fish recipes, 2 chicken recipes, 1 tofu dish and 3 vegetables dishes. I discovered lotus root and a host of Chinese seasonings. I actually got pretty good at using that enormous knife, and now I want one of my own. The one disappointing thing I learned is that Chinese food is cooked with a lot of oil.
Have you even seen a radish quite like that? Check out the fish picture in the upper right corner. Chao explained to me that he was asking for proof that the fish was still alive. Chao picked out the fish for our class and had the seller put it in a fresh bucket of water to watch it swim. We also bought fresh tofu and soymilk. They were freshly made and given to us hot in plastic bags.
We were so lucky to be with our Chinese friends, Wenze and Jin, for the first two days of our trip. They took us to the best restaurants and ordered for us. We ate lots of vegetables and sampled a number of specialties.
Jin and Wenze took us to a highly-rated restaurant for Peking Duck. There is quite a procedure associated with eating this dish. The duck is carved at your table and plated for various eating combinations. Some of the duck is wrapped in a very thin pancake with a sauce; some is dipped alone in a sauce; a piece is eaten with sugar. It was all delicious and interesting. We ate a few vegetable dishes and a beef dish with this meal too.
As most of you know, I can’t imagine my life without chocolate. It’s a good thing that I brought a bar of dark chili chocolate with me because dessert is not much of a thing in Beijing. These pretty sweets above are barely sweet and are definitely not chocolate. They are made of various bean pastes. Actually, I appreciate that no one – not even once – asked us if we wanted dessert. I wish that was the practice in restaurants in the US too.
The CDC advises Americans not to drink tap water in China and not to eat raw fruits and vegetables unless we wash them ourselves with bottled water. That made getting my daily fruit servings challenging, so I emphasized vegetables even more.
Since the language barrier is huge, Drew and I were a bit nervous about going to restaurants on our own. Because it was so delicious and a little bit familiar, we went back to the place Wenze took us on our first night in China. No one in the restaurant spoke English, and I had poor wifi so my Chinese-English app failed us. The menus have some pictures and some English words. Most are not translated very well, so there were plenty of options that remained a mystery. We steered clear of the meat and vegetable dish called Hot Juice Exploding Kidney. It sounded a little bit too scary! Right? And of course, we avoided anything raw. We settled on this fabulous cauliflower dish, zucchini, tofu and a beef and lotus root dish. The menu called it beef and potato, but it was definitely lotus root, one of my new favorite foods. Everything was so, so good.
Fortunately, between the two of us, we had enough cash. This is the night we found out that most restaurants don’t take credit cards unaffiliated with a Chinese bank.
I loved the breakfast buffet. Each morning I lusted after the cut up fresh dragon fruit and melons, but I stuck with some pretty awesome cooked foods – for food safety reasons. There were always cooked greens, beans or carrots. But my favorite part of the breakfast was the soups. The photo above has tofu soup and noodle soup. The noodle soup was next to a toppings bar, so you could pick your own add-ins, such as soy sauce, chili sauce and dehydrated shrimp. In addition to lots of oil, I think the typical Chinese food is also high in sodium. I enjoyed all of my food, but I tried to balance out the salty, oily stir-fried foods with the more plain foods like hard-boiled eggs, rice and lightly seasoned vegetables. Fortunately, the breakfast buffet had whole dragon fruit, apples, bananas and oranges that we could take to our room and wash properly with bottled water.
Toward the end of our trip, Drew and I visited a hot pot restaurant. We had never been to this type of restaurant before and had no idea what to do. Fortunately, someone from his conference wrote down what we wanted to order in both Chinese and English. That at least got us started, and I was able to use a picture menu to order lean meat and tons of vegetables to cook in the two kinds of hot soup.
But when the food came, we still didn’t know what to do with it. At least my translation app worked, and we had the best humored waiter we could have hoped for. This kind young man cooked our entire dinner for us, and that took about an hour and a half! We kept passing our phones back and forth to read translations – and a lot of them really didn’t make sense. Once the waiter told my husband via his app: “Here’s a thin lotus pond for you.” It was a bowl of mints. I wonder what silly things he read on my app. There were a few times that his facial expressions said, “Wow this is weird! I have no idea what you’re trying to say.”
The entire meal was fabulous. And some was a bit strange. I ordered shrimp, but what came was something that looked like an icing tube filled with a paste. Our waiter cut it with chopsticks and cooked it for us. It really did taste like shrimp though.
I don’t have good pictures from this restaurant. I could blame the light, but honestly, who could take pictures with so much laughing and eating going on. I figure we gave our waiter a good story to tell his friends. It’s not common to take tips in restaurants, but we pretty much forced it on him. He wished us a happy life. That’s what his app said when he handed Drew a blue pillow with the English words, I Love You. I wish I knew where that pillow came from and what he thought it meant. He gave us the most memorable meal and evening.
Just for fun, here are a very few pictures we took while sightseeing. I have almost 1,000 photos. I picked just a handful to share.
We were lucky to be with Jin Zhang and Wenze Xi. They live in the states now, but both are from China. Wenze grew up in Beijing, so he ably showed us around. We had such an informative private tour of the Forbidden City.
We had lots of fun on this trip. I hope you can see that through these pictures. It was stressful though because of the language barrier and because of the need to drink only bottled water and eat only cooked fruits and vegetables. I loved trying new foods and new preparation methods! Food safety came first, but good health and nutrition were always on my mind.