E-Travel Log #6: A Chinese Food Overview

Attention Teachers: Please see teacher notes below.

Dear Students:

Fan chi le ma? Have you eaten? In this travel log, we’ll stop for lunch as we pass through two more old Silk Road cities. On the way, we’ll keep a look out for dragons; tell you more about gushi (ancient Chinese poetry); challenge you with two more guess-who poems about Asian animals; and list some more answers to your questions. Enjoy!


So, saddle up your steed! We’re heading back across the Gobi Desert, along the old Silk Road, to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province. From there, we’ll veer south to the city of Linxia, where we’ll trade our camels in for yaks (next travel log). If we were traveling this route over 600 years ago, we’d run into many a silk-hauling camel-drawn caravan along the way. But now there’s just a modern road with an occasional car or truck. Even less frequently, we see a train pass by or an airplane fly overhead. We have lots of time to ponder, ‘What ever happened to that old Silk Road, anyway?’

Well, do any of you own an LP record player (have you even heard of one?) or a typewriter? You see, the Silk Road sort of went out of fashion because technology improved and made it relatively useless. While warfare in the late 1300’s A.D. made Silk Road travel unsafe, people began using ships for global trade. It was much faster and much cheaper. By the time the Silk Road was safe again, maritime trade made it obsolete and it disappeared like a caravan in the Taklimakan.


Nowadays, we mostly use boats, trucks, trains and airplanes for international trade. And, of course, China exports much more than just silk, as you’ve probably noticed if you check the tags and labels of the things you buy.


Do you like Chinese food? Thought so! How about Italian or Mexican? Have you tried Greek or Ethiopian? Indian or Thai? When countries trade and interact with each other, they also share their cultures. That’s easy to see as we pass through Lanzhou and Linxia. The most beautiful buildings in town are Islamic mosques and Buddhist temples. Islamic men, with their white caps, and Islamic women, with their black headscarves, are as easy to spot as the Buddhist monks in their flowing scarlet robes. We already told you how several religions entered China via the Silk Road; well lots of food crossed the borders, too. Some say Marco Polo introduced spaghetti to Italy after traveling the Silk Road (while others insist he introduced noodles to China). Lanzhou, our first stop for the day, not coincidentally, is considered the noodle capital of China. So, let’s stop for lunch!


The phrase we started this report with, Fan chi le ma?, and another like it, Chi guo le ma?, both mean, ‘Have you eaten?’ In many parts of China, like Lanzhou and Linxia, these phrases are used as a greeting, sort of like, ‘How are you?’ The idea is: if you have eaten, you’re fine. To say you’re ‘fine,’ whether you’ve actually eaten or not, you can just say, Chi guo le, which literally means, ‘I’ve eaten.’ Or, if you are hungry, you can always try, Mei chi guo, and you might even be offered something to eat!


Now, if you decide to have noodles in this town famous for them, you’ve got to get with the slurp! Slurping your noodles, far from being rude, is pretty near an art form in China. Since hot chili peppers are also an ingredient in Lanzhou beef noodles, after a few slurps, you’ll also be sniffling. A meal of noodles in a Lanzhou noodle restaurant is a virtual symphony of slurping and sniffling. Go ahead, join right in: Slurp-slurp-slurp-slurp-slurp; sniff-sniff, sniff-sniff.

Slurping actually has a practical aspect to it, too. Most noodle connoisseurs like their Lanzhou beef noodles steaming hot. If you slurp, it helps to cool the noodles just enough before they hit your taste buds. Slurping, if you do it correctly, also prevents the hot soup that the noodles are served in from splashing onto your face, which will definitely happen if you suck the noodles up like you might spaghetti! So, now that you’ve got your slurping etiquette down, let’s move on to Linxia and try some other dishes.


In Linxia, people sell lots of Muslim specialties right out on the street, things that are hard to find in other cities, like bing, nan and other breads, lamb shish-kabobs and giant samosas. But, we’re going to have another specialty that originated in northern China – hot pot. Hot pot is now served all over China and originally was eaten in winter to keep people warm. To eat hot pot, you first need a big hole in the middle of your table. Under the hole is a heating device. A giant bowl of soup with a mix of flavorings, herbs and spices is placed over the heating device so it continues to boil. You add your choice of thinly sliced raw lamb and beef, seafood and a variety of vegetables and dumplings to the bubbling brew, and then fish it out with chopsticks or a spoon once it has cooked. Yum!!!


In China, people eat almost anything imaginably edible. Of course, they combine those many ingredients to make an incredible array of delicious dishes. We’ll sprinkle photos of just a small sampling from around China in the rest of this report – to whet your appetite. And just for fun, here’s a top-ten list of interesting things we have eaten during our travels in China. Which would you give a try?

10. Dragon fruit – A mildly sweet fruit that resembles a red dragon on the outside and has hundreds of small black edible seeds suspended in juicy white flesh on the inside.
9. Chicken feet – A standard snack with beer.
8. Donkey meat – Another northern specialty.
7. Silk worms – Not only used for making silk!
6. Scorpions on a stick – Crunchy, tasty and considered to have medicinal value (the poison is removed!).
5. Yak dairy products – Cheese, butter, milk, cream; there’s even a special tea made with yak ghee – and you can have it with a yak steak if you like.
4. Duck tongues – They look funny and are a little slimy, but they taste great.
3. Bamboo grubs – Fried in oil; crunchy on the outside, oily on the inside and oh so yummy; just one of a variety of edible larva and insect products available in Yunnan Province, including dragonflies and grasshoppers.
2. Snake skin – The meat is good, but the gelatinous skin is considered a delicacy.
1. Dog meat – Considered an excellent winter food in northern China.


Of the items on the list, dragon fruit might be the easiest to swallow for people who aren’t used to all the exotic items on the Chinese menu. Do you think they look like a dragon? In Chinese, they are actually called ‘Dragon Tongue Fruits.’


Dragons, which represent magical and majestic power, are the symbol of China – and, in the past, also symbolized the emperor. One nickname for China is Dragon of the East and Chinese people call themselves Long De Chuan Ren - Descendents of the Dragons. There is even a song called Descendents of the Dragons which goes something like this: ‘In the far far East, there is a dragon. Its name is Zhong Guo (Middle Kingdom – the Chinese name for China). Those who have drunk the water from the Long (Dragon) River will forever be the descendents of the dragon.’

So, that’s why everywhere we go in China we see dragons! We’ll be including more dragon photos in upcoming travel logs.


Here’s a famous gushi poem that many Chinese school children recite before they eat:

Weeding crops in the mid-day sun
Sweat drips to the earth under the crops
Who considers the food in his plate?
Every grain comes from hard work

Do you consider the food in your plate before you eat it – how far it has traveled and from where – and how much work it took to get it there?

Have a look at the same poem in pinying to see if you can figure out the original rhyme scheme:

Chu he ri dang wu
Han di he xia tu
Shei zhi pan zhong can?
Li li jie xing ku.

The last words of the first, second and fourth lines rhyme, which, of course, gets lost in translation along with the original rhythm (count the syllables in each line).


Real gushi (ancient poems) are written with Chinese characters, of course. There are two main kinds: qi yan shi (seven character poems) and wu yan shi (five character poems). In Chinese, all characters are one syllable long. So, the poems have a specific rhythm thanks to the repeated number of syllables in each line. As you can see above, sometimes gushi rhyme and sometimes they don’t. The rhyming patterns vary from poem to poem. (I’ll tell you more about gushi next time.)


Here are two more guess-who animal poems written in gushi form, each with seven syllables per line. Notice that the end rhymes in the first poem follow the same rhyme scheme as the gushi poem above; while the second poem contains only internal rhymes (can you find them?). Guess who!

Animal #1

Skunks,penguins, and tapirs too
In one way resemble you
But they don’t get hankerings
That make them binge on bamboo

Animal #2

Have you heard that herd’s the word?
Source of life in treeless north
Forest of leafless branches
Hauls to call of Ho-ho-ho!

The answers to the poems in the last report are the camel, of course, and the komodo dragon.


Here are more answers to your questions. These questions were answered by (mostly fifth grade) students at the Jinha Elementary School in Jinha in the Xishuangbanna Rain Forest region of Yunnan Province.

1. What do you do for fun? We play running games and a game called ‘Hawk Catching Chicks.’ We also play soccer and basketball when we are free. We watch TV when we are at home and we like to read story books.

2. What are the popular sports in China? Basketball, soccer and ping-pong are very popular. We also run a lot and love to jump rope.

3. What kind of transportation do you have? We ride bicycles around the town. When we go to a bigger town, we have to cross the river first by ferry. Once we get to a bigger town, we ride in cars and buses. Our parents own motorcycles. There's also a kind of three-wheeled motorcycle that we use here as taxis and we call them ‘electric donkeys.’ Some of us have flown in airplanes when we go to Kunming, the capital city of our Yunnan Province.

4. What do you see when you look out of the windows of your school? We see fields, our school garden and roads. We see trees and flowers. We see birds and butterflies.

5. How many students do you have in your class? There are more than 40 students in our class.

6. What subjects do you study in school? We take Chinese, Math, Natural Science, Ethics, Social Studies, Physical Education, Art and Music.

7. What are your favorite subjects? We love P.E., Art, Music and Math.

8. Describe your favorite place in China. One girl has been to a beautiful place in Yunnan Province called Shangri-la and she said it's her favorite place. Another girl said Lijiang, an ancient city in Yunnan, is her favorite place. Some students said an area around where they live called Tian Ba, is their favorite place because they love to sit there on the field and watch the sun setting behind the mountains. Some students love the fish farms because there are many birds and they can swim in the water. Some said they like the Mekong River because they can swim in it. One student said her grandma's house is her favorite place.

9. Describe the clothes you wear for special occasions. Students of our school are mainly of Hani ethnic minority group and a few of us are of the Dai minority. Those of us who are Hanis wear traditional clothes for special occasions like the New Year. The clothes are made of cotton and are mostly black, with colorful embroidered fringes and white beads. Our clothes are usually a little heavy and bulky so we only wear them for very special occasions. The Dai clothes, on the other hand, are much lighter. They usually include a bright-colored sarong skirt with the top of same color. The Dai clothes are comfortable to wear all-year-round. But on special occasions, the women would put flowers on their heads and carry paper umbrellas the same colors of their dresses.

10. Does everyone use chopsticks to eat their meals? Mostly yes, although when we eat at school we mostly use spoons.


That’s all for this travel log. In our next report, we’ll hop on a yak and climb up onto the Tibetan Plateau to visit towns called called Xiahe and Sangke. There, we’ll visit the famous Labrang Monastery and two Tibetan schools. Till then, learn lots! Zai jian!

Lilia and Paul
China Project Coordinators


Next Report

E-Travel Log #6: A Chinese Food Overview

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