The real irony of our move to China is that I have never been a fan of Chinese food, or Asian food of any kind generally. I was won over to Mongolian barbeque when I received a gift certificate to Louisville's best establishment of that sort (2 Han's Mongolian Grill, don't miss it!) from a parent at conference time. I have no argument with the basic ingredients of Asian cooking (except the fondness for shellfish and other rubbery things), but the sauces and spices are not my cup of tea. I did try several Chinese places in Flagstaff and found dishes I liked, but of course everyone warned me that "real" Chinese food would be completely different, and would spoil me for American Chinese food.
Now that we are here, we find ourselves having the same conversation as we leave school: so what shall we do for dinner? This is a conversation we brought with us from home, and it's never an easy answer. Despite having a wok, countertop oven, pot with lid, microwave, and frying pan, we have still not figured out the rhythm of cooking at home, nor have we asked our dear ayi to start cooking for us, as some of our colleagues do. I wish we could ask our upstairs neighbor what she does, because she cooks every night and it smells fantastic. We have met her when she dropped something down onto our balcony, but our relative language barriers prevented much chit-chat. In the first few weeks, we ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly, and that is still a common fallback position, but we enjoy trying our local restaurants as well. The menu prices are so cheap that we can eat out every night if we want, and we order in about once a week (more expensive, but also more variety).
One difficulty we have is in finding something to drink. Every place serves hot tea as soon as you sit, but it tastes to me like the leaves were burned before being brewed, although Joe assures me that it's very good. I drink a lot of Coke unless I can get bottled water, and Joe tries to order diet Coke but often ends up with the straight stuff as well. Once he ended up with some kind of canned flavored tea that tasted like cough syrup, so he just gave up and ordered Coke.
We have two favorites, each about a block from our house: the Japanese place, where the beef is as tender as you could ever imagine; and the Savory Eatery, where there is no English, not even on the menu, and we operate under the "point and pray" method of ordering. We have also tried a Taiwanese noodle house, a Vietnamese place, a German place (complete with Chinese waitresses in dirndl skirts), and even a lady who sells dumplings out of a doorway on a street near the subway. The last one scared me when we did it, because I had heard stories about sickness from bad street food, but her dumplings smelled and tasted delicious, and we had no ill effects.
One thing that makes us laugh is that almost every time we sit at a table, someone in the restaurant finds some Western music for us. Sometimes it's a pop hit parade including "Barbie Girl" and Michael Jackson, but probably the best was when the Japanese place played a collection of covers of Beatles and Paul McCartney tunes, including Sir Paul's hit "Live and Let Die" done in reggae. I nearly spit out my tender beef! I'm glad to say that we haven't experienced any health issues due to the food, and we hope to keep it that way, although we won't pass up good dumplings when we smell them!