China Part III Culinary Adventures

Our first stop in China, Guangzhou, gave us a hint of some dishes that we might see in some restaurants as we traveled the country. We visited the Peaceful Market just north of Shamian Dao where our hotel was located. It was early in the morning by Chinese standards – about 9AM. A lot of activity could be seen in the parks at that time but the shops were just beginning to open.

How interesting to see somebody busy at work with chopsticks over a large plastic bucket. Upon closer examination we could see that the job was to fish out the scorpions that had not made it through the night. Yep, they eat those scorpions and the patrons like to find them alive! Photo #1 shows some of the other delectable ingredients used: large black beetles in the front container, scorpions and snakes in the middle and (in the rear) huge centipedes all tied into a neat bundle. We saw live turtles for sale, in fact we saw so many turtles that it is difficult to imagine that there are any left in the wild!

Photo #2 is the menu of one of the restaurants visited in Yangshuo where they (obviously) do still use “Man’s Best Friend” in their cooking. Sander definitely will not eat anything with which he is not familiar. Jane is a little crazier and ready to try something new. During our stay in Kunming, while we were walking the streets, Sander had a rather desperate need for a toilet. The Chinese do well to provide public toilets along the street, but at this time there were none to be seen. We popped into the nearest restaurant, Jane settled at a table and Sander rushed off to take care of business. This was a rather elegant restaurant, but the staff spoke NO ENGLISH. OK, the menu has pictures so one should be able to find something that looks familiar. No luck there, so she chose a salad and ordered a beer (we had figured out early-on how to order a cold beer) for Sander. My diary reads, “The salad was hot and spicy, a little like marinated snake skin. What are you going to do when you have a toilet emergency in China?” I asked the waitress to write the Mandarin characters in my diary for the dish so that I might ask someone just what it was sometime. Interestingly, upon our return to Hong Kong I was able to find out that what I had eaten was “fish skins” – pretty darn close!

It became pretty clear to us that we had to do something serious in order to survive the rest of the trip through China. When we could find a menu with English translations, we were delighted. When we could only find a menu with Mandarin characters, that was a different story. Luckily, we met Robin and came upon a solution. Her name was not really Robin. It was something like Yuen Li Huang, but she wanted an English name. One of her three names meant “flying” so I told her about our robin and said that would be a nice name for her. She agreed. See Photo #3 Anyway, Robin approached us as we stood on the street killing time and waiting for a bus to leave. She asked us (in very good English) if we would like to have something to eat at her family’s food stall. We agreed and were brought a lovely plate of fried rice with pork pieces, vegetables and mushrooms in it. We both decided that it was good and hearty and asked Robin to write the name of the dish (with the ingredients) in our flip-book of phrases.

It was our experience all over China that, the moment we would enter a restaurant, the staff would pull out chairs and pour hot tea for us within the first 30 seconds. In order to save ourselves embarrassment, we would have the flip-book ready and ask them immediately if they could serve Robin’s fried rice. If they showed a moment’s hesitation, we would say “thank you” and walk on. If they smiled right away and shook their heads “Yes” we would sit down and proceed to the next challenge…pulling out the plastic forks and spoons. The real challenge was to turn aside the offered chopsticks. Learning to eat with two skinny sticks was something else that these Old Farts were not willing to do. Somehow, the appearance of the plastic-ware was not a sufficient clue to the staff though. We would put the chopsticks aside and every time one of the staff would pass by, the chopsticks would end up in front of us once again!

Robin’s fried rice dish came in different forms. We often got steamed rice, a plate of pork, and a plate of vegetables. That was fine too! One day we got the separate plates and at the end we got another plate of fried rice with all the stuff in it. Surprise, Surprise! We went away very full after that meal, but (as always) it was a very inexpensive meal.

It is easy to find a “point to order” type meal in China. Usually all the dishes have been cooked, are under a heating lamp and ready to serve. Because these dishes were often along a very dusty road, we were not interested in them.

Another type of restaurant has all the ingredients lying out to choose from. The customer can point to the desired meats and vegetables which are then cooked up in a Wok to be served with rice or with noodles. Photo #4 is a special adaptation to this type of restaurant. In Yangshuo, during the day, a certain black-top area contained a food market and bicycle rental. When we walked by the same area about 5 PM at night, we saw tables with table-cloths set up and several cooking areas ready to cook whatever anyone chose. Since this is in the south of China, all the weird goodies were at hand. The Cantonese in this area are quite fond of the weird stuff. See Photo #4.

Once on our Yangtze River boat cruise, the boat stopped at a certain place and we were able to go ashore and order a meal made especially for us. We loved it! We did need to find a grocery store every now and then. One product that we bought a lot was wet towels to clean our hands regularly before we ate. We also liked to buy a bottle of Chinese wine now and then to enjoy in the hotel at night. Jane also needed to find some cream to put on her feet that were dried and cracked from wearing flip-flops. In Jingdezhen (towards the end of our journey) we had trouble finding a grocery store. Seeing only clothes stores and shoe stores and failing to find the Chinese word for “Super Market”,we stopped a middle-aged couple on the street and pointed to the Mandarin word for “grocery”. The man asked to borrow Jane’s eye glasses in order to see what we needed. All of a sudden Jane could NOT see what word to point to. Sander saved the day by passing his glasses to Jane. The Chinese couple smiled in agreement making signs from hand to mouth – as in eating. OK!! Follow us, they motioned…and led us straight to a restaurant! No, sorry, we motioned. The Chinese man realized instinctively what the problem was. He raised his arms as though to show carrying packages. “Yes, Yes!” we responded and were led down the sidewalk about a half block. We were pleased to find the store and our Chinese friends were very pleased to have been able to help us.

Once inside the grocery store, it was common to find plenty of staff to help with questions. Jane could not find the cream for her feet right away so asked one young woman for help. Within 20 seconds there were ten people around trying to help. They were always very excited as well – perhaps they had been bored or perhaps it was a novelty to be helping a foreigner. We never lacked for attention in China. We were stared at long and hard all the time. It felt rather like being a movie star. We would try staring back, but that never worked. We would ask “What!!??” and they would giggle and continue to stare.

The real reason for coming to China was to see the ancient sights…the Terra Cotta soldiers, the Forbidden City, The Great Wall, the Yangtze River gorges. We will tell you about some of these experiences in the next letter.

Jane and Sander