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July 18, 2008

Chinese Food: Flexibility is Key

I admit -- I’m a picky eater. I don’t know why I don’t like onions, but until I came to Beijing, I’d pick them out like I was performing microsurgery. Beijing helped me learn to be flexible -- and to just eat the darn onions. A couple friends traveling with me were vegetarians before they came, and they’ve learned to be much more flexible as well. When it comes to dining out in Beijing, there are a couple things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t eat salad -- I’ve mentioned the drinking water before, but eating anything raw washed in it could result in some pretty nasty stomach issues -- I’ve seen it happen to several friends so far, and salad is definitely not worth the risk.

2. Reconsider vegetarianism -- Since salads are out, it can be extremely difficult to find a variety of dishes cooked without meat -- even tofu in Beijing is served in a meat sauce, and the green beans are cooked with beef.

3. Always carry toilet paper -- I’ve found myself sick to my stomach a couple times, and most bathrooms don’t stock toilet paper. Napkins are also hard to come by so toilet paper can be used at the dinner table as well.

4. Decide what you want in advance -- If you are a picky eater, have your concierge write down your favorite dishes in Chinese for you to show your waiter, as many restaurants don’t have English or picture menus.

5. McDonalds is always an option -- I don’t eat fast food in the States, but I’ve already visited McDonalds twice and KFC once in the past week. It’s good, cheap, and familiar.

6. Try new things -- China is a great place to rediscover your taste buds, and Lazy Susans make sharing dishes easy. Order a variety and sample everything on the table. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, head to the Donghuamen Night Market and sample some scorpions or seahorses. This is also a great place to shoot some exotic eats.

7. Carry Tums and Pepto-Bismol -- If you can’t afford to be out of commission for a few days, these may be your only alternative. Be prepared to get sick once or twice, and pick up any medication you need before you leave home.

8. Order something else -- You’ll probably come across a dish you just can’t stomach. Luckily, food is cheap here, so feel free to point to a neighbor’s dish if you’re not happy with your order.

9. Eat like a local -- Hot pot (like fondue) and Peking duck are favorites in Beijing -- available at hundreds of restaurants in the city. Try the Peking duck at Quan Ju De, it’s out of this world.

10. Don’t be turned off by low prices -- Some of the best meals I’ve had here have cost less than 20 CNY (about $3). Just because a restaurant’s prices are low doesn’t mean the quality is as well.

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