Food has been a big part of this trip. The Chinese are very proud of their local dishes and we wanted to try as many new things as possible. So here’s a summary of our food experiences on the Great Ride so far. I wanted to list the most common foods we’ve found, what’s not to miss as well as some things to avoid. I also wanted to mention a little about how we plan our meals when on the road.
Chinese breakfasts take some getting used to. The good news is if you (like me) like bland foods for breaky then you are in luck. Although you do often find things like steamed meat buns, red tofu spread – not to be mistaken for jam – and an assortment of pickled veggies, you can also find some staples which are very plain and inoffensive to sensitive morning pallets. These include a rice porridge called ‘zhou’ (ask for some ‘bai tang’, sugar, to add some sweetness), boiled eggs, sometimes boiled with tea leaves but I’ve never been able to taste the tea, a type of fried dough stick called ‘you tiao’ which is also yummy dipped in sugar, and bean milk or ‘dou jiang’, an inoffensive milk substitute made from soy beans which, again, I prefer with some sugar. In addition to the steamed meat or veggie buns you can also find plain buns called ‘mantou’ which is a common staple food.
On the Road
When on the road we don’t like eating big lunches as they make us sleepy, especially if it’s hot and the roads are straight and boring. So we usually stick to easy, dry snacks, such as nuts and raisins, crackers and biscuits. This also cuts our lunch break down dramatically, giving us more time to put miles behind us. China is a great place for dried fruits and nuts. You can find them pre-packaged in most supermarkets and they don’t cost the world. Try the dried banana chips, yummy and full of natural sugars. We also stop often (about every hour or so) for a short rest, water and caffein refill. Some of our favourite bevies to be found at most gas stations:
- 脉动 ‘mai dong’ – a type of sports drink
- 红牛 ‘hong niu’ – Red Bull sans gas, no idea why…
- 冰咖啡- a cold coffee drink, pretty yummy, not a huge amount of caffeine though
- 冰红茶 ‘bing hong cha’ – sweet iced tea
Occasionally if we were going to have a very long day or didn’t have breakfast for whatever reason we would stop at a roadside restaurant. These will typically serve only a few local dishes such as stir fried noodles and rice dishes, with some veggies and meat – all pretty standard fare. Also note that portions in the countryside are much bigger than in cities.
Despite the lack of “Western” foods associated with camping – sandwiches, oatmeal, ready meals etc. – we’ve never had a problem finding camping food. China is an instant noodle heaven and with a little planning you can make a decent meal with them. We usually cut up some hot dog type sausages (tip: the refrigerated supermarket sausages are slightly less processed than those you find on the shelves at corner shops and gas stations), cucumbers and tomatoes and add it to our noodle soup. If you are very organised you can also pre-boil some eggs and throw them in the mix. For breakfast you can usually find some ‘bing’ which can best be described as round, fried, flaky cakes. You can get savoury and sweet ones so sometimes we also have a few with dinner. Otherwise there’s always Oreo cookies!
Weird and Wonderful
Here’s a list of specialties we’ve come across so far on our travels. We didn’t get all the names of the dishes but with the descriptions and pictures you should be able to find them should you want to try them.
Pork dish in a rich sauce that you eat with small pocket breads, very yummy if you don’t mind a bit of pork fat.
Plains of Inner Mongolia:
No specific names just lots of lamb dishes and rice cooked in lamb broth. Breakfast is yummy with a type of bread dough fried in butter and sweet milk tea.
Minced pork and potato with spring onions and ginger that comes served in thin slices. Looks a bit like dumpling fillings but tastes really good and is unique to the Xinshou area. Highly recommended.
‘Biang biang mian’ – a type of noodle unique to Xi’an and famous mostly for it’s overly complicated character, so complicated in fact that we couldn’t find the character ‘biang’ in any of our dictionaries!
泡沫肉 ‘pao mo rou’ – a lamb broth with spring onions and coriander into which you break chunks of nan bread – not much to look at but very tasty.
样嘴杂 ‘yang zui za’ – one to avoid unless you’d like a bowl full of sheep guts. Very admirable that people don’t waste any part of the animal, but it does come with a very pungent smell…
Dunhuang, Gansu and Hami, Xinjiang:
哈密瓜 ‘hami gua’ – a type of yellow melon famed for it’s sweetness and named after the area it comes from. Find it in little makeshift farmer’s stalls lining the road that runs from Dunhuang to Hami, great for a mid-afternoon snack or you can take some of the dried fruit with you.
大肉 ‘da rou’ – big meat; large slab of pork named thus out of respect towards the local Muslim population. If you like meat on the bone this is great, even comes with a plastic glove.
Xinjiang (in general):
羊肉串 ‘yang rou chuan’ and 烤馕 ‘kao nang’ – lamb kebabs and nan bread, both very common and always winners.
抓饭 ‘zhua fan’ – pilaf dish with lamb shank, one of my favourite dishes so far on this trip.
大盘鸡 ‘da pan ji’ – a big dish for sharing made up of chicken, potatoes, veggies and lots of sauce, yum yum!
版面 ‘ban mian’ – a type of noodle dish which serves cooled noodles with a separate warm veggie or meat tomato-based sauce, a staple and very filling.
A Few Tips
- Always wash fruit and vegetables in salty water. Carry a pack of salt with you and always soak and the scrub all fresh produce in salty water to disinfect, preferably using mineral water.
- If you can’t wash it, peel it.
- Hot is better than cold. Avoid ordering cold veggie dishes like salads as they might not be washed properly. Anything boiled or fried will be safer, basically any noodle dishes.
- Ever wondered why locals eat raw cloves of garlic with their meal? Raw garlic helps disinfect your gut. Now you know!
- Local is always better i.e. have lamb in areas with lots of sheep, avoid seafood if you are no-where near the sea etc.
- If in doubt, go vegetarian.
Be sensible and safe, but most importantly, try new things! If like us you are passing through areas that you might never get the chance to visit again I would strongly recommend trying as many new dishes as possible. If you have any interesting or memorable travel food experiences please do share and leave comments below!