Last week, people all over China came together with their families to celebrate the annual Mid-Autumn festival. This is a festival celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar year and is often associated with a type of pastry known as a “moon cake”. Moon cakes, or 月饼, are extremely popular across China; they are given to relatives, friends, and colleagues during this festival and are seen as a luxurious gift. However, if you are unfamiliar with Chinese culture and traditions, this may be the first time you have heard of the delicacy. The cake is surrounded with deep history and folklore and is available with several different fillings cased in intricately designed pastry. Here is an introduction to the roots and relation of the dessert to mid-autumn festival, the most popular types of mooncake, and the modern development of mooncakes around the world.
History of Mooncakes
Mooncakes are an extremely traditional delicacy that have existed throughout many Chinese dynasties. One of the most commonly told stories about the history of mooncakes is the role they played in the Ming uprising against the Mongol rule during the Yuan dynasty. Ming revolutionaries used the intricate design of these cakes to their advantage. Cakes were decorated with a design which contained a secret message when pieced together indicating an uprising on the 15th day of the 8th month. Once these instructions were understood the cake could be eaten to destroy any evidence of the plan. Ever since this uprising, the mooncake has been heavily associated with the mid-autumn festival which occurs on the same day as this uprising.
Unlike soft, light sponge cakes often eaten as dessert in the West, these mooncakes are extremely dense and heavy. For this reason, the circular cakes are sliced up and eaten in small pieces, often accompanied by Chinese tea. The most traditional mooncakes are encased in a shiny, thick pastry (imagine chewy shortcrust pastry with a shiny finish), and the three most popular fillings are red bean, lotus seed paste, and mixed nuts.
Red bean paste and lotus seed paste are both very popular fillings of mooncakes. Red bean is a common ingredient in many Asian desserts. Be careful not to confuse this bean paste with chocolate; the similar colour of the two ingredients has been known to confuse tourists around China. Lotus seed paste is thought to be one of the most luxurious fillings for mooncakes and is popular in southern China, especially in Cantonese regions. Both pastes create a smooth, sweet, dense filling. As well as plain red bean and lotus seed paste, some cakes also contain a salted egg yolk in the centre. Cakes which contain egg yolk are thought to be the most lavish mooncakes around and are highly favoured in China.
Although this pastry is known as a “cake”, not all fillings are sweet. Another popular filling is mixed nuts, which sometimes also contains roasted pork. This type of filling is known as “5 kernel” mooncake because it contains a mix of five different nuts inside. This filling differs to the smooth texture and sweet taste of the red bean and lotus seed pastes.
Although mooncakes have been eaten in China for centuries, new flavours are constantly being created around the world today. From seafood to cream cheese, innovative new fillings are constantly being tested not just in China but in many other countries also. Some new fillings which have caught on include ice cream, jellied fruit, and green tea. A new pastry made from glutinous rice has also been used to make “snow skin” mooncakes which are sweet and chewy. The development of new flavours is popular in foreign countries where the traditional fillings are not commonly eaten, so mooncakes can be adapted to better suit the preferred flavours of that country.
Now that you have a basic knowledge of the most traditional and popular mooncakes found in China, go out and try some for yourself to properly understand the flavour and texture of this rich and historical cake.
Homestay in China – Expectations and Preparations
What do Chinese host families normally expect from their house guests? Should I bring a gift for my host family? Are there any cultural norms I need to be aware of? You probably have a million questions about your homestay. Fear not! It’s all part of the discovery process and the magic of living with a host family.
When confronted by a completely different culture, many things you never expected can take you by surprise. My first tip for you before you head to China is to find out all you can about the concept of face. This will be invaluable knowledge for getting by and developing relationships in China.
Secondly, here are some friendly tips about doing a homestay in China and observations to help you prepare for host family life!
Mountains of Food
One of the lovely things about the Chinese culture is their respect, love and attention that can be conveyed by a single meal. The polite thing to do to a guest in China is to pile their plate high with food from the centre of the table. Whether you ask for it, or not.
Homestays are an incredible way to taste a wide variety of local food. You might find your hosts constantly offer you fruit, snacks like sunflower seeds or even occasionally special treats like chocolate. This can be a bit overwhelming at times!
My personal guidelines for when to accept or decline food in your homestay:
- Be open minded to trying things – say yes as much as you can, widen your horizons, don’t chicken out! (Try a few chicken feet)
- Don’t be afraid to say no when it gets to be too much – know your own limits, don’t panic if people keep offering even after you’ve said no
- Take special treats in moderation – avoid losing face by scoffing down all the families most expensive treats (though they might keep offering)
- Beware of Baijiu Alcohol – celebrations and big family dinners can often get a bit wild when local shots are involved. Handle with care!
Chinese families tend to be very conscious of the amount of water used in the home. So, looong indulgent baths or lengthy daily showers might not go down too well. Your family might even be slightly surprised at how often you shower. Feel free to bring this up in conversation with them. The more you discuss differences in living habits, the easier it is to avoid misunderstandings.
In any case, water is the most valuable commodity in the world!
In China, chicken stew means the whole chicken; the head, the beak, the feet et al. Waste not want not!
This idea crops up again and again in food and in other areas of life too. With bath towels and other household items too. (Although perhaps not when it comes to plastic packaging). Be aware of this and try to observe how the family use things.
Discuss these observations with the family! You’re both there to discover these differences. It’s always interesting to find out which of your daily habits are due to the culture of your country, your family or just your personal preference. It’s a weird and wonderful world.
Modern day lifestyle in a Chinese city is busy busy busy. Kids are the absolute epicentre of the family. Everything revolves around their schedule. Dropping the kids of at school, picking the kids up and shuffling them off to badminton class, extra English lessons, lego club, chess or gymnastics championships and finally exam prep, plus more exam prep.
Adjusting your schedule to the family schedule can be a challenge sometimes. The more you communicate with the family about your timetable, your internship hours etc. the more enjoyable the experience will be. You’ll communicate with your host family through WeChat which even has a translate function if conversations get complex.
Top tips for living in harmony:
- Try to set up regular time to spend with the family in the evenings – especially if there are kids!
- Ask advice on the best places to shop, hike, climb or play football – the family with be eager to show of their city and can show you around
- Be patient and flexible -remember how much the family are adapting to make you part of their daily routines
Clubbing and your usual night-life madness might not be so compatible with your new family life here in China. Have a think about what you are committing to and decide what is most important to you. Host families can be extremely caring in China and they do tend to get anxious if their house guests stay out late at night.
Remember, it’s a short period of your life and you might only have this one opportunity to do something so unusual!
Gifts from your hometown go down a treat! Any local to your community at home. Chocolates, biscuits, stickers, tea towels, scarves, pictures etc. Just a little something to show your appreciation.
In China, people always give and receive gifts. It is also quite common for gifts to be put aside to opened later in private. So don’t be surprised if the gift disappears unopened.
Added tip – try to give your gift with both hands!
You have to discover these for yourself. That is part of the homestay journey! However, I would particularly recommend checking out Mamahuhu’s YouTube channel. They’ll give you a fun insight on which to reflect, then build your own perceptions.
Enjoy your homestay! It will be an experience like none other.
Happy 68th National Day!
The Chinese National Day on 1st October is seen as the anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. On this date in 1949, the Central People’s Government formed with the help of Mao Zedong, celebrated with a ceremony on the Tian’anmen Square (天安门广场). However, the exact founding date of the PRC was the 21st September 1949.
The National Day marks the first day of one of the two Chinese Golden Week holidays. The Golden Week (黄金周) gives Chinese people the chance to travel or visit their family because of the seven continuous days of holiday. Officially three days of paid holiday is provided, but these three days are extended by bridge holidays. Working on surrounding weekends compensate these bridge holidays. The intention of the government doing this re-arrangement is not only for the Chinese people. Primarily it should stimulate the Chinese tourism industry which is steadily growing.
Famous tourist attractions, popular travel destinations, airports, trains and hotels crowd with Chinese people. Everyone wants to use their limited free time for travelling and visiting the country in which they are living. So, for travel during the Golden Weeks, less popular destinations are recommended or be prepared for long waiting times for popular tourist areas.
Traditions and activities
There are several traditions and activities when celebrating the National Day. Throughout the whole country they are relatively similar, even in Hong Kong and Macau. There are many different shows like dance, song and light shows. There are flag raising ceremonies by uniformed troops like in Beijing on the Tian’anmen Square, military reviews and parades. In the evenings there are fireworks everywhere. Red lanterns, banner scrolls, Chinese flags and portraits of Mao Zedong, founding father of the PRC, decorate all public places ostentatiously.
To demonstrate the Chinese public worship of the founding father of the PRC the portrait of Mao Zedong at Tian’anmen Gate Tower in Beijing has changed every year since 1949.
The Chinese government sponsors all these activities, shows and decoration because they express the patriotic feelings of the Chinese people towards their fatherland.
During the Golden Week, government offices and factories often close for several days. However, shops, malls and sights are open. They profit the most from the Golden Weeks because people have time to spend their money.
So, enjoy the new impressions of another kind of busy China and don’t spend too much money! Have a nice free week!
How to Read a Chinese Menu
As you may know, in China food is one of the most important things! Indeed, sharing a meal is a social opportunity that is loved across China. However, reading a Chinese menu can seem intimidating.
At InternChina we love food too – check out this blog in order to know more about how we help you to explore Chinese cuisine. If you have never tried Chinese food before, don’t worry, you’ll definitely experience this soon enough!
And fear not, this article is here to hopefully help you understand a Chinese menu, so you can order yourself and impress your Chinese colleagues and friends!
The Chinese language may appear to be the most difficult language in the world at first, as we are not used to the Chinese characters. But don’t be intimidated! This ancient language is following a certain logic – as soon as you understand the logic, you’ll be able to read a Chinese menu without a doubt!
To avoid giving you a long history lesson, let’s just say that originally all Chinese characters were created using pictures, and were developed into the calligraphic style that we see today through several different steps.
History of Chinese Characters
Let me show you the evolution of the Chinese character for “horse” – if you don’t want to order this kind of dish, just look for it in a Chinese menu!
Now that you can understand how the Chinese characters work, just use your imagination and it will be way easier to read a menu! Let me show you some examples of the main ingredients you’ll find in a Chinese menu.
Meat on the Menu
These are basically the most common kinds of meat you’ll find on a menu in China. While horse meat isn’t that popular, in some places donkey meat is! Therefore, for donkey meat dishes you will have the character for horse, and one other symbol that looks similar to the tall ears of the donkey! So a donkey is a horse with tall ears, easy to remember- right? Can you find two more very similar characters? When you understand that the Chinese language is logic, it seems less and less hard, right?
After most of those characters in a Chinese menu you’ll see “肉-rou” that means “meat”.
Vegetables on the Menu
Obviously, the Chinese language can’t always be explained by pictures, but you can still see the logic behind the characters.
Let’s look at “potato” as an example. “Tu” means “earth“, and “dou” means “bean“. A potato is a bean that comes from the earth – easy!
Another interesting story can be found with “tomato.” Tomatoes weren’t originally found in China, they were imported. So in the Chinese name for tomato we have: “Xi” meaning “West“, “Hong” meaning “Red“, and “Shi” meaning “Persimmons“. Can you guess why? Because a tomato looks like a “red-persimmon imported from the West”! Clever, right?
“Bai” means “white” and “Cai” means vegetable, so the white vegetable is also know as the delicious Chinese cabbage! The easiest way to remember a Chinese character is to make a story from the shape of the character, or ask your Chinese friends to explain the character to you!
These are the main characters you’ll see in the dishes, so you’ll see if you are going to eat soup or some noodles.
Just one thing to remember about rice, restaurants commonly use “米饭” or just “饭” – character FAN– for rice. And a funny tip about “egg”- “dan” means egg, but in Chinese you’ll always call it a “Chicken egg”.
For the soup “tang” can you see the three dots on the left hand-side ? Looks like drops of water, right? Exactly! That’s the way of describing an object or dish with water inside, so now you all know that there is water in the soup now!
Our Favourite Dishes
Now that we’ve showed you the main characters you’ll see in a Chinese menu, let’s give you some more tips and the names of our favourite dishes!
These might take some more imagination to remember, as it won’t be as easy as the characters for various animals which were very close to the actual picture of the animal. However, these cards will be super useful while reading a Chinese menu. And, you can also show them in the restaurants if you can’t find them on the Chinese menu!
Don’t hesitate to choose those dishes if you see them on a Chinese menu, they’re delicious!
You can find the two first ones in every Halal restaurant, also known in Chinese as “Lanzhou Lamian, “and you can recognise these restaurants by the characters on the outside door: ‘兰州拉面‘. And the other dishes are found in any typical Chinese restaurant!
- XiHongshi Chao Jidan: Egg and tomato with rice.
- Jidan Chao Dao Xiao Mian: Fried egg, vegetables and cut noodles (this might be little spicy in some places!)
- Feng Wei Qie Zi : Fried aubergines.
- Tang Cu li Ji: Sweet and sour pork.
- Gan bian Da tou Cai : “Big head vegetable!” This will be some delicious Chinese cabbage and spicy sauce.
- Gong Bao Ji Ding : Chicken, peanuts and veggies, with a sweet and spicy sauce.
Please Don’t Forget!
Here some tips, that may save you one day – who knows!
- If a character has 月 on the left-hand side it is likely to be some sort of guts/intestines/belly/insides, i.e. run in the opposite direction!
- Are you a vegetarian or vegan? Then always avoid meals with this character “肉“, as this is “rou“, which means “meat.”
- Allergic to peanuts? This is the character you need to avoid : “花生“, pronounced “huasheng.”
- If you can’t eat spicy food, avoid this red one! “La” “辣” means spicy.
There is different kind of spicy food that our interns in Chengdu will be pleased to try! When you see those characters : 麻辣 be ready to experience some tingling and numbing sensation.
Don’t hesitate to ask our staff members on place to help you out with the pronunciation, or if you need any help ordering your food!
Did this help to convince you that living in China isn’t that difficult? Well then, you just need to apply now!
How to play Mahjong – Sichuanese style!
When you hear the word ‘Mahjong’, there’s a good chance you might be thinking of that funny little game on your computer, where the objective is to make pairs out of a big pile of mis-matched tiles covered in Chinese characters, sticks and flowers.
Sadly, this version of Mahjong, or Májiàng (麻將) as it is written in pinyin, is pretty far-removed from the game played daily by tens of millions of Chinese, which is in fact a lot more like the card game Rummy. If you’re wanting to see how authentic Majiang is played by ordinary Chinese people, however, one of the best places to go is Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, where Majiang is not just a game, it’s a way of life. The mellow pace, relaxed atmosphere and relatively simple gameplay of Majiang perfectly epitomise the Sichuanese approach to life: “Take it easy” (Mànmanlái 慢慢来). It’s no surprise, therefore, that you need only go to one of Chengdu’s famous teahouses to see an entire garden full of people of all ages sat playing Majiang, sipping on cups of green tea and chatting away life’s many troubles.
So what are the rules of Majiang, and what does a Majiang set even look like for that matter?
A set is made up of three suits:
…and there is four of every tile, like this:
…which means that you have a total of 108 tiles, three suits of tiles numbered one to nine, and four of every tile. Hopefully you’re not getting too confused by all these numbers and symbols, but just in case, here’s a quick example:
Before you even touch the Majiang tiles, be sure first of all to find 3 good friends (plus yourself) and a chilled spot somewhere. Comfy chairs are also a good addition. This isn’t a game to play in the deadly silence of a library, but a subway station isn’t ideal either.
To begin playing, you must first shuffle the tiles face down on the table and each player then builds a wall 13 tiles long by two tiles high. Two players will have 14 tiles in their wall, but that’s normal. It should look something like this:
To get started, each player rolls a pair of dice, and the person with the highest roll becomes the ‘dealer’, and gets to start play. The dealer then rolls the dice again to decide from where to start ‘breaking the wall’ – i.e. dealing the tiles to each player. The total of this second roll of the dice determines which wall, as counted anti-clockwise starting with themselves. So, a total of 3 would be the wall opposite (1 – yourself, 2 – player to the right, 3 – player opposite). The lowest number of these two dice then tells you precisely where to start breaking the wall, counting in from the right. This can all sound a bit tricky, but once you’ve played a few times it will come very naturally.
The dealer then starts by taking a stack of four tiles from the starting wall, and then each player does the same in an anti-clockwise direction until everyone has 12 tiles in their hand. Then, the dealer takes two more tiles to make his hand total 14 tiles, and each other player takes one more tile, so that each of their hands total 13 tiles. The dealer then discards one tile and everyone has 13 tiles – let the game commence!
Once the dealer has discarded his first tile, the game continues in an anti-clockwise direction. Each turn consists of picking up a tile from the remaining wall, adding it to your hand and discarding another tile (or, the discarded tile can be the one just taken).
The purpose of the game is to keep a poker face throughout, and end up with a hand that contains four sets of three tiles and a pair. The sets of three can be three of a kind (3-3-3) or a run (3-4-5). It could look something like this:
Now, here’s where things get interesting…
There are two special moves you can make:
Peng 碰 (pèng) – If you have two-of-a-kind in your hand, and another player at ANY point in the game discards a matching tile that would enable you to complete your set of three, proudly shout “PENG!” and before anyone has a chance to react, reach over and add the tile to your hand. You must then turn over the completed set for everyone to see and leave it visible for the rest of the game. To finish your turn, you should discard one more tile (to bring you back down to 13) and continue play from the player to your right.
The second special move, Gang 杠 (gàng) is perhaps even more fiendish! If you have a three-of-a-kind in your hand, and another player at ANY point in the game discards a tile that would enable you to make it in to a complete set of four, take a deep breath and scream an almighty “GANG!” Grab the tile, add it to your hand and proudly turn over your four-of-a-kind for everyone to see. Take a tile from the wall and discard another.
It is important to note, it doesn’t matter where the vital fourth tile comes from, whether it’s a discarded tile or taken from the wall, making a set of four is always a gang and you must always turn it over and reveal it straight away. Even if the three-of-a-kind is already face-up on the table, you can convert it into a four-of-a-kind with the gang move.
When you pick up the final tile completing a winning hand, shout “HU LE!” (胡了hú le) and add the tile to your hand (or turn it over to complete a peng or gang). It’s not necessary to show all of your tiles at this point, as some of the sets may have been completed by taking tiles from the wall, and gameplay doesn’t even stop here! The rest of the players must “battle to the bloody end” (血战到底 xuè zhàn dào dǐ) until there is only one player left.
About now, some of you may be wondering, don’t people usually bet money on Majiang games? The answer is absolutely yes, but since almost every city, district and even household has its own system for scoring and gambling money, we’ll save that for another blog post.
Now you’re fully equipped and ready to go out into the streets of Sichuan and challenge your friends to a fiendishly fun game of Majiang – but be careful, if you find yourself locked in a battle to the death with some well-seasoned local players, you just might leave with a suspiciously light wallet…
To find out more about our opportunities to be an intern in Chengdu, click here.
HAISHEN – A PORTRAIT OF QINGDAO’S MOST TREASURED SEA CREATURE
So one thing that has caught my attention in the two weeks I have been living in the beautiful city of Qingdao are the large numbers of shops selling 海参 haishen – or sea cucumbers. Their English name is somewhat misleading, since sea cucumbers are certainly not cucumbers, let alone plants! In fact, they are animals that live in the Deep Seas and spend most of their day making their way slowly across the sea floor. So why are they so sought after here, and why would anyone pay up to 400RMB (around 60 Euros) for one single haishen?
Filled with curiosity, I recently ventured into one of the many shops specialised in selling haishen and was fortunate enough to meet Ms Qin, a sea cucumber expert who works at a store called “Di Yi Ming” (帝一铭). She was so kind as to enlighten me on several fascinating facts regarding haishen and also gave me the permission to take photos of the store and its products.
“Di Yi Ming” – which cleverly sounds like the expression for “number one” in Chinese, but is written with different characters – is located on Ningxia Lu in the southern part of Qingdao. Beautifully furnished with carved wooden shelves and a large Chinese style tea table in the middle of the room, it altogether feels more like a jewellery boutique than a shop selling sea cucumbers. But that is because here in Qingdao, sea cucumbers are regarded as treasures, with prices starting from 1800RMB (around 250 Euros) per jin (1 Chinese jin equals 500g) for the least expensive, and up to 11’800RMB (around 1600 Euros) for 1 jin of the most costly haishen.
Put differently, for the crème-de-la-crème, the price for one single haishen can go up to 400RMB (around 60 Euros). However, it is possible to get ones starting from a mere 10RMB per haishen. The price depends on which type of species the haishen in question is, and whether it was caught in the ocean or came from a farm.
The high wooden shelves are all filled with large glass jars – which in turn are all filled to the brim with dried haishen, waiting to be sold. Their appearance is somewhat underwhelming, at first sight it may be rather hard to understand why these small, dry, dark little knobbly sausages are in such high demand around here. However, after learning about the wide range of benefits that eating haishen can bring, I realized that they are not to be scoffed at. In fact, the medical benefits of haishen are mentioned in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国药典), an official compendium of drugs that covers Traditional Chinese and western medicines, as well as in the Chinese Journal of Marine Drugs (中国海洋药物).
Here is just a small selection of the health benefits that eating haishen can provide:
- Enhances immunity, prevent colds, helps staying in good shape and not become tired easily
- Helps heal wounds quickly
- Helps with all kinds of stomach problems
- Helps lower high blood pressure
- Is good for the skin, as it helps keep it smooth and prevents wrinkles
- Enables better sleep
- Relieves back problems
- Keeps brain cells active and enhances faculty of memory
Ms Qin told me that she recommends her customers to eat one haishen per day and that on average, customers buy 1-2 jin (500g-1kg) of haishen per purchase. I asked her whether the store sells live sea cucumbers, but she told me that all haishen sold here are dried, because this way, their nutrition value is fully preserved, and they can be kept for a much longer time than if they were not dried. In fact, according to Ms Qin, in this dried state, the haishen can be kept for 3-5 years! A dry sea cucumber is approximately the size of your thumb, but before it is caught, it is actually rather large, about the size of your hand. When buying dried sea cucumbers, one needs to first let them soak in water for about 3-5 days before preparing them for eating.
Finally, I asked Ms Qin for her favourite haishen-recipes.
- Sea cucumber porridge (海参粥)
Sea cucumber porridge is a very nutritious breakfast. First, boil the rice until it is cooked, then add chopped sea cucumber into the porridge. According to your personal taste add a small amount of salt and sugar, also add a little ginger, then boil for 5 minutes. This way, the nutrition of the sea cucumber is retained, and the porridge is easy to digest.
- Honey sea cucumber (蜂蜜海参)
Sea cucumber dipped in honey is a very popular recipe because it is very easy, and best of all, the sea cucumbers nutritional value is very well preserved. Simply steam the sea cucumber and dip it into honey.
So, in case you want to experience the taste and health benefits of haishen for yourself, you now know how!
PS. Check out “Di Yi Ming” online: www.chinadiyiming.com (totally worth it!)
Chinese Breakfast vs. Western Breakfast
One of the most notable differences between Chinese and Western cuisine is breakfast. When most westerners think of breakfast, images of toast, cereal, pastries, eggs, bacon, orange juice and coffee come to mind. In China, breakfast is a whole different ball game. A major difference in Chinese cuisine is the lack of dairy. Milk, cheese, butter and yogurt are not staples in Chinese cuisine and often aren’t readily available in smaller markets and grocery stores. So many Western breakfast staples aren’t eaten often here. Chinese breakfast is usually savory and people don’t shy away from stronger flavors such as preserved eggs, pickles, and spicy oil to eat first thing in the morning. Many people go out for breakfast and grab a quick bite to eat on the way to work or school. Street vendors will open up early to sell their goods to passing commuters – always at a very cheap price!
Below I’ve listed some of the most common breakfast foods in our cities. This, however, is only a sampling of what options are out there – especially for the more adventurous eaters. So get your taste buds ready, and before you know it you will be a Chinese breakfast convert!
粥 Zhōu (Congee)
Zhōu (congee) is a popular breakfast dish, which can be eaten all over China, but especially in southern China. Usually made of rice, although there are variations made with cornmeal, millet, sorghum, etc., zhōu is similar to oatmeal or porridge. Zhōu, however, is not sweetened and instead of adding sugar or fruit as a topping, popular toppings include zhàcài (pickled vegetables), salted eggs, soy sauce, and bamboo shoots to name a few. Yóutiáo, (long, deep fried dough) is often served as an accompaniment to zhōu.
馒头 Mántou (Steamed Buns)
Another very popular breakfast food in China is mántou. The classic mántou is white and made from wheat flour, though they come in various shapes and forms. Fresh from the steamer, mántou are soft and pillowy, and make for a great breakfast or midday snack. In northern China, often times mántou will be served with a meal instead of rice, and grilled mántou are one of my favorite street barbecue items.
包子、饺子 Bāozi, Jiǎozi (Steamed Bao, Dumplings)
Dumplings are also a classic Chinese breakfast. Bāozi are large steamed dumplings you can eat straight out of your hand. They are usually filled with minced meat or vegetables, though some have sausage, egg and other goodies inside. Jiǎozi are smaller steamed or boiled dumplings you eat with chopsticks and dip into a vinegar and soy sauce mixture – and of course as much spice as you want.
煎饼 Jiānbǐng (Fried Pancake Wrap)
Jiān bǐng is a common breakfast food that is popular all over China. Similar to a French crepe, jiān bǐng are always made to order, and usually filled with egg, hoisin sauce, chili paste, scallions and báocuì (fried, crispy cracker).
肠粉 Chángfěn (Rice Noodle Roll)
Chángfěn is found in southern China – more specifically in the Guangdong province, and is definitely a staff favorite here in InternChina. For those lucky enough to be in Zhuhai, every morning you will walk past huge trays of steaming metal contraptions, with cooks churning out chángfěn faster than you can blink. Chángfěn is made from rice milk that is mixed with minced pork and egg, then steamed on large metal sheets. The resulting steamed rice noodle is then scraped onto a plate and covered in sweet soy sauce. Chángfěn may not sound appealing, and it definitely doesn’t win a beauty award, but is by far one of the best breakfast foods to be found in China! So if you’re coming to Zhuhai, make sure to give it a try.
And of course, no breakfast is complete without a cup of dòujiāng (豆浆), fresh warm soy milk, to go along with it!
Using Chopsticks – why I’m a convert!
An estimated 33% of the world’s population (give or take) use chopsticks on a daily basis. For the hungry first time user, guzzling down your meal with two small wooden sticks can be a real challenge. Chopsticks might seem tricky to master and somewhat unnecessary for those of us that grew up with a plastic knife and fork in hand, so why have they come to dominate the culinary habits of much of Asia?
Chopsticks are over 5000 years old, long sticks of bamboo were first used to retrieve morsels of food from cooking pots on the fire. Later on, evidence of chopsticks used as table utensils emerged as far back as 500-400 AD. It’s said the spread of popular chopstick use across China was down to population boom and fuel shortages; food was chopped into smaller pieces in an attempt to make the meagre rations go further (thus eliminating the need for knives at the table). Whatever the reason, people in Japan and Korea soon followed the trend not far behind!
The ultimate legend of Chinese culture Confucius (or debatably perhaps his disciple Mengzi) added his own two cents on the matter too, which always helps. Apparently a firm believer that “the honourable and upright man keeps well away from both slaughterhouse and kitchen, and allows no knives on his table.” 有名望的和正直的人要远离屠场和厨房。
FUN FACT: Did you know that Confucius was a vegetarian?
I’m not ashamed to admit that after 3 years in China, I am a total convert. Using chopsticks makes me appreciate my food more. Whatsmore, the sociable side to Chinese dinning, sharing and array of mouth-watering dishes, picking out tasty tit-bits from any dish at will, never gets old.
So here goes, top facts you should know about different types of chopsticks:
THE CHINESE CHOPSTICK
Typically unfinished wood, slightly rectangular top with a cylindrical blunt end. Doesn’t roll off the table so easily and more surface area means you’ve got a higher chance or transferring those tasty morsels all the way from the middle of the table right to your bowl!
FUN FACT: It’s a faux-pas to tap your chopsticks on the edge of your bowl, as this is what beggars do to attract attention.
THE JAPANESE CHOPSTICK
Traditionally lacquered wood or bamboo, with a rounded top and a pointy end that’s perfect for de-boning fish. They’re a little bit smaller than the Chinese equivalent and you often find red pairs for the ladies and black ones for the gents.
FUN FACT: Never stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice bowl, it’s reminiscent of incense sticks at a funeral.
THE KOREAN CHOPSTICK
The shortest model of the three, Korean chopsticks are usually stainless steel and flat or rectangular shaped. Potentially more hygienic but it definitely makes it harder to get a grip on your food!
FUN FACT: The king used pure silver chopsticks which would change colour if they came in contact with certain poisons. The people started using metal chopsticks to emulate him.
Anyway, hope this can inspire you to pick up a pair of chopsticks and come to China yourself. Even if you struggle to start with new chopstick inventions are coming up every day, so keep your eyes peeled for the latest ‘Chork’ on the market!
Celebrating Mid-Autumn Festival with “Laowai” Mooncakes!
Hello, everyone! My name is Meredith, and I am one of the new interns here at the InternChina office in Qingdao. This past week, I celebrated my first ever Mid-Autumn Festival! The Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Mooncake Festival, is a national holiday that takes place every year on the 15th day of the 8th month according to the Lunar Calendar. This date marks the full moon, when the moon is at its roundest and brightest. In Chinese culture, this is very significant as circular shapes symbolize reunion and wholeness.
The Mid-Autumn Festival is a time when friends and family gather together to celebrate and give thanks for the harvest. In honor of Chang E and in the spirit of togetherness/reunion, people often make and share mooncakes with friends and relatives.
Mooncakes consist of fillings, such as red bean, lotus bean, orange, duck egg yolks, and mixed nuts. These are just some of the fillings I have come across during my time here in Qingdao. There are certainly others!
After consuming many, many mooncakes in the week leading up to the festival, my colleagues and I decided to get into the holiday spirit and make some of our own “laowai” mooncakes! In addition to the traditional fillings of lotus and red bean paste, we decided to incorporate some flavors often used in sweets back home, such as strawberries, bananas, Nutella, and peanut butter.
Some mooncakes turned out better than others – mine ended up looking more like blobs than mooncakes, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts, right?! 🙂
I thought the peanut butter filling would be the clear winner in the taste test, but I was very, very wrong! Although widely debated amongst my colleagues, I believe the mooncakes filled with the traditional fillings were actually much better than the ones made with our own special ingredients.
Even though the mooncakes did not turn out quite like we thought they would, it was still great being able to spend the holiday with friends!
If you are ever in China during the Mid-Autumn Festival, I would encourage you to give mooncake making a try!
5 Cultural differences between the UK and China
Before moving to live in China for two months, I was excited to embrace many of the cultural differences I would face. I had heard about the hole-in-the-ground style squat toilets and slurping of noodles. However, it was not until I actually came here that I understood slurping is actually a sign that you are enjoying the food rather than a rude noise frowned upon in western cultures.
My experience in China
I have now been living in Zhuhai for just over 4 weeks and throughout my time have noticed a variety of differences between Chinese culture and my own back in the UK. Many Chinese traditions are beautiful to witness and I have really enjoyed gaining a better understanding of life here.
For example, the central role of elderly people in the family and raising of grandchildren is a lovely tradition that gives the adults more time to themselves. Seemingly, it keeps gramps feeling young and develops a community respect for, and connection to, the elderly. It is not uncommon to see old people taking their younger relatives to school on the bus, or playing with them outside, which always makes you smile on your way to work.
I have also learned to enjoy Chinese drinking culture. Including constant toasting throughout a meal, as well as lowering your glass to a friend to demonstrate your respect. And, as an avid tea drinker, I have loved the use of tea to show friendship and hospitality, admiring the delicacy of some tea ceremonies.
Nevertheless, a few cultural differences I have noticed are a little bit harder to get used to. And you’ll just have to learn to live with them when living in China.
Cultural Difference Number 1: The whole animal served on a plate
The first cultural difference I discovered was on a business trip on my second day of my internship. For lunch, we stopped at a restaurant by a river and my boss ordered chicken and duck along with other dishes.
To my surprise, a whole duck and chicken were placed on the table, including the heads. They had been prepared by being cut into equal sizes, regardless of whether bones were in the way.
This presents a further challenge; if you are a meat eater, be prepared to try and master the Chinese way of picking bones from your mouth as you eat. It’s something that seems so effortless to the locals! Even the tiniest piece of meat is likely to have a bone in.
Cultural difference Number 2: Wild driving
This is another I found out about early on, while taking my first taxi ride. I was shocked at how rude the taxi driver was being, swerving in and out of lanes, cutting in front of people and even driving in between lanes.
However, after living here for a month I have realised this is completely normal driving in China. In fact, because of all the unpredictable swerving, it seems drivers are more observant, with quicker reactions than most in the UK. Not to mention they get you from A to B super quick and so cheaply! Upon that realisation, and having taken many more taxi journeys, I have become increasingly trusting of the local drivers. However, I will welcome the orderly and comparatively peaceful roads with open arms when I return home.
Cultural difference Number 3: Non-existent queuing
Being British, I have had queuing drilled into me at an early age and can’t help but be overwhelmed with annoyance if someone queue jumps. In China, however, queuing seems to be more along the lines of a polite suggestion rather than a strict social norm.
Many times I have been queuing for the cash desk in a supermarket and, as it reaches my turn, someone walks in front of me and places their items on the desk. You soon learn to become more pushy and assertive, as well as perhaps a little more impatient. Although it can become a bit of fun, I still can’t quite overwrite my innate desire to respect a queue.
Cultural difference Number 4: Eat very fast
I’m sure I was once told that one of the reasons Chinese people are thin and live so long is because using chopsticks means they eat slower. What a misconception that was.
During lunch at work, my colleagues shovel down their food so quickly I sometimes wonder when they get a chance to breath. Often, after less than 10 minutes, I am left alone with the other InternChina intern whom works here, as everyone else has cleaned their plate and do not tend to wait for everyone before leaving the table.
Cultural difference Number 5: Spitting
This one is probably the worst Chinese habit I’ve put up with during my stay here, fortunately in big cities it is not too common. However once in a while, when having a peaceful walk along the streets of Zhuhai, you may be startled by a very loud snorting sound, followed by someone spitting. Although it truly is a disgusting sound, it is not considered rude here and so locals don’t even bat an eyelid. So, unfortunately you will have to learn to live with it and, unlike them, swallow your distaste.
Throughout my time in Zhuhai, I have attempted to fully immerse myself in the Chinese culture and have really enjoyed my time here because of it. Even these cultural differences that may be a little out of my comfort zone made my experience more enriched and interesting and, aside from maybe number 5, I wouldn’t want them to change.
Want to learn more about our destinations? Check the five majors cultural differences between the UK and Vietnam!