Thursday, March 31, 2011

Eating in Nanjing

It is impossible to write about China and not talk about food, the preparation and consumption of which play such important parts in the cultures of China. And yet for me, an outsider with no knowledge of Chinese, accessing the breadth and depth of Chinese foods constitutes an imposing task, especially, perhaps, because I am at best a very modest cook myself.  Besides, because we had no kitchen in Nanjing, our food consumption was almost entirely "out" rather than "in."  So, what follows is a decidedly incomplete look at food and eating in Nanjing.

To begin, I should perhaps emphasize the ritual role that food plays in Chinese hospitality. As guests of the University, Jill and I were treated to several welcoming banquets as well as several farewell banquets.  Each represented a quite extraordinary array of foods and drink. It seemed to me that our hosts took special pleasure in consulting with the wait staff to order up diverse and interesting menus.  These items were then displayed on a large, glass "lazy Susan" which would slowly rotate as guests selected items from the dishes nearest to hand. Occasionally a waiter would bring some new dish to add to the ensemble, eventually crowding the entire glass surface with beautiful and tasty dishes.

At gatherings like these, no rice was served (unless requested); here the emphasis was upon largess and presentation. One might expect shrimp, at least one whole fish, other meats, including perhaps duck, chicken, and pork (each in its own unusual preparation), various vegetables (sometimes, to an American's tastebuds, exotic vegetables, like lotus, for instance), dumplings, and more.  A soup is likely to appear somewhere toward the end of the dinner, as well as, usually, some fruits (perhaps watermelon slices, pineapple, etc.). Even this listing cannot do justice to the wealth of foods served, and certainly does not adequately describe the often unusual preparations that might attend each of these dishes. But, even allowing for the inadequacy of my description, you will perhaps appreciate that these meals are truly feasts, and are meant to show maximum honor and hospitality to the guests. Indeed, the multiplicity and sheer quantity of dishes guarantee that much food remains uneaten, an informal index, perhaps, of the generosity of the hosts and the splendor of the dinner. These banquets also require that the guests occupy the seats of honor, and that they gain first access to the dishes presented.
Farewell Dinner at the ICC Restaurant, Gulou Circle: Our co-hosts, Hu Zhengneng; Xia Weizhou, and his wife; Andrew Kaiser; Xian Na; and Su Chen, wife of Hu Zhengneng

Dinner at the Hopkins-Nanjing University Center: Huang Chengfeng (co-director of the Center, and our host); Xia Weizhou; and Andrew Kaiser
Jill Kaiser; Su Chen; and Xian Na
So the banquets, despite the plethora of dishes and the staggering quantities of food, represent far more than "eating," and point rather toward the etiquette of hospitality.

More ordinary "eating" is certainly easy to accommodate around the university. Hankou Road, which divides the north and south campuses of the university, is home to a number of shops, most of which serve Chinese fast food—prepared on the spot and sold as "take-away."

I cannot provide a complete inventory of the dishes available, but most allow you the chance to stand right there and watch your lunch or dinner being prepared, so you can be your own judge of "what's for lunch!"  Still, if I had to guess what was the most popular lunchtime foods, I would say either noodles or dumplings.  Numerous shops around the university cater to these two staples of the Chinese diet.

Jill and I were especially fond of dumplings, which come in a bewildering array of flavors: each small doughy sack wrapped around chopped onion, mushroom, pork, or any of a half-dozen other ingredients. Best when hot and dipped in a bit of soy sauce, perhaps spiked with a bit of pepper,  dumplings are steamed rather than baked or fried. Consequently, in cool weather one can easily find a dumpling shop by looking for the "chimney" of steam escaping from the front of the establishment. Here is one dumpling shop close to campus. You can see on the left the stacked trays, within each of which one can find bamboo-woven trays on which the dumplings cook.
Numerous other shops and restaurants stand in close proximity to the campus. Guangzhou Road, just south of the south gate, is lined with both formal restaurants and casual shops where take-away is easy and inexpensive. The building rising above the metro entrance features a sushi restaurant on ground level, a hot pot restaurant on level 3, and several casual eateries below ground en route to the subway entrance. Similarly, the university student cafeteria is very close to the International Faculty Apartments, as is the university restaurant, whose front door is almost adjacent to the apartments. So accessing a meal is always convenient.

Less obvious, perhaps, is Qingdao Road, which, just west of the south campus, connects Guangzhou Road with Hankou Road, and where one can also find some very good places to eat.  Jill and I took a particular liking to this place, whose English name is simply "Muslim Restaurant." No pork was for sale here, of course, nor was there any alcohol available. But with a menu that included brief English descriptions, and with a lot of good food on tap (including my favorite, grilled lamb slices flavored with fresh cumin), this modest restaurant is an excellent choice for lunch or dinner. They will serve rice if requested, but I recommend instead that you order some of the naan-like flatbread more usual in central Asian cuisine.

Nanjing has a long history of foreign contacts, so it is small surprise that a sizable international community lives here, and several restaurants near the university attempt to cater to expat tastes. Jill and I enjoyed a couple of visits to a small French restaurant, "Les 5 sens," located on Hankou Road west (but east of Shanghai Road). Operated by Chinese who spent time in France and then returned to Nanjing to open their own place, "The Five Senses" is a pleasant, if modest, eatery. The full menu is extensive, embracing various appetizers, salads, main dishes, and, of course, desserts.  There is also a fixed-price luncheon, usually a good soup (we enjoyed mushroom), and some bread that resembles French baguettes. Daily specials are listed on a board at the entrance, but in general prices here are higher than at most Chinese restaurants. The ambience (often including recordings of Edith Piaf) is quite pleasant and in its inner rooms reminiscent of a small Parisian restaurant. In good weather, the small outdoor plaza will also prove a pleasant setting for lunch or dinner, although traffic down this road (with the inevitable horn-blowing) is not uncommon. Closed on Mondays.
Another nearby restaurant catering to expats is called "Swede and Kraut," a name evidently taken from the original owners, a Swede and a German.  The Swede is now long gone, and the German has added to his holdings with Skyways Deli, a popular lunchtime eatery on Shanghai Road near the Hopkins Center and NJU Business School. Located down the road from the northwest university gate by the athletic fields and NJU astronomy center  (I never saw a sign on the street), Swede and Kraut offers more generic ambience and furnishings; the menu, too, is perhaps more restricted. In addition to some typically "German" dishes (like wienerschnitzel), pizzas, pastas, and salads are available. Somewhat surprising, perhaps, is that the bread (served with all orders) is more French than the bread at Les 5 sens. Like Les 5 sens, prices here are higher than usual, and Swede and Kraut is closed on Mondays.

Of course, given the tremendous economic boom that China is now enjoying, numerous restaurant chains have also appeared in Nanjing. KFC was one of the first fast-food restaurants to try to capitalize on the Chinese market, and the KFC outlet at the intersection of Guangzhou Road and Shanghai Road is always filled to overflowing—mostly with young families. Other fast-food purveyors are also here in quantity, including McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut, as well as some Korean establishments.  Guangzhou Road is home to several McDonald's restaurants, including one just steps from the university's south gate. Inasmuch as Mickey D offered inexpensive, reasonably good coffee
in the morning, together with unlimited refills (until 10 AM), I admit to having frequented McDonald's often at breakfast.  Several Chinese coffee shops are also within steps of the university campus, but restrict their offerings to cappucino, latte and espresso drinks without selling the humbler brewed coffee. A Costa coffee outlet is just a bit further down the road, at the intersection with Zhongshan Road (near the Zhujianglu metro stop).  But with the least expensive Costa coffee going for 21 rmb (Americano) and McDonald's offering a bottomless cup for 8 rmb, I reconciled myself to my cheapness (and caffeine addiction). Starbucks also has eight outlets in Nanjing, although the closest to the university are found at Xinjeiko Square, one subway stop south of Guangzhou Road (tall brewed coffee for 15 rmb; grande for 18 rmb), or else in the lobby of the Jiangsu Television Center at Gulou roundabout. Although each of these chains offers some China-specific menu items, most customers will find small difference from the establishments they patronize at home.

This seems to be less true for Pizza Hut, which has a restaurant situated just east of the intersection of Guangzhou and Zhongshan Roads. Although we visited this establishment only once, we were struck by how much more adapted to Chinese tastes was the menu. For instance, Jill enjoyed a beverage called "fruit tea," which, at 30 rmb, presented a pitcher of "tea," into which numerous bits of various fruits were added. The pizzas, too, often featured toppings not met in a US Pizza Hut. In addition, more than the other western restaurants, Pizza Hut seems to have tried to go up-scale in China, aspiring perhaps to a somewhat wealthier clientele (although on our one visit all the patrons we saw were very young Chinese).

Despite this survey of eating out, in fact, Jill and I did not eat out as often as we might have, because Andrew and Xian Na invited us to dine with them several times a week. Andrew usually prepared a dinner once or twice over the weekend, often working miracles with the toaster oven—baking bread one time, pizza another, and various other dishes, including this delicious chicken salad he made for us one evening.
Xian Na often prepared dinners for us on her days off—usually joining a Chinese vegetable with a chicken or beef dish, pork ribs, fried egg and tomato, or one of several other tasty entrees. These dinners were all superb, and made all the more enjoyable because we could share them with Andrew and Xian Na.
Andrew, Xian Na, and Jill (that's peanut milk Jill is drinking)
Home-made sausage from Xian Na's mother; smoked beef; tofu and vegetables; sprouts, pork and pepper
So, we were spoiled with "home cooking," even if we didn't do the cooking! Still, occasionally Jill and I indulged ourselves in a homey lunch in our apartment. The university stores were loaded with "instant noodle" packages, an indication, perhaps, of the popularity of this inexpensive and easy-to-prepare food. All that was necessary was some boiled water, which one pours into the noodle container after emptying packets of flavor, dried vegetables and meats into the mix; within a few minutes, one has a hot, tasty (if salty), inexpensive meal.

In a city like Nanjing, of course, there are many more dining options than these, and one can find restaurants of almost every cuisine (we enjoyed Indian one night at a restaurant just off Hunan Road). So each person will want to chart his own dining journey. But perhaps this brief introduction will point to some of the options available in this increasingly cosmopolitan city.

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