Ruminations on Chinese Noms

Written by Travel

Posted from: Beijing

The staff of Seven Treasures Pond, our local Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, greeted us with such enthusiasm us that Kyle was sure they were secretly cannibals. “No one’s that happy to see you unless they plan to cook and eat your bubbling flesh,” he insisted, sniffing the appetizers. They fattened us up on a ginormous, boiled-at-the-table bowl of watercress, fake meatball, jujube and five spice soup. If this is Buddhism, I thought with a face full of lotus root, then namo-freakin-amituofo.

In the foyer of the restaurant, which is unromantically situated on the ground floor of a highrise next to a hairdresser and a laundry, sits a table covered in candles, a shrine to Buddha, and jars upon jars of what appear to be pickled scorpions but what are actually fruit pieces fermenting in Shaoxing wine. “I grow everything myself,” said the proprietress, offering us what turned out to be a very delicious plate of plum seeds.

I’ve been back there about 10 times now, the food is so incredible.

I heard a rumor the other day that Panda Express, in move so meta it makes life feel like a fractal, is planning on opening its first Chinese location in Beijing. Ten years too late, you cheeky buggers, ten years too late and five kuai short. What I wouldn’t have given for a Panda Express in 2002.

My first year in the world of Chinese cuisine was not the endless frolic in fields of chao mein that I imagined. It involved a whole lot of dry heaving in the duck offal and tofu aisles of the open air market. As a friend recently pointed out to me, southern-style ‘stinky tofu’ produces its own impenetrable great wall of smell through which it takes inhuman willpower to pass, a smell that, in my experience, is rivaled only by forty years of unattended bat guano piling up in the towers of Wat Si Sanphet. “Disgusting” I’d think to myself, enjoying my solidified cow tit juice sandwich.

So yeah, the beginning is rough. You get off the plane, you eat corn with gingko seeds for three weeks, and when you find the one restaurant that doesn’t flavor the appetizers with jellied duck blood you pitch a tent on one of the tables and refuse to be moved.

“Culture shock, huh?” asked my friends back in America, but I’m not sure that quite covers the feeling of a smile crystallizing on your face as you, hogtied by diplomatic propriety and frozen under the gaze of thirty expectantly staring colleagues, listen to the banquet host explain that the special foreign guest gets to eat the fish eyeball. Which tastes, for the record, like biting into a tiny condom filled with soybean oil.

But a few years later, after you’ve passed certain not-doing-that-at-a-restaurant-again milestones, when you’ve realized that tuber-based dishes are almost always safe and you should probably just bleat “potato” at the waitress until she brings you some, when you’ve learned what “mountain bear paw” looks like in Chinese and never to point to it on a menu, and when you’ve figured out that while “seven treasures” may be okay, ordering anything with the phrase “eight treasures” in the name is just asking for trouble, a whole new world begins to open up.

A magical, twinkling, alternate reality world in which I’ve somehow developed an appreciation for the rank taste of jiucai. A world inhabited by fresh mangosteen, hot almond milk, mung beans, homestyle tofu, malatang, sticky buns, and a happy host of strange vegetables. A world in which I no longer feel the need to cower in my apartment trying to make a pizza out of Uyghur flatbread and tomatoes.

“Actually,” explained Mr. Jiao from the property management office, “the Chinese invented pizza. Marco Polo was unable to fold a steamed dumpling into a ball like a civilized person, so he just plopped the filling on top the bread.” Nice job with your clumsy foreign hamhock fingers, Marco Polo, you big asshole. Nice. job.