Monday, 20 July 2009

The Restaurant

The Restaurant was the first place I ever ate in Shijiazhuang, less than 12 hours after getting off the plane. I remember my first horrified, jet lagged, culture shocked reaction: all I could see was shabbiness, grubbiness, and an astonishing lack of hygiene.

I couldn’t eat much of the food that visit, and I couldn’t imagine that by the time I left I would rather eat there than at a fancy, expensive restaurant. I couldn’t imagine how I would sit, back in the UK, and fondly remember the beer poster decorated walls, the friendly family who ran it and the delicious Sichuan dishes, that I despair of being able to find here outside of Chinatown.

I miss being able to text or skype a friend for dinner or lunch, and then five minutes later ordering our favourite dishes, perhaps kung po chicken, perhaps vinegar potatoes and garlic green beans.
Baijiu anyone?
It was one of the few places I could happily eat at alone too, as I knew the owners would send any drunk Chinese guys who were ‘being friendly’ away with a flea or two in their ears.
I remember how surprised I was in the first few weeks when I saw men knocking back a bottle or two of baijiu at lunchtime, and our own students, even the thirteen year old ones, enjoying a beer or two or more. (The school did, however, have to stop turning such a blind eye to student drunkenness after some of the junior students tried to set fire to the school in a drunken stupor.)

Vinegar potatoes.

I was amazed too, at first, that you could buy a big bottle of beer for the equivalent of 3p. Although seeing as one of the refrigerators was used to store staff clothes, you couldn’t always be sure of getting a cold one.

Kung po chicken. My favourite.

We liked to mix our dishes with our rice, unlike most Chinese people who prefer to have their rice plain at the end of the meal

Disposable chopsticks. You could get round ones (like these) or square ones. We much preferred the square ones and were quite miffed if only round ones were available.
You might not believe me when I tell you that the photo of the fish tank was taken at its cleanest. When a customer ordered fish, the chef would come out from the kitchen, reach his hand in, grab one and take it, still flapping pathetically in his hand, to its doom. If the fish managed to leap out of his hand, it would writhe on the floor, sometimes managing to cover a surprising distance before being recaptured. Every time this happened, I would have to stifle the urge to scream and stand on my chair, which is probably slightly strange. Once, after a particularly spirited struggle between man and fish, my friend was horrified to find she had a patch of fish scales in her hair.


  1. Now that's fresh fish!

    Though the sanitation is questionable, I guess it's always safe to eat cooked food and beer!

  2. The food looks delicious. Surprising that young students are allowed to drink beer there.
    Having your dinner fish sliding across the floor is a little horrifying, but at least you know your meal is fresh...

  3. I'm a fan of the round chopsticks myself.

    I'd love some of that kung po chicken right about now!

    It's amazing how you can get use to cultural differences isn't it. After five years in Britain I finally got use to seeing grown adults eating Heinz beans. ;-)

  4. Baked beans - *shudder*. Absolutely one of my least favourite foods, along with fish. I can't even stand the smell of them.
    My American friends were also very disconcerted by the fact that fish was served whole, complete with bones and head.

  5. I do love kung po chicken and this looked delicious! Don't think I'm too keen on my fish sliding across the floor to me, but have to agree that at least it would be fresh! Always fascinating to learn these little things about other cultures! Thanks so much for sharing!

  6. Usually the best dishes are those that come from mom and pops/holes in the wall. I am so jealous of you and your real Chinese cuisine experience.

  7. I watched a documentary about an award winning Chinese restaurant recently. One of the specialities was fish which was taken from a barrel of water, flash fried in deep oil and served immediately. The trick was to ensure that the gills were still moving on the plate when served..... lovely.
    .... but how about Heinz beans with broon sauce?

  8. 3P! That is amazing. Just makes me realise how little we have in the way here of choice and value for money.

  9. Neil, I do think the gills are removed before frying. The gills are checked for freshness before you buy a fish.

  10. OMG! Catching a live fish and taking it to pan!
    It is adventurous at restaurants too there. :)

  11. Great post!

    That restaurant looks superclean compared to some I went into... (I once found a rat's tooth in the fish...)

    Sounds as if you suffering from reverse culture shock!

  12. The only thing worse than baked beans would be baked beans in brown sauce. I didn't even know the world was sullied with such an item.
    And although there was value there wasn't much choice: drinking options were beer or baijiu and that was about it.

  13. Hygiene means different things to different folks. In places with poor hygiene, people become immune. In countries with excellent hygiene, people can fall sick very easily.
    That food looks yummy - I'm hungry now.

  14. Forget the baked beans, it's the vinegar potatoes that have turned my stomach...

  15. Super hygiene is not everything in life. If everything is sterile you catch the first germ that comes along which then lays you low because you have had no chance to build up an immune system. The non-tourist reataurants in Beijung were not exactly hospital sterile either, but the food was great. Loved your post.

  16. Great story! Great entertainment and the food looks incredibly delicious.

  17. I have to say, I knew nobody who got sick from hole in the wall restaurants or street food (apart from when the pollution was really bad). I only time I got sick was once from KFC and once from a yoghurt purchased in a supermarket, which in my book goes to show that fresh ingredients prepared to order are far more important than whether or not the waitress (or even the chef) is having a ciggy or what the kitchen surfaces are.