- Posted November 24, 2012 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
What’s your secret spot in Beijing?
Chinese Food: The Heights and Depths
Chinese cuisine can take foreigners to heights and depths never before experienced. But, one may argue that Westerners love Chinese food. Please know once and for all that the Chinese food found in most Western cities is not authentic. Much true Chinese food is fantastic, but some can be extremely challenging, and a negative reaction to a dish may be received as an insult.
It is good to remember that in China eating together is an important part of relationship-building. So much so that a common Chinese greeting is, “Have you eaten?” Understanding and appreciating Chinese food is therefore important in understanding and appreciating the people.
It was 2003, and we were living on a school campus in Jiangsu, along with two British teachers. We had been in China about 3 months, and thought we were handling the food well. We ate daily from the school’s cafeteria and it was not bad.
We lined up along with hundreds of students in the noisy concrete cafeteria waiting our turn. Although it was winter, the bamboo steamed-bun cookers fogged the air with a warm sweet-smelling vapor, giving the bland building and almost cozy feel.
Our Mandarin was at best weak, so all we could do was point the serving ladies towards what seemed to be recognizable dishes. These were dumped onto our food trays, and often we later realized that what we had thought was fish, pork, or chicken was in fact not. We soon learned not to ask the kind of questions had the potential to upset emotions as well as stomachs.
Apart from the school food our school chairman, KePing, took us out to fancy restaurants. We found it strange that as dish after dish arrived, and she would do little more than pick and talk. Again, many meals in China are not about food – but about relationship. (Chinese sometimes eat before going to meals. It is not about the food, but about the relationship. A lot of food was wasted this way.)
At the time we didn’t know how blessed we were to have KePing. She’d lived in Ireland and so was sensitive to our foreign needs. She had been filtering out the stranger foods, so, apart from the fish heads, all was normal. We thought we were handling Chinese food pretty well. Ignorant bliss! But, then came the “hot pot” night.
The college dean – a kind and thoughtful man – invited us to “eat hot pot.” We accepted gladly.
We were picked up at the school gates and driven down the bustling streets of Nantong. (A “small”city of just 9 million people.) By now we were used to Chinese driving. We hardly noticed our vehicle scraping by rush hour cyclists, or how often we narrowly escaped being pan-caked by roaring trucks and blaring busses.
A deaf person may appreciate China more, because once the cacophony of horns, beeps, roars, and sirens are canceled out, one can appreciate the sights. Nantong looked lovely at night. We zoomed along network of canals that surrounded the old town and noticed how the proud high-rises contrasted with ancient towers. Chinese-styled bridges, pillars, and pagoda-type structures decorated the way. Many were framed with brightly-colored neon lights that reflected dreamily in the dark waters. Almost romantic.
Eventually we were dropped at the Little Sheep Hot Pot restaurant. Perhaps, the little sheep referred to us foreigners being led to slaughter. Our culinary nightmare was about to begin. Our understanding of Chinese food was about to change forever.
Hot pot is exactly that. We sat around two pots of scalding-hot water. One was spicy, as indicated by at least 100 blood-red chilies. The other was plain water. It was like a water fondue. Trays of raw foods were then placed on the table, and each person tossed whatever they desired cooked into the blistering liquid.
My wife and I are not partial to boiled food, but we politely ate and conversed with our friendly hosts. However, as the night wore on, this became more difficult because among the trays of chicken, beef, and lamb, there was turtle, jellyfish, and bullfrog. Devika, my wife, was about 6 months pregnant, and nauseous, but she behaved valiantly. We ate and tried not to think that our pieces of chicken were being boiled alongside the frog. I just kept telling myself that the boiling water somehow cleaned everything.
Chinese people are very social. Every meal had continual ganbeis, which means dry glass. Everytime someone toasted us, we were expected to dry – that is empty – our glasses with them. This, obviously, could lead to one becoming drunk very quickly, but the Chinese were understanding. Devika was pregnant, and I did not want to get drunk. We usually ganbei’ed with orange juice, green tea or coke.
As all got merrier, one of the Chinese teachers noticed we had neglected to try the turtle or frog. She offered, we declined. But, in China no doesn’t always mean no. She thought that we were just being polite, and soon we had steaming bullfrog and in our bowls. I politely tried a piece. Devika saw her opportunity and dumped hers into my bowl and covered her bowl with her hand. Looking back it was really quite funny. Our hosts were truly kind, but they truly had no idea how much stress they were putting us under. Even our companions struggled to maintain their British nonchalant composure. Their solution was to swallow without chewing and wash it down as fast a possible with a drink. Still, we all managed to keep smiling.
Then it happened.
A waitress walked in with a plate of wriggling some-things. Without a pause, she tipped a mass of live prawns into the deathly water. Devika and my jaws dropped. Our British colleagues’ stiff upper lips melted. Their looks said what we thought: Did that really just happen?
I don’t think the Chinese noticed the color draining from our faces, because there was suddenly a flurry of chopsticks picking out the now red and dead prawns. Before I could respond, some were dropped into my plate. Well, at least it was fresh. But, Devika was having another battle.
One of the prawns – a sole survivor – had managed to escape, and was now wriggling right in front of Devika. Her nails dug into my leg as it crawled towards her plate. No one else seemed to notice, or if they did, they didn’t show it. We didn’t know what to do. We wanted to be culturally sensitive, but this wasn’t covered in the guidebook – and we felt sorry for the critter. So, what do you do? Sweep it onto the floor? Drop it in the pot? Again, we were trying to be culturally sensitive, but I realized later that I was being culturally stupid. All I had to do was ask the waiter to remove it. (We also learned that is there is something you don’t want in your plate, just ask for a new plate.)
Devika’s solution was elegant. She threw a napkin over it. (It was either that or give birth to our baby right there!)
By this time we foreigners were shell-shocked, and the Chinese noticed. Our school dean blamed the excess chilies and began removing them while blaming the waitress. He may have done that in order to save face, since he had ordered the food.
By now the party mood was gone. It was time to go. We tried to keep the mood light, so as we put on our coats a waiter brought in a dish, and I joked that it looked like a cow’s brain. It was!
Since then we discovered other delicacies like scorpions-on-a-stick or chicken-head soup.
The message is: expect strange foods in China, but respond carefully. Sadly, some foreigners refuse to eat local Chinese food, and so friendship opportunities are lost.
Happily, the food described in our hot pot adventure isn’t everyday Chinese food. The challenging foods usually are only eaten when people want to impress. In these cases we ask our hosts to order some dishes we know. As usual they are very accommodating.
So, at least try the food. If you don’t like it, decline it respectfully. The Chinese are gracious, and so often understand.
The Jacobsohns lived in China 8 years.