A(broadened) Palate: Expand Your Food Horizons Through the Culinary Genius of China

by Lauren Bishop

One of the best ways to engage in a new culture, but one of the hardest things to do is to try new food! In many countries, guests are offered the “cream of the crop” items and the local delicacies as signs of affection and hospitality, and to turn down these gifts is a cultural faux pas. However, the desire to stay within the bounds of familiarity prevents many people from really branching out and tasting exotic dishes.

For those of you interning abroad in China who are eager to step outside your comfort zone and explore what else is out there, check out what China has to offer!

Chinese street barbeque

With its wide range of resources, limitless flavor combinations, and dynamic vegetation, China is the perfect place to begin checking off your “culinary bucket list.”

Congee, fried scorpion, and red bean ice cream are just the everyday-items you will find around each corner. If you really want to surprise the locals with your fearless palate, take on the street vendors. You don’t speak the language? That’s okay! Simply point, pay, and eat. The surprise factor makes the tasting challenge even more delightful, and you’ll find yourself learning the tricks of detecting flavors in a flash.

If you are a true “foodie,” that street food will only truly satisfy the mid-afternoon snack-attack that struck while exploring the city. That means, you’ll need something for every other meal of the day.

Lets start with with breakfast! Whether or not this is typically your favorite meal, you will love how the Chinese begin their days- especially in Hong Kong. Dim Sum is the traditional style of breakfast food served in China and in Hong Kong they do it right. Just one bite will make your usual “eggs and bacon” seem boring and unsatisfying. If you’re staying at a hotel, ask the front desk worker for the best spot in town or if you’re staying with a host family see if they can bring you to their favorite restaurant. In either situation, stuff your pockets full of money because you’re going to want to order everything on the menu. Shrimp and pork dumplings are great starters at this meal, but don’t stop there! Add a few steamed red bean and egg buns, fried chicken feet, and coconut squares to the mix, and you’ll be ready for whatever your day brings.

Next comes tea. Then, with a smile on your face and a satisfying taste on your lips, walk down to Mong Kok for a mid-morning Boba Tea. The extensive list of flavor options will leave you overwhelmed and indecisive for a moment, but don’t worry, the classic milk tea is the perfect compliment to the fried pastry you’re about to pick up at the vendor next door. Start with this drink and then branch out another time after the shock of choices begins to wear off. As far as the pastry goes, nothing will leave your “taster” happier and your body craving a good long walk through the city more than the cream-filled ones. They are absolutely mouth-watering, but you’ll want to run a few miles afterwards because those pastries are filled with more than just cream: calories. 


LUNCH TIME! This new desire to exercise is a good thing, though, because you’re going to need the energy to make it to the next location for lunch: Xian, home of the famous cold-noodle dishes. Here you’ll gain an appreciation for how limitless noodles can be, see that “hot” is not always better, and explore the culinary genius behind some crazy foods. In order to get the best Xian noodles in town, you’ll definitely want the help of a local, but don’t be afraid to chime-in too. Most menus contain pictures of the dishes offered, so take a peek and select a few appetizers to start off the meal (The fried flatbread and steamed dumplings are always good places to start).

With two meals down, you’re probably ready for some sightseeing, and you’re already in Xian, so spend a few hours taking in the magnificence of the Terra Cotta Warriors before embarking on that midday search for an ease to the snack-ache.

Remember, street vendors are the best way to alleviate hunger and cravings while still engaging with your daily activities or cultural events.

Mid-afternoon snack. At this point in the day your taste buds will be thanking you for your boldness and asking for even more exciting flavors. So grab a few fried scorpions while you contemplate what else to try, and then realize that “fried” and “caloric” have consumed your whole day. Now you’re wanting healthy and light, so you’re ready to experience the Supermarket. Stores in China have anything and everything, and you’ll have plenty of time to try it all. But for now, head straight for the produce section. The usual fruits and veggies from home will sit in appealing stacks before you, but you’re not there for just anything; you need to try the Hu Long Gu (dragon fruit) and Mangosteen. These scrumptious fruits are light and fresh with a slightly tangy, yet sweet meat that will keep you happy until dinner.

Dinner. For this meal you need to hitch a ride to Hainan Province, specifically the city of Sanya. The food on this island will make you want to stay forever, but come prepared with an adventurous and open-mind. You’ll also want a little extra cash in hand because the meal ahead of you will require some funding. The eastern Venke subdivision is where you want to go. Here you will be treated with great care and impeccable service as you are waited on for every moment of the meal. When you arrive, fresh fruit and vegetables will sit in beautiful arrangements on the Lazy Susan at your table, cleansing the palate in the most delightful way. Next, order more dishes than seems humanly possible to consume…and then keep ordering. Try everything from “thousand-year-old-egg” to broiled turtle or flower soup. These are things you have probably never heard of before, let alone tasted, but after trying them you’ll be wondering where they have been all your life! Such a meal would seem perfect to end on, but you’re not quite finished yet. 

Last, but certainly not least, is dessert! Head on up to Doumen, a small yet bustling city, to enjoy delicate pastries that won’t cost a fortune. On the backstreets you’ll discover tiny bakeries with fantastic food concoctions like green tea, red bean loafs and pull-apart-bread with a coconut crumble topping. Take a few to go and then scour the nearby streets for a local tea shop where you can purchase a cup of Chinese Green Tea that will pair perfectly with those pastries.

Chinese barbeques

Just by trying the locals' favorite foods, you’ve already begun to understand the cultural in a very tangible way.

Before you know it, you’ll be taking that same adventurous palate to every new place you go with no regrets along the way! Don't let any food opportunity pass you by during your internship in China. Each dish is a new chance for you experience Chinese tradition and culture.