One thing I was looking most forward to for my study abroad in Shanghai was the food! After all, who doesn’t love soup dumplings and noodles? I didn’t think that my university canteen would offer some of my favorite dishes for such an affordable price. Here, I will introduce my experience navigating a university canteen and why I love it so much:
The first time I walked into the canteen after my language placement test, I was very intimidated. Unlike the all-you-can-eat meal swipe system we’re used to, the canteen is a pay for your meal situation, where you can charge your meal card and pay for the dish or beverage of your choice. Every menu was in Chinese (without pictures) and I often have to yell out my order for the chef to hear me. Luckily, as the semester has passed, more English menus have been printed out to help us! However, my food came out speedy and freshly made, not to mention, it was 非常好吃 (Very delicious)!
At the Yan’an Campus on Donghua University, students can pick from five different canteens. There are fierce debates about which canteen is the best, and deciding which canteen to go to for dinner can turn into a fight. Either way, there’s a variety of options at each, and every canteen will offer some kind of variety dumplings, noodles, stir fry, or fried rice. In one canteen, there’s also a small window for pasta where you can get cheesy Bolognese if you need some comfort food. However, if you’re ever craving a sandwich, salad or hamburger, a short walk or ordering online will get you anything you want.
Why do most Chinese students eat most meals at their canteen? Because the prices are unbeatable. I have never paid more than the equivalent of 3 US dollars at the canteen. Just to give some examples, for breakfast, I usually get a 肉包子 (roubaozi/ pork bun) or 菜包子 (Caibaozi/ vegetable bun) which is under 1 yuan (17 cents). For lunch or dinner, it is very possible to get a big bowl of rice noodles for 10 Yuan or freshly steamed soup dumplings for 4.5 Yuan (1 dollar).
One thing I had to get used to was the Canteen hours. 早睡早起 (ZaoshuiZaoqi) is a Chinese saying which translates to sleep early, wake up early. Canteen hours are limited and scheduling your meals is necessary. By 1pm and 7pm, most canteens are closed up for lunch and dinner respectively; a lot of the good stuff is gone by 10am for breakfast. Before China, lunch at 10:30 or dinner at 5pm would have been strange, but I’ve adjusted my schedule to the canteen. Don’t fret if you miss a meal though, there’s always a bakery on-campus open until 10pm with a variety of options (including bubble tea!).
One of my tips is to write down all of the dishes you/ the people you dine with get and write down the characters and pinyin. This way, you have a list of your go-tos or things to try next time. I have a long list on my phone and if a friend has something that looks good, I always ask them what that is and add it to my list. There are also sections of the canteen where you can point at trays of food and have it put on individual plates. Here you can see exactly what you’re going to get, so this is great for anyone with dietary restrictions.
Being vegetarian or vegan is very hard but possible in China. The canteen offers great options like veggie dumplings and tofu dishes. Since many of the dishes are cooked right in front of you, asking for substitutions or customization is also possible. Outside CET, Donghua university has many foreigners, so the concept of vegetarianism isn’t entirely foreign to them. It is very possible to ask chefs for vegetarian options.
Food is often described as social glue, bringing people together and fostering connection. Going to the canteen after class or with Chinese roommates is a great way to deepen friendships. Every time I go to the canteen with someone, I seem to find new dishes that I didn’t know existed. Even though I’m halfway through my study abroad here, I just found out you can get handpulled noodles at one of the windows. I know when I go back to the US, I will long the food and memories I’ve made at the school canteen.