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“Soft fried chicken cubes.” “Fungus with onions.” “Fried fish in squirrel shape.”
Even when translated into English, the menus don’t read like a list of entrees so much as a table of contents in a book of poetry: “Fried celery with salty pork.” “Mixed green stuff.” “Local snack.”
We went out to lunch every day in Beijing, in a big group of 45 or so American business students and people married or engaged to be married to American business students. Typically, the restaurant would seat us well away from any actual Chinese diners. We’d file into our separate room, fill up several round tables and order: Coke or beer. The servers did not ask for our input beyond that, perhaps fearing we’d want Big Macs, which, after a couple of days in China, many of us did.
Somebody – the restaurants or the tour company, we never asked – took the liberty of ordering for us.
“They’ll have the ‘stir fried diced duck with lily,’” somebody must have pronounced. “Give them some ‘chilly pork,’ too.”
Sometimes, the food already would be on the table when we walked in. Other times, the servers would bring plate after plate, cramming them into the rotating glass disc in the middle of the table, a sort of “lazy Susan” for efficient food-passing. It was very useful, as we shared everything.
Onto the lazy Susan would go, inevitably, the staples: rice, bok choy, assorted cold meats and a huge bowl of bland, gelatinous soup meant to be eaten after the main courses, in order to cleanse the palate before the watermelon or Mandarin oranges.
Along with the main meat dishes, the cooks would occasionally blend in a few American dishes to make us feel at home. We liked the french fries and “Western pickles”; the ice cream didn’t quite seem to contain milk or sugar.
Mostly though, we ate what we assumed the other patrons ate – lots of fried items with tofu, bamboo shoots and eggs. We ate tiny eggs that did not come out of a chicken. We ate something called a “hop pot hanger.”
We didn’t always know what we balanced so preciously on our chopsticks. But when you eat lunch in China, you just have to look at the head to see what kind of animal it is.
“Oh, that must be the ‘tomato taste fish slice,’” you say to your neighbor, staring into the ichthyoid’s dry, fried eye socket. “Pass me the ‘pumpkin pie in milk.’”
Before our trip, I looked forward especially to the food. I really like Asian food – Chinese, Thai, Japanese, I eat it all – and in general, I spend more time thinking about food than culture. I know, for instance, far more about green chile than New Mexico’s incredibly rich history, in part because it comes up more often, especially toward the end of summer when the chile roasters practically outnumber the blooming chamisas. My nose alternates between ecstasy and tissues.
Anyhow, I went to China thinking more about the dumplings than Chairman Mao or the Ming Dynasty. And I loved the dumplings, especially the steamed, red-bean ones available at the hotel breakfast buffet every morning.
But pretty quickly, the food became overwhelming. I don’t normally eat that much grease. I don’t ordinarily eat that little sugar. And I never go a week without bread.
The gluten-freedom probably accounts for part of my daily dumpling defilement. We ate so much rice, vegetables and meat, but nobody in Beijing served us a single dinner roll, which we would have all happily split, let alone breadsticks, sandwiches, pizza, pastries, pasta or cake.
Nobody even offered us fortune cookies, and when we asked our tour guide, he looked at us blankly.
“Fortune … cookie?” he asked, as if the two words had nothing to do with each other.
By the time we got to Shanghai, where we spent the second half of our trip, I had grown cranky. I didn’t want dim sum. I didn’t want “pork and orange pie,” which I knew would have nothing in common with any of the pies I so adore.
Michael and I wandered the streets, eyes darting impatiently between the high-rises and foot-massage joints. And we found sanctuary in what had appeared to a flourless continent: We ate an Italian meal followed by dessert purchased at a French bakery.
A spaghetti dinner with a glass of wine ran me about $2 (U.S.). Afterward, as I circled the croissants, baguettes, donuts, tortes and a thrilling variety of tall, almost cube-shaped loaves of bread, I felt like I imagine bees do in berry patches – literally intoxicated by the smell.
I bought a red-bean donut and a wisely named “angel twist.” I have no idea what Michael got; I was much too focused. We rushed back to our hotel for our glutenous affair, which we topped off with an old episode of “Charmed” we had stored in Michael’s laptop. Shannen Dougherty’s name never sounded so good.