September 28, 2023
SINGAPORE – I have found my favourite venue at these Asian Games, where the action goes on for 20 hours a day, from 5am to 1am.
The media dining hall in Hangzhou has captured my heart, and stomach, with its rows of food, glorious food.
Over a 15-year career, I have been to the World Cup and other major Games, where the hectic schedule means meals are reduced to smash-and-grab affairs, sometimes at media centres.
Inside various stadiums at the Russia 2018 World Cup, there were stale pastries and uninspiring pasta that were overpriced. The 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham had average bar grub and mains, while the 2023 SEA Games in Phnom Penh had food tents that were a pain to walk to in the searing heat.
Which is why just about every journalist I’ve met here is raving about the media dining hall at the Hangzhou International Expo Centre, where the main media hub is.
Journalists are greeted by two buffet lines flanking the spacious room that can fit 300 people and is expected to feed 12,000 diners daily.
After picking up biodegradable plates and cutlery, they can tuck into local dishes such as braised pork with preserved vegetables, and western cuisine like roasted mutton chops with mint sauce.
In the other line, there are halal and vegetarian offerings, as well as braised beef brisket noodles, exotic Persian fried bananas and south Asian cuisine like Pakistani red curry shrimp and beef rendang.
The menu changes daily and, on one night, Singaporean laksa – it tasted close enough – was served with springy fishballs.
For me, the stars of the show are the KFC and Pizza Hut booths, where the main attractions are the silky smooth Hokkaido ice cream and volcano tiramisu respectively.
The best part of this buffet feast? It is free flow and costs only 20 yuan (S$3.80) for lunch and dinner, half that price for supper, and breakfast is free.
It is tempting to stay in the media centre for the entire three weeks, but I embarked on a food hunt to taste more of the city’s delights.
The Qiuji Restaurant near the aquatic centre serves delightful stir-fried prawns, tea-leaf fried chicken, peppery pork skewers and spicy Chongqing noodles that go down well with beer for a total of just 330 yuan for five people.
Hangzhou cuisine is milder by comparison, but dishes like beggar’s chicken, dongpo pork, and longjing prawns are pretty memorable when savoured near the picturesque West Lake.
Such dining opportunities are few and far between amid deadline pressures but, thankfully, this city has more to offer to fulfil late-night cravings than just Lawson and 7-Eleven.
Meituan works just like any food delivery app in Singapore, but a quicker fix can be found at a metro station near our hotel. In two minutes, the staff at Niu Ba Ba whips up a comforting bowl of beef noodle soup for 30 yuan, with a gentle reminder that a top-up of noodles is free, bringing a tear to my eye as I recall paying £3 (S$5) for a plate of white rice in Glasgow.
There is a Chinese saying that loosely translates into people regarding food as highly as the heavens, and it is apt here as Hangzhou is truly a food paradise.