January 31, 2008

"This One Is … Special Taste"

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It seemed to me that with my face smushed up against the precipitating window of our crowded airport bus, I had an optimal view of the city of Beijing as we traversed the outer rings of the city. I tried to turn my head to comment to Jonny Lieberman ’08, Sun editor in chief, that it felt like we had just entered the world’s most giant Chinese restaurant, but my neck couldn’t make it past 15 degrees of lateral movement, so I just hoped the sounds waves of my voice reflected off the window. When you think about it, the most interaction that typical Americans have with Chinese culture is through their outings to Chinese restaurants, so the metaphor was kind of appropriate. But actually taste-wise, I can’t say I found much that felt familiar to Tuesday nights at Appel (General Tso’s thanksgiving …).
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First things first, I would venture to guess that for most meals we were in a party of around eight people, but it seemed that the actual number of mouths to feed was irrelevant to the number of dishes that would swarm our lazy-susan. Matt Hintsa ’10, Sun senior photographer, decided to count how many dishes arrived at our table during one typical lunch. He gave up after the waitress began balancing the dishes atop one another like a house of cards (somewhere after dish 18). This generosity was both our friend and our enemy — our frenemy, if you will. We didn’t want to seem ungrateful or close-minded in avoiding the ox tripe that some grinning Chinese guy spun our way from across the table, but we knew the ox tripe would be wasted whether we put a piece on our plate and feigned delight or not, because there was an avalanche of food and 60 percent of it remained uneaten. Even had Yao Ming and Andre the Giant been in attendance, we could not have put away this much food. We hypothesized that they must have thought we were four obese Americans who would not only trade in chopsticks for forks, but for forklifts to shovel the food into our fat guts. But really it was comforting that eventually at least one dish out of 20 would be delicious. Apparently I let out a squeal of glee and clapped my hands twice in succession every time soup dumplings were unveiled from their bamboo pots. I was unaware I did this outwardly.
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It did not take us long to discern there was a decided order to the arrival of the various dishes. There were a few present on the table when you took your seats, which usually differed, though in Nanjing we saw that salted duck made an appearance at each meal. A barrage of mysterious meat dishes appeared in the intermediate period with three savory soups, not all that distinct from each other, neither in taste nor appearance (except for the geometric shape of the bowls). Dumplings usually came third to last, so I typically waited for everyone to stuff him or herself before nabbing them. Sweet tofu soup is the penultimate course. In Shanghai we were served a version that looked very much like regular egg-drop soup, but when I tasted it, the syrupy tofu strands kind of draped out of my mouth for a few seconds until they lightly splashed back into the cup — it was unexpected to say the least. For the final course there are often red-bean-paste pastries.
There has to be a tie for “best food” title. Beijing often served us with Peking duck and black pepper beef, both of which were delicious and not exceedingly surprising. For the duck, the cook brings the roast right to your table and carves 90 to 120 slices in front of you. You then take a white mu-shu-like pancake in your hand, insert some green onion and cucumber slices and a hoisin sauce relative, place a couple of duck slices atop, roll it all up and chow down. While shopping in a candy store in Beijing, we happened upon some vacuum-sealed packs of Peking duck. We considered taking them home, but after considering the hassle of having duck carcass in our bags at customs, we refrained. Shanghai boasts dumplings the likes of which most Americans have never heard of, filled with soup (the non-sweet kind). There is a special technique to handling the pot sticker-cousin so you don’t puncture it with your chopstick before lightly biting and slurping the soup out. I hoped to find vacuum-packed soup dumplings somewhere in the city, but alas, no luck.
Nanjing is penalized on the food front because our hosts took us to the same mediocre-at-best restaurant four times. Although they ordered different dishes at each outing, we would have appreciated a greater sampling of the food the city had to offer. They do get points, though, for trying the hardest of any of our hosts to explain the local influence and flavors of the food. They mostly pointed at things and noted, “This one is … special taste.” But indeed, the tastes were special. Recurring culinary themes in Nanjing were that salted duck, pork ball soup, fish ball soup, little shrimps in something like oyster sauce, pork dumplings wrapped in beef (what part of the beef was unclear), many kinds of tofu soup, a gray plantain in sweet sauce, shrooms the likes of which I have never seen before and hope never to again, and a local water root vegetable of which they are most proud. Also recurring were the bowls of white rice. We asked for extra so we could have something to actually refuel with in between pretending to eat the other stuff.
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You really need to come to China with a sense of adventure of the palate. My three companions deserved medals of diplomacy for their glorious attempts to shove foods down their throats they never could nor wanted to identify. Rebecca Shoval ’09, Sun managing editor, once even spooned some green goo, the shade of pungent chlorophyll, out of the serving dish. She then promptly spooned it right back in and smoothed over the top as if she had never left her mark there, but I give her major credit for even going that far. At a particularly fancy lunch at the Hotel Mayfair in Shanghai, Jonny had the guts to almost eat guts. Our host told us that one dish had tongue and tofu on it, and Jonny chopsticked some tofu millimeters away from his open lips, right as our host recanted that the fleshy substance was chicken stomach.
Jonny often said to our gracious hosts, the food in China is “delish.” The Chinese people were generally confused by this non-word, so for future visitors, I suggest motioning to your belly in a counterclockwise direction, making eye contact, nodding vehemently and declaring “Num num!” It’s the international sign language for “thanks for the meal regardless of how it tasted, friend!”