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The proper care and feeding of a teacher

One of the questions I get most often is something like “what’s the food situation?” “Is it hard not knowing Chinese and getting food?” “Do you have to eat anything crazy?”

Almost every Owen campus is located in some center of commerce with many food options available, but I really lucked out. A block from the Jeifangbei is the famous Ba yi food street. Spanning three blocks, it’s a pedestrian campus of wall-to-wall food. Street BBQ, Jerky stores, noodle shops, and various tea, ice cream, and snack places. That’s just on the ground level. For a few floors up, there are countless restaurants with exotic foods from across China and southeast Asia.

Most of the street level places have their menus in pictures in front, so the only Chinese you need to know is “Na Ge” (Lit. “that thing”) and a pointed finger. With prices around the 10-20 Yuan range, you can afford to experiment with new foods. The most common food in Ba Yi is Chongqing BBQ, which consists of meat skewers roasted with Chongqing spices. Most places have you self apply the spice, or ask if you want it, knowing that many foreigners don’t like spicy food.

The real food craze though is the old hot pot. For the uninitiated, hot pot is where they place a large pot full of broth, oil, and spices in the center of the table, boil that with a built in burner, and dishes appear to be cooked in the hot pot. The meats and vegetables are fished out with chopsticks and eaten, sometimes over rice. Most of the ordering happens Chinese style, otherwise known as “The ghost at the table” Dishes seems to appear without anyone knowing who ordered them. Most of the ordering is done over the phone, so nobody could know you wanted extra beef. My hot pot experiences have ranged from terrible to amazing depending on the dishes, the quality of the ingredients, and the company. It definitely underscores the Chinese cultural stress on eating as an occasion with those you care about, not just feeding the machine. You should definitely find seven of your closest friends and engage in a long hot pot night.

During the busy days at Owen, there’s a lunch hour where there are no classes scheduled. More than enough time to run out, but most of the teachers bring their lunches, or have them delivered by Meituan. If a restaurant doesn’t deliver its own food, chances are, Meituan does it for them. You can hardly look at a street in China without seeing the Yellow Kangaroo on the Meituan scooters. In America, we have similar services, but they cost a lot more. Often delivery costs 1-5 Yuan here, so nearly everyone can afford it.

Food safety is a larger issue in China than in the US. I have on only one occasion eaten something that has made me sick. The really sketchy looking places and street cooks, I tend to avoid, as does anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of food safety. I imagine that if I had any kind of food allergy, I’d learn the Chinese for that first. We have one foreign teacher in my campus who is a vegan, and she has gotten along fine for a year.

As for unusual foods, they are all over the place. Fruits that you don’t find in the west, such as durian, are common. The Chongqing BBQ has a squid option. Chicken feet are a delicacy here.

Westerners should be aware that many meats are served bone-in, which may surprise you if you aren’t expecting it. It’s considered normal and polite to spit the bones onto a plate kept just for such a purpose. When I first arrived, I planned to eat one new thing a day. If I liked it, it joined my menu of available meals. If not, I could say I had a food adventure. So far, I’ve only tried one thing that I didn’t want to eat again: The dreaded stinky tofu. In the west, if you call a food “stinky” you usually mean it’s piquant or tangy, and I was down for that. Nope, it’s truly stinky. It must be an acquired taste.

If you’re not that adventurous, western brands of fast food are quite common here. KFC, McDonalds, and Burger King all have plenty of locations. Starbucks, and the Chinese equivalent Luckin Coffee, are ubiquitous. There are usually one or two western restaurants in any neighborhood. However, western foods are at a bit of a premium, so you’re likely to pay more than if you’re willing to eat a little native.

The supermarkets here are usually well stocked with the Chinese equivalents of all the cooking staples. You can pretty much cook the same way you do at home. But if you’re desperate for the right ingredients, there’s Metro. With two locations in Chongqing, Metro is a warehouse sized store that carries a large selection of imported foods. Twinnings tea, westerns toiletries, and western cuts of meat are all sold there. They used to carry pastrami, but I wasn’t able to find it last time.

If you are what you eat, in Chongqing you can be anything.

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