A Chinese Food Diary: Lessons in Culture…and Dumplings

Written by Fina Short, (Tufts University) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Fall 2018

I almost spit out my first breakfast bun. The morning of my first day in Kunming, my roommate took me to the best 包子 (bāozi) place on our street before class, ordering us two steaming bowls of red bean and vegetable buns for what amounted to $2 USD. I was in the process of lifting a vegetable bun towards my mouth when my roommate stopped me.

“Dip it in this,” she said, nudging over a small bowl of sauce.

“Ok.” A light touch of spice, I told myself, swirling the bun around only to drop it all into the sauce. My roommate watched with concern.

“Whatever,” I said, taking a large bite of the sauce-covered bun. “I like spicy food.” She held back a smile as I started to chew, dropped my chopsticks and frantically reached for water. Lesson one: any prior experiences I’d had with “spicy food” did not come close to preparing me for Kunming.

A dinner at Heavenly Mana 吗哪, one of my favorite restaurants.

This first 包子 meal was only a glimpse of what was to come. My first months of Chinese food were exercises in trusting the unknown, every meal a collection of plates I’d never seen before which threatened to overload my senses. Even simple things like ordering felt unnatural and I often found myself sitting in restaurants expectantly waiting to order, my menu closed after minutes of waiting, yet still ignored by every waiter in the restaurant.

“Do they not see us?” I asked my roommate a few days in.

“Oh, you have to yell,” she said.

“Yell?”

“Yep.” She raised her hand and yelled – “FÚWÙYÚAN!” (服务员/ Waiter!) Our waiter immediately came to take our orders. Lesson two came slower, as I felt slightly uncomfortable flagging down waiters as if they were a taxi. Nevertheless, I eventually learned in Kunming, there’s nothing wrong with asking for what you want. (Or yelling for it.)

Our roommates haggling at a local outdoor market.

For our Autumn break, a group of us traveled to Shangri-La (香格里拉), a small town in the mountains near China’s border with Tibet. Here I encountered a new and unforeseen food experience: yaks. Available as dried meat, in hamburgers, and also spotted milling around fields near our hostel, the animals seemed to be an integral part of the Shangri-La culinary experience. On our last night, we sat cross legged on the floor of a carpeted Tibetan restaurant and ordered fried dough balls filled with yak cheese. They looked like mozzarella balls. They absolutely did not taste like mozzarella balls. Lesson three: sometimes trying something once (and never eating it again) provides all the cultural experience you’re looking for.

Feeling triumphant with a pile of my own vegetable dumplings.

This weekend, I found myself in a newly unfamiliar situation – for the first time in China, I was making my own food. Our roommates had organized a dumpling-making competition, so we’d spent the day visiting a local market to buy ingredients, making our own fillings, and finally learning how to fold the perfect dumpling bun. After an afternoon of chopping vegetables and mixing ingredients with our teams, night had fallen. It was time for the Dumpling-Off.

The air was thick with tension. In a coffeehouse outside of our dorm building, four students sat around a table surrounded by our roommates, teachers, and classmates watching their every move. The stakes were whoever could fold the most, and prettiest, dumplings in two minutes would escape washing dishes. Our team screamed its way to victory, earning time to relax – and to continue stuffing ourselves with vegetable and meat buns. Lesson four: despite the lopsided and irregular nature of every dumpling I folded myself, I’d come a long way from my first, painful spicy dumpling experience. This time, I even managed not to drop a single one into the sauce.