If you ever travel to China, one of the first things you’ll probably notice will be the difference between American Chinese food and authentic Chinese food. Your General Tzo’s chicken and pork lo mein will be nowhere to be found and instead you’ll see a lot more stuff like the meals in the previous post.
However sometimes you can get an interesting look at the Chinese take on western food. A prime spot for this is 萨莉亚 (pronounced sàlìyà), or Saizeriya.
Saizeriya is a restaurant chain that is originally from Japan, but has become quite popular here in Shenzhen. There are a number of locations throughout the city and they are always packed during lunch and dinner hours.
I think the main appeal of eating here is the price. In much the same way that Chinese takeout provides cheap inauthentic foreign food in the states, Saizeriya provides cheap inauthentic western food for China. Western food here tends to be fairly expensive, but Saizeriya offers pizza, salad, and pasta at less than half the price of more authentic western restaurants in the area.
One of the unique aspects of Saizeriya is that every table has a button on it that you can press to alert the wait staff when you’d like to place an order or need help. Unlike in the US, the concept of good customer service isn’t really a part of restaurant culture here. Your Chinese waiter’s job is to take your order and put it on the table, not to smile, chat, and make you feel special. They won’t stop by your table every five minutes to make sure everything is ok. In fact, at most restaurants they won’t stop by at all unless you wave a hand in the air and shout loud enough for someone to hear you. This can seem rude if you’re not used to it, but it’s just the way things work here. Saizeriya eliminates the awkwardness foreigners feel about shouting with their convenient bell system.
We begin our Chinese Italian feast with a fruit salad. As I mentioned in the Chinese school lunch post, veggies here are usually cooked until very well done, so getting a fresh salad makes it worth coming here on its own. The salad has lettuce, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, carrots, and cabbage. So far so authentic. Then we have the bits of fruit on top. They’re kind of small but I think it’s peach, pineapple, and some kind of white gelatinous cube. And of course the salad dressing. It’s kind of pink and I can’t quite place the flavor, but the menu assured me it’s a secret recipe they’ve been using for 40 years.
I also ordered a side of corn. It has a slightly sweet and buttery taste that I find very nostalgic. I suppose in this regard the corn is one of the most authentic dishes they offer. This corn comes off the cob, which is different from corn you might get at a Chinese restaurant where corn is often steamed or grilled on the cob.
Now for my main course, pizza. The pizza is about 9 inches. Pizzas here tend to be small. Chinese people don’t usually go for the 16+ inch pies that we prefer in the states. It’s pretty meh flavor wise and was definitely frozen and just heated up. It hits the spot in an Ellio’s kind of way. And hey mediocre frozen pizza is a pretty authentic western food right?
Well, just take a look at these toppings. This particular pizza has chicken and tomatoes on top. The sauce is an attempt at pesto, instead of a regular tomato sauce. That latticework of white stuff crisscrossing the top there is in fact mayonnaise. I know what you’re thinking. Why in god’s name would you put mayonnaise on a pizza!? I’m not sure to be honest. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d be inclined to eat if not for the sake of a more interesting blog post.
This isn’t the only pizza on offer at Saizeriya that has a grid of mayonnaise on top either, and I’ve seen the same thing at other Chinese pizza places as well. I have no idea where they got the idea from though. There are a few other interesting pizzas here like tuna or fruit, but there are also more authentic options like plain and pepperoni.
Alana (my girlfriend, for those of you who are just joining us) started her meal off with some popcorn chicken. I suppose this is another pretty authentic western option here. The lack of authenticity comes in the condiment department.
For some reason restaurants are really stingy with ketchup. You get a whole plate of chicken and only one little packet of ketchup. Restaurants here never have pumps of self serve ketchup like we do back home and you’ll never be given enough packets for the quantity of fries or whatever else you’re eating unless you specifically ask for more.
I’ve heard that it’s because if they made large quantities of ketchup available then people would just come in and steal it (I’ve also heard that this is why public restrooms don’t have toilet paper. More on that in a later post?). I don’t see ketchup as that hot of a commodity though. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to complain about having to ask for more ketchup. It’s just an interesting comparison to restaurants in the US where they throw the stuff at you.
Her main dish was spaghetti with meat sauce. It’s pretty authentic in a manner similar to Chef Boyardee: not gourmet but comfortable and familiar. Except I imagine the meat is ground pork instead of ground beef. She also had a side of ciabatta bread which must have been pretty good as it was the only thing I didn’t have to finish for her.
So there you have it, western food as seen through the eyes of China. It may not be the most authentic, but it’s pretty good and our whole meal only cost about $11.