I first visited China in 1993, and in the 18 years that have elapsed there have been many, many changes. One change that started quite a few years ago is the proliferation of western ‘Fast food’ restaurants. I think the Colonel got here first, but he was closely followed by Ronald McDonald and then Pizza Hut –there are others but those are the big three. KFC has over 2000 outlets in China, and is hugely popular, and McDonald’s has just announced that it intends to open 1000 new restaurants over the next three years.
Obviously there is a certain cachet in all things ‘western’ or ‘American’ especially after the many years when the population of the PRC were shut off from the world to all intents and purposes, and many Chinese see these restaurants as the last word in sophisticated western dining. Never-the-less it surprises me, after the initial novelty of eating there wore off, that these companies have retained their place in the market as their prices are not cheap compared to local restaurants.
If there is one thing you can get in China it is great fast food – great Chinese fast food. And believe me, it beats the western competition into a cocked hat in terms of price, quality and nutritional values.
Hawkers used to sell food by the roadsides, they had their burners, woks etc precariously balanced on carts towed by a bicycle, each specialised in cooking one or maybe two dishes, and you ate right there on the pavement, dirty plates and bowls being plunged into a tub of water to clean them off ready for the next customer. On the whole the food was good, cooked in front of you, piping hot from fresh ingredients. If the stall was up-market they might have a couple of stools so you could sit down whilst you ate.
In Beijing and other big cities street vendors of food are seldom seen nowadays. Government concerns about food hygiene, and civic pride about how these street stalls appeared to tourists meant that they have mostly been swept away, and this process accelerated in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics. However, fear not, hawker stalls still exist, but now they are located in the huge ‘food courts’ which you can find all over the city. Food courts are usually in the basement of large shopping complexes or office buildings. They consist of a large open area filled with benches, tables and chairs. Round the sides of the court are booths which are rented out to different vendors, each having a small kitchen and a counter and each one producing their own speciality.
The system works like this. You go to the Food Court cashier’s desk and hand over some money which is registered on a special plastic card. Then you wander round the court, ordering from whichever outlet you fancy. They slap your card against an electronic reader which automatically deducts the cost of your order, and you take your tray of food to a table to eat.
I have cards for three different food courts in different areas of the city, and if the credit on any one of the cards runs low, I just hand over some cash and top it up. From the point of view of hygiene it means that the cooking and serving staff do not handle money at all, and also it makes the transactions very fast.
There are no waiters or waitresses but there are staff constantly clearing and cleaning the tables and floors.
The turnover of customers is huge, and very fast. Several hundred people tend to arrive at once during the lunch hour and by 12.15 the courts are packed. It is impressive how quickly everything is cooked, served and eaten, and somehow one always finds a spare place at a table.
The standards can be very high, the February edition of The Beijinger (a monthly magazine similar to Time Out) recommended that the best place in Beijing to eat dandan mian ( a spicy noodle dish local to Chongqing in Sichuan) was at the Xingdu TanTan Noodle stall in the food court of Shing Kong Place rather than at some of the up-market Sichuan restaurants.
If you visit Beijing avoid the western chains, go native, find a food court near you and have some really good fast food.