[Campus Radio] What Is the College Canteen in China Look Like?
[Campus Radio Episode1]
Chinese restaurants, restaurateurs and chefs produce great cuisine, but some of the best food in China can be found in the more than 2,000 university and college canteens and dorms across the country. Most universities in China have an extremely large campus and therefore, there are a few different places scattered all around in which you can find somewhere to eat. However probably the most popular choice (and most economical) would be the canteens. Even beyond the walls of some universities themselves, these canteens have made a name for themselves!
Outside and inside university, it is known that canteen food is pretty good. There are a large variety of foods to try that are all well priced. In every canteen the set-up is almost the same. You grab a red tray, green chopsticks, possible a red spoon if needs be, and wait in line in whatever food stall you fancy and then go to the counter to pay. A slight downfall perhaps is that you can only use your card to pay. Therefore this means topping up every so often, at the top-up shop situated centrally in campus. Nevertheless since canteen food is pretty cheap, you don't need to make this trip that often. For example a big bowl of fried noodles or rice with two sides will cost you around 8/10 RMB. The food varies slightly from each canteen however you will always find in every canteen staple dishes such as Jiaozi (delicious steamed dumplings) fried rice, noodles, heavily flavored meat dishes, Baicai (Chinese cabbage) etc.
There may be several floors of food that you can choose from, mostly serving a variety of Chinese, Korean and Japanese food: chicken soup noodles, fried noodles, meatballs, Korean hot pot style fried rice and so on. Many canteens are situated opposite the teaching buildings. So when you are really hungry after class, you have the perfect solution. Some canteens just take less than minutes’ walk from the library. Therefore if you have been studying hard, the canteen is ideal for a food break.
Note of warning when dining canteen style, things can get messy. It is always best idea to go little bit earlier than 12:00pm. One downfall of being in such a large university is the mass amount of hungry people you encounter at noon. However stand your guard and be effective at balancing a tray full of food, and you will have no problems.
For day-to-day dining, all of China’s more than 6 million students in higher education eat at the dorms and in school-run cafeterias.
Class schedules are generally packed from morning to night, much like the regimented routines of American high school kids. This means Chinese students have to run, or more often bike, between classes with just a few minutes to spare. The cafeterias provide a convenient place to eat on campus.
The canteens are also appealing because they’re inexpensive, being subsidized by the university, which is in turn subsidized by the government. Meal prices vary. I’ve found Chinese breads such as the crêpe called Jianbing or the steamed buns with filling called Baozi for as little as 2 RMB(about 33 cents). Pricier specialties sell for 10 or 15 RMB(about $1.60 to $2.50). These include meat or fish stews, or Malatang, a dish for which ingredients are weighed and then cooked fondue style in a smoky, spicy Sichuan-inspired broth.
Chinese campus food is also generally considered safe — and that carries a lot of weight in a country facing frequent food scandals such as clenbuterol-laced pork, cardboard-filled Baozi, milk mixed with melamine and, most recently, rat meat that was passed off as lamb.
The universities, and the local government officials affiliated with them, are known to take special care to ensure the quality and cleanliness of ingredients, lest the country’s future leaders (especially in the top-tier universities in Beijing, Shanghai and other major cities such as Xi’an and Chengdu) fall ill. That would not play out well in the Chinese media, which recently received additional reporting freedoms from the government to cover food safety related stories.
Chinese campus food can be regional
Each university has a handful of cafeterias, some of which specialize in one regional cuisine or specialty. One of the better known in the university district is the Xinjiang canteen at the Beijing Language and Culture University. Other cafeterias offer high-end service, such as the Beijing-style restaurant at the China Agricultural University.
At Minzu University in Beijing, where students come from varying backgrounds and thus culinary habits, canteens serve some of the best Muslim, Xinjiang and Tibetan food in town. Because this university is often the site of demonstrations and tension, however, to get on campus you need to have a student ID.
So it is easy to understand why Chinese campus food has developed a good reputation and substantial following, much in the same way that big-name chefs and famous restaurants attract hordes of devoted diners. Considering that these canteens feed students day in and day out, they, and their chefs, should be given greater credit.