To begin, I should perhaps emphasize the ritual role that food plays in Chinese hospitality. As guests of the University, Jill and I were treated to several welcoming banquets as well as several farewell banquets. Each represented a quite extraordinary array of foods and drink. It seemed to me that our hosts took special pleasure in consulting with the wait staff to order up diverse and interesting menus. These items were then displayed on a large, glass "lazy Susan" which would slowly rotate as guests selected items from the dishes nearest to hand. Occasionally a waiter would bring some new dish to add to the ensemble, eventually crowding the entire glass surface with beautiful and tasty dishes.
At gatherings like these, no rice was served (unless requested); here the emphasis was upon largess and presentation. One might expect shrimp, at least one whole fish, other meats, including perhaps duck, chicken, and pork (each in its own unusual preparation), various vegetables (sometimes, to an American's tastebuds, exotic vegetables, like lotus, for instance), dumplings, and more. A soup is likely to appear somewhere toward the end of the dinner, as well as, usually, some fruits (perhaps watermelon slices, pineapple, etc.). Even this listing cannot do justice to the wealth of foods served, and certainly does not adequately describe the often unusual preparations that might attend each of these dishes. But, even allowing for the inadequacy of my description, you will perhaps appreciate that these meals are truly feasts, and are meant to show maximum honor and hospitality to the guests. Indeed, the multiplicity and sheer quantity of dishes guarantee that much food remains uneaten, an informal index, perhaps, of the generosity of the hosts and the splendor of the dinner. These banquets also require that the guests occupy the seats of honor, and that they gain first access to the dishes presented.
|Farewell Dinner at the ICC Restaurant, Gulou Circle: Our co-hosts, Hu Zhengneng; Xia Weizhou, and his wife; Andrew Kaiser; Xian Na; and Su Chen, wife of Hu Zhengneng|
|Dinner at the Hopkins-Nanjing University Center: Huang Chengfeng (co-director of the Center, and our host); Xia Weizhou; and Andrew Kaiser|
|Jill Kaiser; Su Chen; and Xian Na|
More ordinary "eating" is certainly easy to accommodate around the university. Hankou Road, which divides the north and south campuses of the university, is home to a number of shops, most of which serve Chinese fast food—prepared on the spot and sold as "take-away."
Jill and I were especially fond of dumplings, which come in a bewildering array of flavors: each small doughy sack wrapped around chopped onion, mushroom, pork, or any of a half-dozen other ingredients. Best when hot and dipped in a bit of soy sauce, perhaps spiked with a bit of pepper, dumplings are steamed rather than baked or fried. Consequently, in cool weather one can easily find a dumpling shop by looking for the "chimney" of steam escaping from the front of the establishment. Here is one dumpling shop close to campus. You can see on the left the stacked trays, within each of which one can find bamboo-woven trays on which the dumplings cook.
Less obvious, perhaps, is Qingdao Road, which, just west of the south campus, connects Guangzhou Road with Hankou Road, and where one can also find some very good places to eat. Jill and I took a particular liking to this place, whose English name is simply "Muslim Restaurant." No pork was for sale here, of course, nor was there any alcohol available. But with a menu that included brief English descriptions, and with a lot of good food on tap (including my favorite, grilled lamb slices flavored with fresh cumin), this modest restaurant is an excellent choice for lunch or dinner. They will serve rice if requested, but I recommend instead that you order some of the naan-like flatbread more usual in central Asian cuisine.
Nanjing has a long history of foreign contacts, so it is small surprise that a sizable international community lives here, and several restaurants near the university attempt to cater to expat tastes. Jill and I enjoyed a couple of visits to a small French restaurant, "Les 5 sens," located on Hankou Road west (but east of Shanghai Road). Operated by Chinese who spent time in France and then returned to Nanjing to open their own place, "The Five Senses" is a pleasant, if modest, eatery. The full menu is extensive, embracing various appetizers, salads, main dishes, and, of course, desserts. There is also a fixed-price luncheon, usually a good soup (we enjoyed mushroom), and some bread that resembles French baguettes. Daily specials are listed on a board at the entrance, but in general prices here are higher than at most Chinese restaurants. The ambience (often including recordings of Edith Piaf) is quite pleasant and in its inner rooms reminiscent of a small Parisian restaurant. In good weather, the small outdoor plaza will also prove a pleasant setting for lunch or dinner, although traffic down this road (with the inevitable horn-blowing) is not uncommon. Closed on Mondays.
This seems to be less true for Pizza Hut, which has a restaurant situated just east of the intersection of Guangzhou and Zhongshan Roads. Although we visited this establishment only once, we were struck by how much more adapted to Chinese tastes was the menu. For instance, Jill enjoyed a beverage called "fruit tea," which, at 30 rmb, presented a pitcher of "tea," into which numerous bits of various fruits were added. The pizzas, too, often featured toppings not met in a US Pizza Hut. In addition, more than the other western restaurants, Pizza Hut seems to have tried to go up-scale in China, aspiring perhaps to a somewhat wealthier clientele (although on our one visit all the patrons we saw were very young Chinese).
Despite this survey of eating out, in fact, Jill and I did not eat out as often as we might have, because Andrew and Xian Na invited us to dine with them several times a week. Andrew usually prepared a dinner once or twice over the weekend, often working miracles with the toaster oven—baking bread one time, pizza another, and various other dishes, including this delicious chicken salad he made for us one evening.
|Andrew, Xian Na, and Jill (that's peanut milk Jill is drinking)|
|Home-made sausage from Xian Na's mother; smoked beef; tofu and vegetables; sprouts, pork and pepper|
In a city like Nanjing, of course, there are many more dining options than these, and one can find restaurants of almost every cuisine (we enjoyed Indian one night at a restaurant just off Hunan Road). So each person will want to chart his own dining journey. But perhaps this brief introduction will point to some of the options available in this increasingly cosmopolitan city.