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Chinese restaurants, restaurateurs and chefs produce great cuisine, but some of the best food in China can be found in the more than 2,000 university and college cafeterias and dorms across the country.
The vast majority of university students in China live on campus, housed in shoebox dorm rooms packed tight with bunk beds tiered twice or even thrice. Desks are small cubicles or simply a shared desk area, meaning students often have to work on their beds.
If students are lucky, the room will have a small closet area, but mostly I’ve seen them limited to a few shelves above their beds or desks. Bathrooms are communal for each floor, and as there can be hot-water restrictions or lavatory curfews, showering has to be coordinated and planned in rotation with classmates.
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Forget having your own kitchen in a Chinese dorm. Sometimes there will be an area with a stove and countertops on each floor or alternating floors. These tend to be useful only for simple foods such as a quick rice stir-fry or for steeping instant noodles, or the occasional celebratory get-together with a group of friends.
Busy, hungry students create demand
For day-to-day dining, all of China’s more than 6 million students in higher education eat at the dorms and in school-run cafeterias.
Class schedules are generally packed from morning to night, much like the regimented routines of American high school kids. This means Chinese students have to run, or more often bike, between classes with just a few minutes to spare. The cafeterias provide a convenient place to eat on campus.
The canteens are also appealing because they’re inexpensive, being subsidized by the university, which is in turn subsidized by the government. Meal prices vary. I’ve found Chinese breads such as the crêpe called jianbing or the steamed buns with filling called baozi for as little as 2 renminbi (about 33 cents). Pricier specialties sell for 10 or 15 renminbi (about $1.60 to $2.50). These include meat or fish stews, or malatang, a dish for which ingredients are weighed and then cooked fondue style in a smoky, spicy Sichuan-inspired broth.
Chinese campus food is also generally considered safe — and that carries a lot of weight in a country facing frequent food scandals such as clenbuterol-laced pork, cardboard-filled baozi, milk mixed with melamine and, most recently, rat meat that was passed off as lamb.
The universities, and the local government officials affiliated with them, are known to take special care to ensure the quality and cleanliness of ingredients, lest the country’s future leaders (especially in the top-tier universities in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities such as Xi’an and Chengdu) fall ill. That would not play out well in the Chinese media, which recently received additional reporting freedoms from the government to cover food safety related stories.
Forget boring American dorm food
This is not your Western dining hall experience in which food is stale, overcooked, bland, generic or unimaginative. Those campus meals probably came in the form of a nugget or a ball, and had previously been frozen; Chinese dorm food is much different. Chinese students eat meals representing the vast variety of culinary traditions available throughout the country, all cooked fresh at their behest by the armies of kitchen staff catering to the various cuisines.
At Beijing’s Tsinghua University, considered China’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology and where I studied Mandarin for a year, Canteen No. 10, the largest on campus, offered regional cuisines from Canton, Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan, along with a dumpling bar, a street-food stand, a bread station and various styles of stir-fry. Upstairs, a noodle bar offered a variety of the stringed starch, served in a soup broth or cold and topped quickly with one of many sauce options. Canteen No. 7, while smaller, was known for preparing the best malatang as well as cold dishes such as sesame noodles or my favorite salad concoction, called liangcai. This canteen tended to attract throngs of diners jostling for a plastic seat along picnic-style benches.
Chinese campus food can be regional
Each university has a handful of cafeterias, some of which specialize in one regional cuisine or specialty. One of the better known in the university district is the Xinjiang canteen at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Other cafeterias offer high-end service, such as the Beijing-style restaurant at the China Agricultural University.
At Minzu University in Beijing, where students come from varying backgrounds and thus culinary habits, canteens serve some of the best Muslim, Xinjiang and Tibetan food in town. Because this university is often the site of demonstrations and tension, however, to get on campus you need to have a student ID. I was last able to visit by seeking out a card-carrying student who could bring me as her guest.
So it is easy to understand why Chinese campus food has developed a good reputation and substantial following, much in the same way that big-name chefs and famous restaurants attract hordes of devoted diners. Considering that these canteens feed students day in and day out, they, and their chefs, should be given greater credit.
Top photo: Tsinghua University undergrads jostle to order Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuanese specialties in Canteen No. 10 of the Beijing campus. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Beijing has been a hotbed of culinary activity since at least as far back as imperial days when localities would dispatch their best chefs to cook up regional delicacies for the emperor there. Creativity and diversity in food shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Beijing is city of more than 20 million people.
These days, food-related activities are increasingly focused on building awareness around sustainability, DIY culture and farm-to-fork conscientiousness. Nothing reflects this greater than the early October Beijing Design Week.
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This year, organizers added Food Loop, a sustainable food festival within Design Week, to what had previously focused exclusively on visual arts, architecture, interior design and issues related to urban planning.
Based out of 751 D-Park, which is a section of the well-known 798 arts district but with elevated walkways and stairwells winding up into old factory structures, Food Loop’s sustainable food exhibits included a demonstration of urban farming and workshops about beekeeping, desktop aquaponics and pickling.
Panel discussions and a self-harvesting vegetable market were complemented by a vegan pop-up restaurant run by Chef Laura Fanelli. Fanelli is the founder and former head chef at the Veggie Table, a vegan restaurant on the popular Wudaoying hutong within the historic neighborhood of Beijing’s second ring road.
At the Food Loop, overlooking a postmodern conjunction of old factory buildings, contemporary art galleries and sculptural installations, Fanelli served dishes including a meat-free version of the classic Beijing noodle dish zhajiangmian. Traditionally, wheat noodles are topped with a (usually pork-based) bean sauce and garnished with bean sprouts, cilantro, green onions as well as julienned carrots and cucumbers, resulting in a smoky, satisfying dish somewhat like spaghetti Bolognese. In Fanelli’s version, tofu bits and soybeans were added to the mix, and soy protein takes the place of pork in the sauce.
Floating aquaponics in China
Sick of food safety scandals and mystery meats — most recently, rat meat being passed off as lamb — Beijing is not only experiencing something of a vegetarian and vegan renaissance, it is also seeing a boom in home-based food-growing projects. A local aquaponics association has begun offering regular DIY classes on setting up desktop aquaponics systems, which was offered by Food Loop during design week.
I’ve purchased one aquaponics kit and once the weather turns too cold to grow food on my rented plot of land outside of the city, this is one way I hope to continue to feed myself, at the very least supplying my own herbs in a way that I’m confident is chemical free.
On the higher end of the spectrum was the dining, video and design installation called “Meating Amy.” A partnership between Chef Brian Reimer of Maison Boulud and design firm Jellymon, it took participants through the story of a pig raised in Yunnan, before it was slaughtered for consumption. Then a meal using parts of a pig from that same farm was served, and parts of the pig were also converted into small material items that helped to create a food cart. The goal, in part, was to reinforce the connection between what we eat and where it comes from.
Sustainable food trends reach Beijing
Beijing and its culinary scene continue to evolve. There is booming creativity in cooking here and the local community is focused on exploring alternatives and advances beyond the current food status quo. The same trends that we see in New York City, Paris or Singapore are also emerging here, with unique expressions that are particular to Beijing’s challenges and needs.
Top photo: An aquaponics set showing how fish and vegetables can grow together, as part of the Food Loop in Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
When dinnertime rolls around, cuisine from China’s northeast — called Dongbei — generally gets short shrift. Throughout the mainland, citizens prefer to seek out spicy Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisine, exotic ingredients such as those from Yunnan or Guizhou, or seemingly sophisticated fare from Shanghai and surrounding provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
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Yet after spending a week traveling through Heilongjiang as part of a provincial government-invited business delegation, I came across food far more nuanced and evolved than what I’d tried before. We stopped in the three largest cities, Harbin, Qiqihar and Daqing, and although the focus was certainly on business, all events involved copious eating and drinking. I’ve come to understand how the geography, climate and history of China’s most northeasterly region have resulted in a rich cuisine.
It’s hard to find good Dongbei restaurants. In Beijing, there’s the Dongbeiren chain, meaning “person from Dongbei,” which is where my Western friends like to go when they want the heavy, oily foods such as the common Dongbei dish “disanxian.” This classic home-style dish, which generally is made of stir-fried potatoes, eggplant and green pepper in a sweet soy sauce, pairs nicely with plenty of Harbin or Snow beer, two popular Dongbei brews.
Dongfang Jiaozi Wang, or “Eastern Dumpling King,” doles out reliably satisfying dumplings with a good variety of fillings, but these won’t impress any gourmand. There’s the high-end provincial representative government office canteen, which mainly works well for fancy banquets, and Xiangcun Renjia (“village home”), serving inexpensive home-style country food that is fun for late summer nights of eating and drinking with friends when quality is less important than quantity.
However, when I ask my Beijing-based friends from Harbin — the capital city of Heilongjiang, the northernmost of the three Dongbei provinces, after Liaoning and Jilin — where they go for northeastern food, they are invariably stumped for decent restaurant recommendations and usually end up inviting me over for a home-cooked meal instead.
Northeast China’s rich resources
In terms of geography, northeast China’s Heilongjiang region, which shares a long border with Russia, is resource rich, boasting abundant unpolluted supplies of water, soil, forests and minerals. The province’s agricultural system is one of the nation’s most developed in terms of modern techniques and technologies, having started investing in agriculture even before the founding of modern China in 1949, in large part thanks to Russian support.
Translated as “Black Dragon River,” the province contributes greatly to the country’s store of starches — wheat, maize and soybeans among them — from large-scale fields reminiscent of what is seen in Brazil, Canada or the U.S. in terms of degree of mechanization and mono-crop structure. As the governor himself quipped during a meeting, “in other provinces, you hear locals boast of farms with areas of just a few square kilometers; here, we talk about farms with areas of a couple thousand square kilometers!”
The climate also necessarily affects Heilongjiang’s cuisine. The province is known for blisteringly cold winters, which feature the annual Harbin Ice and Snow Festival of lit-up sculptures. The long winter months create a demand for soups such as the well-known heijizajuntang, or mixed mushroom soup cooked in a black-chicken broth. Stewed dishes are popular, my favorite being the various tofu dishes full of deep, well-steeped flavors, made from the locally harvested soybeans.
Along with my fellow Beijing travel mates, I tasted youdoujiao for the first time. These are the fatter cousins of green beans steeped in a fermented soybean broth until they are so tender they fall apart on the tongue. Qiqihar, the third-largest city in the province, is known for its hock ham grilled a la plancha.
Heilongjiang’s proximity to other countries means its cuisine has gained an international element. Russians have had a presence in Harbin for decades, as evidenced in its architecture and religious institutes such as churches and synagogues.
As a result, residents regularly enjoy breads sold along the street at the many baked-good shops and served at meals along with butter, cream, cheese, fish roe and even patés. Gherkin-style pickles can be bought at most supermarkets and often are served alongside other cold appetizers and salads before starting the rest of the meal.
Unlike many other places in China, aside from Shanghai, raw fish is quite common and no one will raise an eyebrow when it’s placed on the table. Kimchee and other pickled ingredients from South Korea are common at every meal.
As a vegetarian, I was pleasantly surprised to find plentiful liangcai or cold dishes. Every meal, no matter how simple the restaurant, entailed at least one salad, and if there were multiple salads they all offered distinct flavor profiles pairing the dressings in nuanced ways to balance the ingredients.
Simple lettuce and tomato salads were served alongside a Russian dressing. Kuju, or frisée, came coated with a sweet vinegar dressing to balance the bitter greens. Raw vegetables such as radishes, turnips, Chinese lettuce and daikon were chopped into sticks and laid out to be dipped into a smoky hoisin sauce.
Although I may have begun unearthing the richness of China’s northeastern cuisine, I’m still unable to explain why Beijing’s Dongbei restaurants are lacking. That’s a research project I’ll continue to tackle.
Top photo: A dinner in Dongbei features regional specialties. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Derek Sandhaus is the author of “300 Shots at Greatness: A race to the bottom of the bottle,” a blog detailing his adventures learning to drink baijiu, the infamous Chinese distilled grain alcohol.
Meaning “white alcohol” in Chinese, it is often feared by foreigners who have smelled its noxious fumes, tasted its burning sensation, and felt the violent drunkenness and lasting hangovers it induces, yours truly included. Sandhaus, alternately, committed himself to “drink 300 shots of baijiu or die trying.”
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While drinking toward the supposed threshold it takes to learn to appreciate this “singularly repellent spirit,” Sandhaus became somewhat of an expert on China’s most popular spirit. He has begun organizing baijiu tastings and lectures and has a book forthcoming on Chinese alcohol. When not drinking or teaching about drinking, he is a freelance writer based in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Here, my Q&A with him gives some insights into the appeal of baijiu and how we ignorant foreigners may learn to appreciate it better.
What is baijiu made of?
Baijiu is the Chinese word for all traditional spirits, so it’s a wide net, but it breaks down as follows. The vast majority of baijiu is distilled from sorghum, but rice (usually long-grain rice) baijiu is the next-most popular and is distilled primarily in the southeast. Some strong-aroma baijius are also distilled from a mixture of sorghum, rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn. Buckwheat, barley, millet and peas are sometimes used, but more often as secondary ingredients to assist with fermentation.
What originally sparked your interest in baijiu and pursuing it with such interest?
I got interested after a blow-out banquet a few years ago. I had a lot to drink and it was not a good experience. It’s the most popular spirit in the world and China produces a ton of it, and I was wondering: “What am I missing?”
I was working in publishing and [at that time] we were trying to understand popular subjects in China: art, music etc. The real challenge for me was to take a topic that a vast majority of Westerners don’t understand and try to explain it and bridge the [cultural] gap. There’s a lot of people who say they’re into Chinese culture, but they mean tea, or movies, or something else easily accessible. That was the challenge for me [with baijiu] and it pushed me outside my comfort zone, especially at the mercy of some pretty rowdy Chinese drunks.
What is the perception most foreigners have about baijiu? Why is that the case?
The knowledge gap is directly related to Westerners’ misunderstanding of baijiu. It’s not a specific type of alcohol, but a category of alcohols. … As soon as I realized that, I began to appreciate it.
Also, there’s a real lack of knowledge and writing in English that explains which of the baijius are good or not so good. So, most of the time if somebody doesn’t speak Chinese and goes into a liquor store in china, they’re shooting blind. They only know which [options] are cheap or expensive, which is not a good indicator of the liquid inside the bottle.
What role does baijiu play in Chinese culture?
Baijiu and alcohol more generally play a central role. Originally, it was important politically and religiously, as a way of showing respect to rulers and ancestors. Today, it’s related to business and holidays with families. At a Chinese dinner or banquet, by making a toast to somebody, it shows respect and welcomes guests if you’re a host; and you show you’re happy to attend or thanks to the host.
All this helps to grease the wheels of business and grow relationships. If you want to do business with somebody, drinking gets them to let their guard down a bit and to perhaps show their motivations and build trust so that later on you can do business [together] and be more honest [with each other].
Do you have a theory on why Chinese like drinking baijiu?
There are those who drink it as a social expectation, but others truly do like to drink it. There are several reasons they like to drink it: they like the taste, they like the more social aspect of it, and one can have a wild, carefree, freewheeling time at a banquet.
I can’t quantify the intoxication aspect [of drinking baijiu], because mostly when I experience it I’m not in my best state to record thoughts and feelings. That said, the baijiu drunk is a qualitatively different experience than, say, [feeling drunk on] whiskey.
Also, the way that Chinese get intoxicated is different from, let’s say, a bar in America. That’s the biggest difference: in the experience.
What is your favorite thing about the experience of drinking baijiu?
Going out with a group of people you don’t know or just met, [one can] feel guarded and [thus it's] not so easy to talk to [others]. But as the meal goes on and you have more shots, people let their hair down.
People in China are careful and cautious with strangers, they don’t warm up right away. Yet eventually there’s a great deal of warmth and humor. After you go out and drink a lot of baijiu with somebody, they’re much more willing to go out on a limb for you.
In business it’s hard to get people to help you. … But after a few drinks we’re friends for life and they’re happy to help.
What is your least favorite aspect of drinking baijiu?
It’s never really a casual drinking experience. Once the bottle is open and you’ve had a shot, you’re pretty much in for whatever happens. The “ganbei” [bottom's up] culture … it forces you to drink beyond your healthy point. … It’s OK to just stop and deal with the fallout later. Don’t drink in an unsafe way.
From a less serious perspective, a lot of times baijiu has a way of coming out gradually from your system. You burp the next day and sweat and you can still smell it — it’s quite unpleasant. It won’t be a nasty hangover, as long as you are not mixing with other alcohols, but it leaks out gradually.
For recommendations on what baijiu brands to try, check out Sandhaus’ recommendation page.
Top photo: Baijiu expert Derek Sandhaus. Credit: Mike Tsang
Chinese supermarkets are an all-encompassing sensorial experience and can be quite overwhelming unless you know how to navigate them. After seven years of exploring Chinese markets, I’ve come to appreciate the unique ways they diverge from Western groceries.
The first step into a supermarket in China is actually a prologue to the food, usually consisting of small shops offering supplementary services. However, my attention is often quickly drawn away from these salespeople by my nose, given that supermarkets in China are lined with stalls selling street snacks.
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These stalls connect customers directly with the ingredients being sold. My current favorite fast lunch consists of liangcai, or cold food. The supermarket’s liangcai vendor mixes everything on the spot to your taste, first combining cold cuts, vegetables and noodles at your command, before mixing them with sesame paste, garlic, ground peanuts, sesame oil, rice vinegar, a handful of julienned carrots and cucumbers, and a bunch of cilantro. My local Jingkelong supermarket also sells cold rice noodles (liangpi), ground pork burgers (roujiamo) and fried crepe (jianbing) to be made on the spot and then eaten at home.
This Jingkelong, like other chains, boasts an entire chilled section dedicated exclusively to tofu. There are tens of types of tofus here: deep-fried, dried and shredded, spongy, skinned and in long sheets, smoked, spiced, soft, or served as imitation meat, to begin with. As if thumbing its nose at vegetarians, the tofu is usually unceremoniously arranged alongside packaged meats. These are of the plastic-coated, dried or cured variety. Plus shoppers find myriad animal parts like chicken feet, pork ears, or tripe on their way to the other sections.
Choosing fresh seafood
The fish section, usually offset in a semi-hidden back corridor, is very much focused on freshness. Customers can usually select marine life straight from tanks. When not available, the fish are kept on ice and I’ve noticed attendants spray them with water or even swipe them with the blood of other fish so they appear to have just been killed.
Sea cucumbers are found in a dedicated tank, as well as a special freezer, which I’ve seen locked in some cases, requiring an attendant to come with the keys and open it up. In the nearby Huapu grocery, there is a counter covered in red and gold silk embroidery and special gift boxes for purchasing dried sea cucumbers.
Unfortunately, my local supermarket does not have a frozen food section as good as the one at the Lotus I used to frequent as a student at Tsinghua University. I was always able to find vegetarian options from the endless array of freezers full of dumplings and baozi, or steamed buns with various ground fillings.
That is not a complaint, however, since I recently discovered a section with floor-to-ceiling shelves of bags of rice and flour, and troughs filled with legumes of all colors and shapes including my current favorite for making sweet, warm breakfast porridge, the inimitable red and green adzuki beans.
Supermarkets in China a 3-story adventure in food shopping
About half of the first floor of this massive Jingkelong, which has three floors, is reserved for breads. There is a fresh bakery stall with at least 100 types of cakes, cookies, breads, rolls and moon cakes. An imitation-Western bread section with overly-frosted birthday cakes and overly-squishy processed breads; and then, glory that be, a section with all the steamed, baked, fried, rolled and smoked breads freshly made that you can ever dream of.
My first explorations into Chinese supermarkets involved lunging headfirst into the candy aisles, where you can pick out squishy jellies, powdery bean cakes and chewy milk candies by the half-kilo (1.1 pounds, or a jin). I then graduated to nuts, my favorites being peanuts fried with dried red peppers and Sichuan tingly pepper berries for a satisfying kick. Sauces and seasonings, oils and vinegars, condiments and toppings came next and today I’m addicted to salty fermented soybeans, which add a smoky, meaty gravitas to steamed vegetables that need an added punch. I next plan to dive into the kimchi and pickled goods section.
Increasingly, supermarkets in China feature an imports section, which never fails to surprise me in its breadth of chocolates, olive oils and alcohols. It’s clear Chinese are getting into Guinness beer, imported wine and whiskeys. I’m skeptical about their quality, so I skip these. Instead, I’m starting to pick my way through the Chinese tea, herbs and medicines section.
What I have yet to understand is why the medicine department is situated alongside the cigarette and baijiu (sorghum alcohol) aisle. From the Chinese perspective, it might be an extreme illustration of yin and yang, though in my Western eyes I’ll simply say that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Top photo: Jingkelong supermarket on Tianshuiyuan Lu in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Maison Boulud has held its ground as one of the best-regarded high-end dining destinations in Beijing since opening a couple of months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At its helm sits Brian Reimer, the executive chef and director of operations in Asia for Dinex, also known as the Daniel Boulud Restaurant Group. Having lived in Beijing for six years, after working for three years as executive sous chef at Restaurant Daniel in New York, I wanted to learn about how these experiences have impacted him.
Reimer and I moved to Beijing about the same time. I first met him when I was dining editor for Time Out Beijing, when the city was in a building craze and citizens waited with bated breath (and grumbling stomachs) to see which of the newly-arrived fancy restaurants would survive the test of time.
What brought you to Beijing originally?
The opportunity to continue my time with Chef Daniel Boulud was one of the driving factors. For us both the idea of having the chance to open a French restaurant in Beijing at the old American Legation was incredibly exciting. Through the continued cooperation we still have to this day with Chef Daniel (a Frenchman) and myself (an American), it simply made sense to take full advantage of this unique venture.
What kept you in Beijing all these years?
As you grow in this craft of cooking and hospitality, you focus more on the larger picture. Of course the cuisine and aspects of service continue to be the most important factors.
The ability to see a space such as ours filled with such history and to now add our small mark on its importance it’s priceless. Coupled with the ability to see our staff grow as individuals and as a team — it’s the most wonderful feeling to be a part of this.
What challenges has Maison Boulud faced serving foreign food to a Chinese clientele?
We have of course run into a few occasions where the guests do not fully understand some of the cuisine. But the education of the guests with the experience of traveling abroad is fantastic.
What changes have you seen amongst your clientele over the years?
Even within just these past six years the knowledge of our guests at Maison Boulud continues to coincide with the growth of the city. It is being brought to the point where the product and supplies now available here are on par with other top cities in Asia.
What trends are you noticing in fine dining in Beijing?
The attention to detail of so many of the restaurants in Beijing and their offering a wide selection of cuisines. It is the diversity that makes Beijing, well, Beijing.
What makes the kitchen culture at Maison Boulud unique, given you have a mixed foreign-local team?
When interviewing new staff we search for them to have a predispostion to serve. It’s what makes our staff stand out in the market. We want to be able to read the guest and anticipate what they will require before they have to ask for it.
Name a culinary lesson you learned working in China?
Coach Your Team. We use the acronym CYT. It means to have to continue to instill what we are trying to serve our guests and reiterate this point time and time again.
What is the best-selling dish at Maison Boulud?
Our menus here at Maison Boulud are very seasonally focused. It’s a cornerstone of everything Daniel Boulud stands for. In the spring time, we have white asparagus from France on the menu and morel mushrooms from Yunnan with hand-rolled potato gnocchi. Our chilled tomato soup comes in the summer. Squash soup is served in the autumn which turns into a celery-chestnut soup in the winter time. We have people who look forward to the harbingers of the upcoming season. Of course we always look forward to welcoming in the bounty of each changing season.
To photo: Brian Reimer. Credit: Courtesy of Mason Boulud