Some aspects of China have not changed much since my last trip. Streets in older neighborhoods still have the same gritty atmosphere and characters; toddling babies, elderly men spitting upon the asphalt, motorbikes swerving around pedestrians, delicious smells of fried food and steamed buns wafting from food stalls...
My aunt and uncle work at a university in Changsha and live in housing on campus. Their apartment is right next to one of the canteens, and one chilly morning we headed down to eat some hearty and simple food. The canteen is exactly as it was before, no frills, just cheap and good food. Why change what works, right?
They sell some of my favorite breakfast foods, including all manner of steamed breads, including mantou (steamed bread), baozi (steamed bun stuffed with meat or a sweet filling), and zhuanzhi (steamed dough twisted into a roll and seasoned with sugar or onions). I've tried making these before, but for some reason the homemade ones are never as soft and fluffy.
Right across the way is the faculty canteen, where the food is supposedly a bit better than the student side. They were serving noodles that morning as well as dim sum.
There is no heat in the eating area, so everyone bundles up in their winter coats and drinks steaming soy milk to warm up. Though Starbucks and other cafes have opened up plenty of outlets, the coffee culture hasn't quite permeated the Chinese market to the same extent as it has in the U.S. People do enjoy drinking it from time to time, but coffee has not yet become a daily ritual for the average person. Hence why you most likely won't find it sold in canteens. Coffee drinks are relatively pricey, and probably are consumed mostly by young people out with friends or by young professionals.
There are many large, new malls in Changsha that sell both upscale Chinese and western labels. However, we decided to go to Gao Qiao, an older wholesale district that offers many traditional foods and knickknacks. The area is packed with small stores, and we walked through an area with lots of dried goods such as dates, nuts, and goji berries. There is a lot of selection, so buyers go along and try bits of the product before haggling the price with the vendor.
I think this is some kind of squid?
Below is a photo of dried wood ear mushrooms, the same as what I ate in Hong Kong.
And of course one thing that hasn't changed yet is the pleasure of eating a large meal surrounded with family. We went to visit relatives who own their own small restaurant, and they were kind enough to cook our whole family a big meal full of fresh ingredients. In the photo below are my two grandmothers!
Large meals out with family are always great raucous fun, with people pushing each other to eat more and drink more, followed by the inevitable fight for the bill at the end. I'm glad these social customs still remain.
Tomorrow I'm leaving for my last trip of the winter break, to Hanoi in Vietnam. I hope that it's not as cold there as it is in China, and when I'm back in six days I'll be sure to post photos and updates!