My Travel Stories

A Yam Is Not A Sweet Potato

Potatoes in China
And other things I’ve learned about food in china

Am I a foodie? Well, let me put it this way – as I write this, I’m eating an avocado mixed with a white potato. No condiments. I needed to use up both items and it sounded like a good idea at the time. Is it fantastic? No. It isn’t bad though, so I’m going to finish it. My favourite types of food are “quick” and “easy”, and off the top of my head I can name about 6 spices I’ve actually used while cooking.

You Don’t Have To Try it All

I’m not incredibly adventurous with food. Big surprise, I know.  Give me any vegetarian or vegan dish and I give it a try, but meat is where I draw the line.  I’m already picky about how I eat my chicken and beef, so anything exotic is pushing the limits for me. Any time I’ve tried to expand my palate it has gone terribly. Oysters? Nasty snot blobs. Squid tentacles? I might as well chew on a rubber band because it would have the same texture and would taste better. Gross.

There are some things that I just know I won’t like. If it looks like it’s about to crawl off my plate or if it has the seafood-y chewy texture,  just the thought of eating it turns my stomach. Years from now I know I’m not going to look back on this experience and say “I really wish I had sucked more dead snails out of their shell”.

Qilou Snack Street, Haikou
Qilou Snack Street in Haikou is a must-visit attraction and a great place to try a variety of foods.

There are people that will say that you have to be open to trying any new food to get the full cultural experience, but I disagree. Seeing all the different foods other people eat is enough for me. Just because seafood is popular in Hainan province does not mean that I have to try all of it. I will make up for it by trying all of the tropical fruits, which are also plentiful.

spicy Hotpot on an empty stomach? bad idea.

I arrived in China at about midnight after 18 hours of travel and 4 mediocre airplane meals. As soon as I reached my hotel room, I crashed. As per usual, I woke up thinking about food. The hotel breakfast had ended and by the time I contacted my coworkers to meet for lunch it was almost noon. I was at the point where I was so hungry that I felt sick. We decided to try out the hotel “hotpot” restaurant.

As it turns out, trying new food for the first meal of the day on a very empty stomach is not a good idea for me. Not to mention that this food was very spicy. By my standards, anyway.

Within half an hour of sitting down, my stomach was angry. It was not prepared to digest anything I had given it. I excused myself to the ladies room, but when I found the bathrooms I realized I couldn’t read the Chinese signs! I peeked in one and didn’t see any urinals so I ran into the first stall. This is where I had my first run-in with a squat toilet, and bathrooms that don’t supply toilet paper. After emptying my stomach, I exited the stall only to see a row of urinals on the far wall. Wrong bathroom. “Welcome to China”, I told myself.

China noodle bowl
Noodle Bowls are my favourite type of meal here so far. Yummy!

When I returned to my meal, my stomach was rumbling for something familiar and neutral. Saltines, perhaps? My only option was spicy hotpot. For the rest of the meal I ate the vegetable garnishes, rice, and the watermelon dessert. If this was what food was going to be like in China, I would need to find an import store quickly.

Luckily, if there’s one thing China has going for it, it’s variety. Not only does each province have their own style and specialty dishes, but pretty much any other type of food you can think of can be found somewhere.

All restaurants should be “homestyle”

In many restaurants in China, you order a variety of dishes that are placed in the middle of the table for everyone to share. In my catering days we called this “homestyle”. It’s also how most people serve food at home, so I’m not sure why we started doing it differently in Western restaurants.

It’s fantastic! I definitely prefer this to the everyone-gets-their-own-dish type of restaurant that I’m used to. Not only do you get to try a little bit of everything, but you also serve yourself a little bit at a time. This allows you to actually stop when you’re full instead of trying to work your way through a massive pre-portioned dish. Meals are eaten slowly, with green tea and conversation.

During my first week in China, I ate out for almost every meal. By eating homestyle meals, I was able to try many new dishes. Most meals consisted of rice, a few vegetable dishes, one or two meat dishes, and always a soup. The Chinese love their soups.

A Rice Cooker is Not A Slow Cooker

I don’t have an oven, or a variety of cookware. I have a wok and a rice cooker. The wok is mostly used for stir-fry, and for everything else I use the more-than-just-rice cooker. Eggs, soups, steamed veggies, pasta, and of course rice – all made in the rice cooker! One day I’ll try to bake with it, but I’m not quite there yet.

My rice cooker only has two settings: cook and warm. When it reaches a temperature threshold, which occurs once all the water has evaporated, it automatically switches from “cook” to “warm”. It seems foolproof, but this somehow hasn’t stopped me from overcooking rice and burning potatoes.

When cooking with a rice cooker, it’s best to always remember you are cooking. Distractions which cause you to leave food for an extra half hour (or more) are not advised. A rice cooker is not a slow cooker, apparently.

Your Taste Buds Can CHange Quickly

The Chinese diet is very low in sugar. I think I eat more than most the local people just by the amount of fruit I consume. I will have fruit for breakfast while they’re eating rice or noodles. That being said, I’ve still reduced the amount of sugar in my diet considerably. I used to eat chocolate or sweet treats almost daily, and when I came to China I decided it was a good opportunity to break that habit.

Pizza Hut, Haikou
My first Western restaurant in China – Pizza Hut. Probably the nicest Pizza Hut I’ve ever been in. I had Hawaiian pizza and butternut squash soup.

I started by having a chocolate bar once per week when I did my grocery shopping. After a few weeks I started to notice that it tasted sweeter. Too sweet. I’m not sure if this partly because the chocolate is actually different here, but I have noticed other things tasting sweeter as well. The school I work at serves a “cake” at breakfast some days. At first when I had it it tasted like bland cake without any sugar. Now I can taste the sweetness and it actually tastes like regular cake. I’ve completely stopped buying chocolate because it got to the point that I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. That’s saying a lot coming from a lifelong chocoholic.

Update: I’ve recently found Brookside Acai and Blueberry Dark Chocolate, imported from Canada, and I enjoy it just as much here as I did in Canada. It’s probably for the best that I have to trek across the city to buy it.

a yam is not a sweet potato

One day I had a sudden craving for potatoes. This would not surprise anyone that knows me – my favourite food is mashed potatoes. I found some at a local supermarket and boiled them in my rice cooker. Regular white potatoes – or so I thought!  It looked like a white potato but tasted exactly like a sweet potato! You can imagine my surprise when I took my first bite.

It seems that my whole life I have lived in a potato bubble. As it turns out there are many types of sweet potatoes, and yams are not part of that group. Yams aren’t even in the same phylogenetic family. Maybe if you shop at Whole Foods you’ve seen a variety of sweet potatoes, but I can’t afford that kind of selection usually. I worked in the produce department of a grocery store for a few years, so I really should have been more educated on the subject. I told many people that sweet potatoes and yams were the same thing. I’ve been spreading misinformation this whole time.

As it turns out, in North America the orange sweet potatoes are called ‘yams’ to distinguish them from the white sweet potatoes. There’s also purple, golden, and many other cultivars of sweet potatoes. Real yams are also starchy, tuberous roots but they’re generally not sweet. Wikipedia has quite a bit of information of true yams here. I’ve spent way too much time reading about yams and sweet potatoes lately.

tell me about your food adventures and mishaps in the comments below!


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