Everyone’s rushing to get lunch in a technicolour of student cycling madness. Driven by hunger. Ruthless in traffic.
It’s lunch-time at Tsinghua University Summer Camp and we can barely keep our students in their seats till the last minute.
And with good reason.
There are at least six canteens over campus, best travelled by bicycle, each serving variations of Chinese food in building ranging from high-class, lazy-suzan and lace rooms to three floor mess halls of university appropriate din – and you want to get there fast (it’s blood-curdlingly hot), chain up your bike, bag a table and enjoy a hot plate of Asian food goodness. With students coming to Tsinghua from all over the continent, there are dishes to cater for every province and taste and with the excessive RMB on our dinner cards courtesy of Tsinghua Camp organisers, I’m aiming to try everything.
Having been in Taiwan a lot over my lifetime, I was expecting food to be a walk in the park, but even for me it was at times a frustrating trial of experimentation and error, and at others, absolute delight.
It’s saltier here than I’m used to, some dishes are particularly oily and the service is entirely English-speaking free. Forget the lack of English, the canteen staff barely have time to speak in Chinese.
It’s a nippy task of tense queue waiting (with much spectator curiosity from your Chinese queue-buddies), and random pointing at dishes with an internal monologue that mostly consists of tense exclamation (at the contents of previously tame looking vats) , prayer (that the dish you choose is edible and non-spicy), expletives (when they refuse to ladle from the dish you want) and resignation (when you get your finished tray of food).
It’s a swift in-out of the ol’ meal card – it’s never more than around 5-6RMB per meal out here, including drinks – and you can get back to your table and heave a relieved sigh with your fellow volunteers.
Oh, and of course, it’s chopsticks and spoons only.
“Everyone goes to Qing Qing Burger.”
I never went to Qing Qing Burger.
But then again, I was able to stick out the vast array of dazzling (and sometimes disarming) food on offer. For some of the volunteers, it had to be Western food, and that is on offer here too. Although word of warning – it’s easily four times the price of the chinese meal equivalent, and lots of Qing Qing Burger-goers soon ran out of their Tsinghua given cash.
My solid favourites remained the aubergine and mince, egg fried tomato and rice combo dipping in and out of various meat and veg sides, with an iced black tea.
Meal-times with an element of risk makes every good choice taste better.
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