A storyteller's sandbox
We saw: Airplanes, our first look at Beijing
We saw: Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Peking Duck
We saw: Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong
We saw: Beijing school, Big Wild Goose Pagoda
We saw: Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum
We saw: World Financial Center, downtown Shanghai
We saw: Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown
We saw: Airports ... and too much of the Shanghai tarmac
I've got no beef with Chinese food ...
But it's best to eat with your eyes shut
You hear so many tales about the Chinese eating cats and dogs that I guess it is only natural to be bombarded by this question when you return from the People's Republic: "Ooooh! What was the food like?"
It was among the first two or three questions most people asked when my wife, Debi, and I told folks we’d just returned from China. To answer, let me put it this way: The Chinese are not terribly discerning about what they put in their mouths.
In fact, they have a saying that anything that walks with its back to the sun will suffice for dinner. That leaves the vast majority of God's slimiest and goopiest critters — not to mention their slimiest and goopiest body parts — prone to the chopstick. So my family crossed into China braced for gastronomic intrigue.
In fact, it would be more accurate to say we relished it. Debi and my stepson, Tommy, are both adventurous eaters, and although I don't gravitate toward the exotic myself, I generally eat whatever is placed in front of me with little complaint. Moreover, if there's one thing I hate, it's going to a foreign land with a group of kids who would rather go McDonald's hopping than sample the local fare.
And I was determined to set a good example.
We psyched ourselves up a number of ways. Debi and I rented a documentary DVD about Peking duck, stuffed our DVR with all the China-related Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern episodes our cable guide offered, and visualized ourselves eating all order of fowl, insects and rodents.
By the time we were escorted to the hotel restaurant shortly after checking into our rooms in Beijing, I wasn't just prepared. I was eager. No knives, forks or spoons on the table? No problem. Armed with a set of chopsticks, I was ready to attack a plate of something purported to be beef and broccoli.
Digging right in, I chased a chunk of meat around my plate, finally pinchering it with the chopsticks and plopping it in my mouth.
Savoring my first delictable bite of … Ohhhhh! Blugggh!!! What the hell????
My first bite was a sinew-crushing chomp into a big, gristle-laden knot. The sound of it reverberated through my jaw and ears.
Since there was no knife at the table, I hadn't bothered to cut my meat into polite-sized bits and could not possibly swallow this chunk whole. Unfortunately, silverware wasn't the only thing missing from the table — there were no napkins, either, so I couldn't do that discrete "pretend-I'm-wiping-the-corners-of-my-mouth" trick and spit it out.
What is wrong with these people, I wondered. The Chinese invented paper, but they apparently have lost all interest in advancing that technology, judging from the dinner tables and washroom stalls we visited.
I left the table to search for a bathroom, where I could spit into a toilet or a trash can. But I could see no sign for a water closet. Neither could I ask for directions because I don't speak Mandarin. And even if I did, I had a golf ball-sized wad of connective tissue in my mouth that more or less rendered intelligible speech impossible. I made a few vain hand gestures to a puzzled maître d’ , who just shrugged; returned to the table; resisted eye contact so as not to invite conversation; and cased the room for a flower pot.
I had no idea how was I going to get out of this without embarrassing myself in front of 25 fellow travelers, most of whom barely knew me. Choking to death would not make a good first impression.
Some example I was setting.
Then, inspiration struck. Somehow, I had to convey my predicament to Debi, using that game of grunting charades that married couples play so well. She could give me our room key, and I could ride the elevator up 12 floors and dispose of this chunk in our toilet, praying it didn't clog Qin-era pipes on its way down. I nudged Debi, and she looked at me like the idiot I am: "What's wrong with you?" I opened my mouth slightly to give her a look, then snortled through pursed lips and tried to look pitiful. Debi looked for a napkin.
Damnit, woman, you're wasting time! I've tried that already! It's no use!
"Woom ki," I said, trying to articulate without clamping my mouth around its vile contents.
My jaw was beginning to ache, but then Debi clued in and dug the key from her purse.
On my way to the elevator, the maître d’ — who earlier had tried earnestly to help the speech-impaired American but couldn't tell if he was asking for a shoe shine or an ashtray — pointed me through the lobby and around the corner to the water closet.
Spitting out that meat might have been the most relieved I've ever felt in a bathroom.
ACTUALLY, IT WASN’T THAT BAD
Despite the protracted an inauspicious beginning, the rest of the meal actually was quite delicious. Seems I had worked up quite an appetite scurrying around the restaurant and lobby.
And for the most part, I really loved the food in China. I won't speak for others. Debi and Tommy, for instance, said they found the fare monotonous and that if they had to eat one more cube of tofu, they would kill the next soybean farmer they encountered.
Nonetheless, the Chinese do chicken and pork quite well, and they roast a mean duck.
My only beef was, well, the beef. I had a few more run-ins early in the week and finally swore it off for the rest of the trip. In fact, I feel it imperative to stress this to anyone who intends to travel to China: You can scarcely take cleaver to cow without hacking at something divinely yummy; yet, somehow the Chinese — who unlocked the secrets of the compass and gunpowder, mind you — have no clue when it comes to sirloin and ribeye.
They feed you wads of tendon and call it beef broccoli.
DON'T EVEN ASK WHAT THAT WAS YOU JUST PUT IN YOUR MOUTH
Even before experiencing Chinese cuisine first-hand, I knew egg rolls and fortune cookies were not authentic fare, rather the creation of Chinese-American restaurateurs. Nonetheless, what Americans say about Chinese food is true: Eat it, and an hour later, you're hungry again.
So despite rising from our first meal in China with tight bellies, before the shades were drawn, Debi, Tommy, a few other kids and I were wandering the streets near our hotel, spying the gullet fodder cooked on the spot by street vendors. Most of them lugged their food and grills behind tricked-out bicycles. Tommy settled on a skewer of alleged pork, which was prepared on a long, metal plate and heated by a fire that smelled as if it were fueled by coal. Tommy shared a piece with me, and it was too delicious to bother wondering if it really came from a pig.
But there were other reasons to ask.
This vendor's skewers were stacked and tucked inside unmarked paper bags. As we contemplated another stick of goodies — the going price was the equivalent of about 45 cents for a dozen large chunks of meat — we peered inside one of the bags and saw what appeared to be the skinned carcass of something that had been pounded flat. It had little rodent feet, claws still attached.
That's when our tour guide, Robert, happened upon us.
"You eat here?"
"Yeah, we wanted to try some street vendors."
Robert scrunched his nose.
"I Chinese, and I no eat this."
Miraculously, the entire group escaped China with just one, mild case of likely food poisoning — on the final day — and it subsided after about an hour and a couple of bathroom trips.
But Robert's point was well taken. As will become quite apparent if you read subsequent blog entries, China is not the most sanitary of environments. It's difficult to imagine these street vendors were up bright and early at the local fresh market to purchase grade-A cuts. And even if they were, it was well past 9 p.m. by now, and this stuff had been out in the sun all day and picked over by grubby-handed customers.
We knew going in that this would be the case, though. We had been warned to drink only bottled water. Chinese tap water makes Mexico's water supply seem to well forth from cathedral fonts.
We also were advised to avoid any raw fruit or vegetable that isn't peeled. The Chinese frequently use a downright awful method of fertilization … or, more accurately, an offal one.
Despite all the potential hazards — not to mention all the tofu — that must be negotiated to get a gut full in China, we were treated to some tasty and (presumably) authentic fare. (For the record, I'm no rube. I know it’s unlikely the nation’s best vittles were wasted on a tour group of American teenagers. Neither did they challenge our Western palates with the country's most exotic dishes.)
On our second night in Beijing, we ate Peking duck — delicious, and worth a few lines of background.
Becoming a Peking duck is almost an honor if you waddle around on webbed feet. Authentic Peking ducks are actually raised in Beijing, on a free range farm. Yes, they're force-fed four times a day. And, of course, at 65 days old, their goose is cooked, so to speak. But for those first 64 days, man, they're practically royalty.
Preparation of the duck is a pompous affair, too.
Air is pumped under the skin to separate the skin from the fat. The duck is then briefly soaked in boiling water, hung to dry and glazed with maltose syrup. After standing 24 hours, the duck is hung in an oven and roasted until it turns shiny brown. Originally, the ovens were preheated by burning gaoliang wood, although these days, with gaoliang trees in short supply around Beijing, fruit-tree wood often is substituted.
The duck is then carved into precisely sized slices. A piece of skin, a piece of lean and a piece of fat is to be included with each portion, which is served with scallions and sweet bean sauce and wrapped in a really thin pancake. (Insert your Ricky Bobby joke here.)
The next night brought another treat — a rickshaw ride through the hutongs of Beijing. The terminus was a courtyard home, or "siheyuan," where a local resident prepared dinner for our party of 26 and fed us all in her humble living room.
We were on the move the next day, but before we even checked into our Xi'an hotel, we were whisked to the dining room for a hot pot dinner — food prepared fondue-style, with meat, vegetables and dumplings simmered in a metal pot of stock. The next afternoon, we had local dumpling dishes for lunch.
Each morning of the trip, we could sample steamed buns — dim sum — and twice we were treated to formal tea ceremonies. We also ate lunch at a buffet that offered a Chinese take on American food. ("Soil bean mud" is not nearly so gross at it sounds; it's what the Chinese call good ole mashed potatoes.)
The most risque fare was a plate of chicken that looked as if some of the construction workers out back had subdued it by stoning it with cinder blocks. But it was fried to a golden brown, and appearance aside, it was tender and tasty enough to rival the Colonel's. As we picked apart the skeleton, we noticed one oblong piece that had gone unconsumed.
Was that a beak?
Why, yes, it was. The chicken head had been fried up, too — waste not, want not — and, presumably, available for consumption. I wasn't feeling brave but was among the half dozen or so who had to have a picture taken with the chicken head in our chopsticks, pretending we were about to eat it.
Which makes me a poser, because Craig Bowman, who was on the trip with his two lovely daughters, manned up and ate it for real.
He said it tasted like chicken. Go figure.
I never got the opportunity to try turtle soup, pigeon, starfish, jellyfish, scorpion, crab roe or any of the other crazy stuff I watched Andrew Zimmern stuff down his pie hole. No dog or cat, either.
Er ... I think.
I mean, we are assuming that skewer was actually loaded with pork ...
We learned a little taiji first thing in the morning at the Summer Palace.
No, I didn't have the guts to eat this chicken head ... but another member of our group did.