Having returned from studying abroad in Shanghai, China merely months ago, I can tell you there are certain things I miss: the impressive skyline, communicating with the locals and of course the weekends of raging. What I can say I don’t miss, however, is my struggle with the food offered there.

Forget fresh vegetables, (that will never be a thing; stop dreaming), but is it too much to ask for something identifiable and not drenched in a combination of oil and MSG?

Let’s just say these intestines took quite a hit for the first few weeks until I realized what was safe to eat and it actually turned out to be quite delicious. I wasn’t into spending the big bucks on Western fare so these were the “real” foods of Shanghai that were cheap, tasty and easy on the tummy.

The best place to start when thinking about the safe food of China would have to be with the simplest dish: roasted sweet potato. That’s it: no gimmicks, no stunts, and most importantly no oil or MSG to be found in these bad boys. They’re simply hearty sweet potatoes roasted for probably hours in a drum-like oven attached to the back of a street-bike.

For the equivalent of under a dollar, you can get a huge, juicy sweet potato that satisfies your snack craving without causing digestive distress. Added benefit: sweet potatoes are packed full of Vitamin A and other nutrients. Check out more on their health benefits here.

Warning about these vendors, though: they migrate like birds in the summer so this is unfortunately only a cold-weather offering. But no worries! There are some year-round goodies available, too.

chinese food

Photo courtesy of Far West China

Another one of my go-to foods is, unsurprisingly, also very simple. The Muslim population in China, known as Uighurs, specializes in certain dishes, most of which are heavy on the cumin (I’m a fan).

One of my favorites is a stack of vegetables on a skewer, roasted over an open charcoal grill and slathered in a savory sauce that is just spicy enough. Topped with a generous sprinkle of cumin, these skewers can be either a delectable snack or you can get a bunch of them for a complete meal. From tofu to corn to meat, the options of skewers are endless, but I fear the meat and stick to the veggies.

For that carb craving, Uighurs also specialize in a bread that is actually amazing (and pretty easy on the stomach. . .just don’t eat too many of these 12-inch discs). Think of a mix between a flatbread and a pretzel and that’s Uighur bread for ya. Eat it plain because you just can’t take one bite or have it with your skewers or as a dipper.

chinese food

Photo by Rae Steinbach

Finally, what would a commentary on food in China be without the mention of dumplings? Maybe it was luck of the draw and I just ended up at places where the dumplings were prepared under sanitary enough conditions, but I never experienced stomach troubles after having an order of steamed (careful, fried can be iffy) dumplings.

Considering Shanghai is known for its soup dumplings, I managed to have these scalding little pockets of delight at least once a week. They’re cheap, cooked without noticeable signs of oil, and are incredibly satisfying. A quick tip: My personal favorite place to get soup dumplings is the world-famous Din Tai Fung, which even has some locations in the U.S.

Photo by Teodora Maftei

Photo by Teodora Maftei

So there you have it: without getting into too much detail about the effects of Chinese food on the stomach, I hope this gives you some good insight into what you should seek out the next time you happen to be in China.

Besides being a pretty safe bet, these are also some of the dishes I enjoyed the most while I was there. One thing still haunting me is the roasted sweet potato, which I have been unable to find in the States; I suppose this means another trip to China!

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