THE BLOG

Surviving the Street Food in China

12/01/2014 22:47 GMT | Updated 14/03/2014 09:59 GMT

Wherever we go, people pepper Stephen and me with a steady stream of questions about our worldwide bicycle trip. One of the most asked is "Have you ever gotten sick from the food?"

So far, the answer is no, and we're crossing our fingers that it stays that way.

Our nourishment in China has come mainly from small canteens and street vendors in tiny villages and cities around the country.

We've eaten an astounding array of food from these places: grilled slabs of tofu sprinkled with the chef's signature spices; spicy sichuan hot pot; grilled enoki mushrooms, eggplants, and green onions; dumplings of all different shapes, colours, and sizes; baked sweet potatoes; steamed corn on the cob; a thousand stir fries; tiny handheld crepes; and noodles.

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We have had every kind of noodle you can imagine. Fat ones, thin ones, black ones, white ones, yellow ones. Hand-pulled noodles, hand-sliced noodles, stir-fried noodles, boiled noodles in soup... we may not have survived this trip if it wasn't for noodles.

We have been lucky, of course, to escape any food poisoning during nine months on the road. But we think it's a little more than luck. We have a few rules we follow that help us not only avoid any unpleasant digestive experiences, but get us delicious meals wherever we go.

Though I know it's tempting fate to write this post, I'll brave the repercussions to share our top tips to surviving, and thriving, on the street food in China.

Follow the Crowds

To our eyes, one food cart or hole-in-the-wall is almost indistinguishable from another. They're all a little (or a lot) dirty, a little chaotic, and the ones with walls could all use a fresh coat of paint.

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So, instead of looking for an appealing interior or a cute sign as we might in the West, we just follow the crowds.

If there's a place where all the tables are full and there's no room for us to sit, that's the one we choose. It sounds counter-intuitive, but we've never had to wait more than five minutes for a spot and we know that if the locals love it, chances are we'll love it too.

In China, mealtimes are short and fairly regulated, so make sure you eat at the right time. If you're too early or too late, there won't be any crowds to follow.

It's Not Rude to Point

Small restaurants and street vendors outside of Beijing and Shanghai almost never have English on their menus. There are usually no picture menus available either.

When you finally get a table in that crowded restaurant, walk around and inspect other diners' food. This may seem rude, but people seem to love it, pointing to the best dishes on their tables and encouraging us to order what they have.

Another fun way to order, if you don't mind being a little adventurous, is to carry a flashcard that says, in Mandarin, "Please choose three dishes for us". You'll probably get the best the restaurant has to offer. If you're on a budget though, beware. You may be served the restaurant's most expensive dish!

We Love the Ladies

It might be unfair to the men, but we almost always go to places where women are in charge. Look for a female behind the main counter and women in the kitchen. Women tend to be a little more fastidious when it comes to food safety, and a little pickier when it comes to food quality.

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We've found, also, that a woman is less likely to try any kind of rip-off scheme and is more likely to take you under her wing, making sure you get fed, and fed well.

Of course there are plenty of exceptions, so don't be turned off from the otherwise perfect place just because you're greeted by a man.

Eat Early, Eat Often

One day we arrived in the town of Hong Hu Shi around 2pm, after a 60 km morning. We had trouble finding the main food street, and doubled back several times looking for a cluster of restaurants or food carts. We failed to find any, but were so hungry, we decided to just go into the first decent-looking place we saw.

It was empty, which is usually a warning sign, but since it was outside of mealtime, we had no way of knowing whether it had been busy earlier. The women behind the counter were slightly surly, and did not offer us any greeting or help. Another warning sign.

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But we were so hungry that we ordered anyway, making sure the women working understood that we did not want any meat. Not only was our food not tasty, but it was filled with chunks of different kinds of meat. Stephen complained, but they still insisted on charging us a small fortune for lunch.

Hunger is a poor companion when you're trying to make a decision. Bad decisions brought on by hunger pangs almost always lead to bad meals, and could even lead to food poisoning.

Veg Out

Other travellers we meet almost always have a few tales of woe when it comes to food. Their tales almost always involve some suspicious meat.

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We don't have an scientific proof, but we're pretty sure eating vegetarian has been a great help in avoiding food poisoning. If you have any doubts whatsoever about the place where you're about to sit down to a meal, don't eat the meat. Meat that is not fresh is much more likely to cause big trouble than an eggplant that's been sitting around a little too long.

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Plus, China is famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, for serving lots of animals that squeamish meat-eaters might not want on their plates. If you think Eyore is cute but don't want him stir-fried, or would prefer to pat little Fido than chow down on him, you might want to consider going meatless for your China trip.

You can follow our daily adventures in China at My Five Acres, where you'll find many more tips about getting the best from your holiday in China.

All photos copyright Jane Mountain, 2013