It is incredibly fucking depressing to me that the aspiration of middle class Chinese is to remove every plastic stool joint in their vicinity and replace them all with cookie cut food courts.
If you want bubble tea, pizza, burgers, KFC, mediocre Japanese food, slightly better Korean food or pretty good Hong Kong food, middle class China is the place for you.
If you want to eat the same thing people in the villages eat, the stuff the vendors out front of every Greyhound stop sell, the snacks people chow down on when they're drunk, or before they made it into a high-falutin' white collar job... you gotta take a walk.
I normally bike. It takes 5-10 minutes to get from my office to the nearest urban village and some former factory sites where you can buy local food. In an effort to try remind my colleagues that they don't need to order pretentiously-named noodle bowls on their cellphones from restaurants that spend more on decor than ingredients, i started posting lunch photos on one of our Slack channels.
Here are photos i took of lunches over the last 6 months.
Okay, just kidding, that's a teaser photo of some late night BBQ in my village before the police shut it down. The lunches are under the cut.
朝鲜冷面 (cháo xiǎn lěng miàn) Korean cold noodle/nyangmyeon. Not quite vegan due to the half boiled egg, but delicious nonetheless. Tomato, cucumber, cilantro, chili, sesame seeds, vinegar. It was very refreshing.
热干面 (rè gān miàn) hot dry noodle. This is a breakfast snack from Wuhan, Hubei province. It's just noodles in peanut or sesame sauce with some spicy pickle and (if you're lucky) crunchy fried soy nuts.
炒河粉 (chǎo hé fěn) and 炒米粉 (chǎo mǐ fěn) - two dishes that look the most like something you'll find in the west, which isn't surprising because they are staples of Cantonese cuisine. Fried noodle with bok choy, carrots, egg and ham. Sometimes they will hold the ham, but they never hold the egg. Like all Cantonese cuisine, you need to add chili sauce to give it flavor.
家常豆腐 (jiā cháng dòu fu) home-style tofu. Not only is this a dish that most American Chinese restaurants have, this particular incarnation of it looks almost exactly the same as what you find there. Green peppers, carrots, wood ear mushroom and old tofu. This restaurant was a disappointment. When you order from a good Hunan place, this dish has no bell pepper and the sauce doesn't taste like it came out of a bottle. It does still have wood ear mushrooms and tofu, though, plus gobs of fresh chilis. This was taken in September when i was still looking for a good Hunan place near work - read on!
麻婆豆腐 (má pó dòu fu) mapo tofu - everyone's favorite Sichuan dish and number one hangover food. It's silky tofu, doubanjiang (a spicy bean paste), Sichuan peppers, dried chili peppers, spring onion and - normally - pork. At restaurants where they use sliced pork instead of mince, you can ask them to hold the pork. Since African swine flu sent the price skyrocketing, most mom'n'pop places are all too happy to whip up a vege version.
芹菜香干 (qín cài xiāng gān) celery smoked tofu. This a vege stand-in for one of my meaty Sichuan faves - 辣子鸡 (là zi jī) spicy fried chicken. It's just Chinese celery, smoked tofu and dried chili. Some restaurants go so hard on the smoke that it tastes like bacon. I suspect most places cook it in lard to boot, but eh.
肠粉 (cháng fěn) rice noodle roll. Cantonese breakfast of champions. Sometimes you'll find someone still serving it at noon. They spooge out a bunch of batter onto a tray, then steam it till it turns into big square noodle, then they crack an egg (or not, if you ask for the Buddhist version) and roll it up. Top with mystery brown sauce which i hope is made from shiitakes but who knows? Add lots of chili and some spring onion, off ya go.
油泼扯面 (yóu pō chě miàn) oil splash torn noodle. Big, chunky noodles from Shaanxi province with oil splashed in them and bok choy, spring onions, cayenne pepper and shedloads of garlic on the top. This tastes way better than it sounds. It's hearty and delicious. Shaanxi-style restaurants also have garlic on the table as a condiment. Like, entire cloves. Locals bite into it and spit out the skin, then just eat it raw.
青椒豆干 (qīng jiāo dòu gān) green chili dried tofu. This is green chilis and ribbons of dried tofu, with dried red chilis in there for good measure. This restaurant's take was too dry overall - 加油 (jiā yóu) add oil! - but in the wasteland around my office beggars can't be choosers.
素三鲜饺子 (sù sān xiān jiǎo zi) vegetarian three fresh dumplings. Honestly, dumplings are dumplings, could be anything in there. But in China it's really hard to find vegetarian dumplings. The best most places do is 韭菜鸡蛋 (jiǔ cài jī dàn) egg and chives. But one of the places near work does a "three fresh" that is proper vegan, with shiitake, bok choy and something else i can't remember, maybe chives. It was a revelation. Dumplings are the fucking best.
凉面 (liáng miàn) cold noodle. Chinese style is very different from Korean style. It also happens to be my favorite food since moving here. The best ones i've had were were in Guilin (Guangxi province) and Chengdu (Sichuan province). It's rare to find a good cold noodle in Shenzhen - usually here they are pretty bland. This one is from a hole in the wall called 老成都面馆 (lǎo chéng dū miàn guǎn) Old Chengdu Noodle Shop. It is fucking badass. Sichuan peppers, chilis, doubanjiang, peanuts, spring onions, pickled cabbage, pickled green beans... So good.
客家腌面 (kè jiā yān miàn) Hakka salt noodle. They aren't fucking joking. It is noodle. In salt water. The end. Oh wait, garnish with a miserly helping of spring onion and peanuts. This is what happens when you go to a restaurant where everything on the menu has meat except for one dish. Still, i actually think i'd go back here for the days when i have an upset stomach. The noodles themselves had an excellent texture; they were just very, very plain.
青椒油豆腐 (qīng jiāo yóu dòu fu) green chili oil tofu. This is a fucking delicious dish. It is real thousand layer tofu, frozen and unfrozen and then deep-fried to give it the perfect sponge texture. Green chilis. Spring onion. Tomato. Celery. Unf. I found this restaurant just before Christmas, and it's a Guizhou/Hunan cuisine place. It's one of the farthest i've been to, but i can't wait to go there again and try their home-style tofu and whatever other spicy mountain food they have.
The common denominator is that all of these dishes cost under 20元, and in some cases under 10元. At every joint the owners take your order and cook the food themselves. Even though they invariably have a red sadface health rating, i reckon you can trust them better than any green smileyface mall joint. These vendors' livelihoods ride on making delicious food, and for the most part that's exactly what they do.