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Food diary: the bagel shops of Beijing

Esmé Curtis recalls swapping bagels for baozi when settling into her new home

In my first year at Oxford, every Sunday, I would get up and order a bagel with chives at G&Ds. No matter how hectic things seemed, I would find time to sit in the same spot, take the same messy first bite, and let the usual roar of life at Oxford dim to a gentle hum.

Last year though, I was in Beijing. It took some hunting to find good bagel shops, but they were there. Hidden among silver skyscrapers and shining shopping centres are half a dozen upscale foreign bakeries. Rather than being comfort food though, bagels slowly became laden with guilt.

You are not here to eat bagels, I berated myself, you are here to get to know China. I felt embarrassed to have “caved”, to be craving food many of my Chinese friends had never heard of. Embarrassed, in essence, to be foreign.

I usually loved eating nothing but Chinese food. Many of my happiest memories in China are focused on what I ate, particularly the Beijing street food. There was so much choice: crunchy, soft pancakes from bicycle pulled stalls, steaming sticks of meatballs dipped into sesame sauce and of course, the baozi. Fluffy, stuffed steamed buns costing no more than 20p each, and plopped unceremoniously into a plastic bag, baozi are an integral part of any breakfast on the go in northern China.

And oddly enough, standing in line—well, never quite in a line, but in a hungry huddle—for baozi in the morning made me feel like a part of Beijing. Even though I stuck out there so much more than in a foreign bakery, at the baozi stand I felt “normal”. Trying to fit in made me feel proud. Admitting how much I missed bagels did not.

The best way to get to know a culture is of course to meet with locals and to eat with locals. Eschewing Chinese food—even only rarely—felt like I was missing out on a part of Chinese culture. And even though I knew logically on my year abroad there shouldn’t be anything wrong with eating food from home, it became something I felt I should resist.

In reality though, that’s not how people or cultures work. Cultures are dynamic, not static, and food is one of the clearest examples of this. Chutney, hummus and pasta—to name but a few—are dishes are of course beloved by the British, but not invented by us.

My situation in Beijing was much more privileged than that of many people who migrate, my needs easily catered for. Nonetheless, experiencing how surprisingly intense the need for a taste of home can be gave me a deeper understanding of why people take their cuisine with them, even when it’s hard to do so. I am very grateful to them. Now, when I find myself dreaming of baozi in Oxford, they’re only a ten minute walk away. And that’s wonderful.


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