Sunday, November 9, 2008

On Campus

As most of my friends know well, I have been living like a graduate student since, well, since I was a graduate student. Not much has changed since I moved to Beijing. My wife and I keep late hours. Part of it is because it’s easier to work in the evening, sans the normal 9-to-5 distractions. Part of it is the desire to stay out of traffic and crowds by keeping an off-peak commuting and dining schedule. PKU has almost 20,000 students (undergraduate and graduate combined) and so peak hour dining is a mob scene. The dining scene at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is a little better, since there are much fewer students, staff and faculty, but every cafeteria keeps strict hours: 11-1 for lunch and 5-7:30 for dinner (we never get in early enough for breakfast so I don’t know the breakfast hours). The new CAS campus at Datun is also located in a fairly new neighborhood, right between the Olympic Park and the Olympic Village, and consequently there are very few on-campus services (restaurants, cafes, teahouses, supermarkets, …), so my wife has to keep a regular, 'normal' dining schedule.

Fortunately for me, PKU has quite a few more dining options. The closest cafeteria to the classroom buildings is Nongyuan, between Xue 2, 5-4 (for May 4th) Athletic Field and the Centennial Lecture Hall. Nongyuan has 3 stories, with a one-stop cafeteria on the first floor --- very much like any American campus cafeteria, you get in line, pick up stuff and then pay (with a PKU dining card) at one of 2 exits. Nongyuan’s third floor is a restaurant, with a main hall and private rooms. The acoustics of the main dining area on the third floor is awful --- the walls reflect too much. To order à la carte, you go to the southeast corner where every dish is on display. The food shades to the Shanghaiese. Here you pay in cash or you have an account.

Nongyuan’s second floor is more like a food court, with multiple food windows/booths/stalls, each with their own ‘specialty’ and their very own dining card reader. When I dine here I usually go to the window with guozhai (锅仔), or little wok. The guy at the counter takes your order. I usually order either the cola pork ribs or the chicken with mushrooms (the third option is the duck) and a bowl of rice. The guy then puts some Chinese cabbage in a small wok and then add, say, a stew made of pork ribs and cola, tops it off with some water and then puts the small wok on a flaming stove top (there are near 2 dozens in the little stall). He then puts a wok ring and a bowl of rice on a dining tray to his right (my left) and punches what it costs into the card reader for me to swipe. A minute later the stew is done and he puts the wok on top of the ring in my dining tray. It’s a not-so-small balancing act for me to find whomever I come with and a free table, even with a wok ring.

Further afoot to the west is YanNan and Xue 5. YanNan is more like the second floor of Nongyuan, with more specialty counters. But no guozai, so I usually go to the Sichuan window and ask for ½ portion of jiang beans and pork, ½ portion of something else, and 150 grams of rice (rice is served in bowls and in increments of 50 grams --- 1 liang). Some times I ask for 1 portion of fried rice vermicelli to go (from the counter with various types of fried noodles and rice). Xue 5 has two main windows where you can ask for 2 items plus rice. The other windows feature zhushi (主食), what the Chinese call their carb dishes/items. The main dining areas of Xue 5 and YanNan are upstairs. During peak hours you would be hard press to sit with the friends you come with. If I go to YanNan, I usually try to go between 12:30 and 1 PM, so as to avoid the rush. (PKU morning classes end at noon and afternoon classes start at 12:30.) But when I come too late (12:45-1), there may not be any choice items left.

That’s usually when I head south to the Campus dining area, a series of 4 cafeterias that have late dining hours. First, there’s the noodle shop, with its 4 windows. The 2 windows with Jiangxi sliced noodles and Lanzhou pulled noodles (in beef broth) have the longest lines. Noodles are sliced into finger-length pieces from a football-sized piece of dough. Or they are pulled into the suitable thickness. The pulled noodles are much softer. But the Jiangxi sliced noodles are served in this flavorful broth. The middle window has the rest of the menu, various noodles in broth or with various sauces and stews. Noodles cost 5 rmb (for the large) and 4 rmb (for the small bowl). Adding a fried egg costs 1 rmb. The last window is for soymilk and shaobing (烧饼). At each window, there are usually 2 lines, one for ordering and paying (swiping with your dining card) and another one for pickup. At peak times, even the ordering line for sliced noodles can get more than 10 deep. And the amount of slurping reminds me of scenes from the movie Tampopo.

The next cafeteria is the jiaozi (饺子, or dumpling) shop, with its 3 windows. The main one serves (whatelse?) jiaozi. Usually there are 2 types of dumplings ready to go. There are the usual combinations, pork with cabbage, pork with chives, … Pork with lotus root is surprisingly good. You can order by 50 grams increments (starting at 100 grams). The server scopes up the amount you order, puts it in a suitable dish and then puts it on a dining tray along side a bowl of congee and small side dish of pickled vegetables. The various condiments are just behind you after you pick up the dining tray. The other window has zhengjiao (蒸饺, steamed dumplings), shaomai (烧买) and wontons in soup. The last window is for appetizer size vegetables and meats.

The third cafeteria is an American food café, burgers, fries, coffee, shake, … I usually go there for seating or to pass through to get to the last Campus cafeteria, which serves single ‘dish’ meals, e.g., stews, curries, … I usually go for the beef stew, or the chicken curry. There are also steamed rice (served in a bamboo steamer) with various vegetables and meats and glazed pot dishes, if you come early enough.

Lately I have been going to the baozi (包子, buns, steamed or pan-fried) shop just south of the Campus cafeterias to pick up some baozi for snacks. The shengjianbao (生煎包, pan-fried baozi) costs 0.70 rmb each (so that’s a little over ten US cents each). After dinner, I bring my tupperware, ask for 6 shengjianbao to go, take a leisurely stroll on campus, and then get back to work, knowing that whenever I get hungry, I can always eat a baozi or two.

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