Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Try everything: part 2

Friends, I hope you'll excuse me, but I just have to spend another post talking about Chinese food. I don't know what in the world we buy from Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but it is certainly not Chinese food.

Steamed mantis shrimp
For dinner Monday, we went to a restaurant in downtown Qingdao. The interior decoration was much more modern than at lunch, but the entryway to the restaurant was the same: aquaria and display tables, full of sea creatures about to become food. It was a smaller crowd (just four of us), but there were the same toasts, the same excessive number of dishes, and the same musical chatter in Mandarin.

Two dishes stuck out to me at dinner. The first was steamed mantis shrimp - yes, mantis shrimp. Not the famous rainbow species, but a member of the Stomatopoda nonetheless. They have super long, meaty abdomens and taste just like crab. You have to peel the shell off like you would for a normal shrimp, but the meat doesn't come out quite as easily (normal shrimp tails don't have any shell on the bottom, but mantis shrimp do), so you have to bite it out. It's a little messy, but not to worry - table etiquette in China is not nearly as strict as in the U.S.

Eggplant paste with ground peanuts and dried krill
Another dish that stuck out to me was an eggplant paste. Eggplant is surprisingly common in China. Our host for dinner showed me how to scoop up the paste with my chopsticks and put it onto a soft, flexible flatbread. You then wrap the flatbread around the paste to make a pouch - almost like a square burrito. After so many diverse meats, I was actually excited for a simple vegetable paste, but I should have known better. The paste was topped with ground peanuts and what looked from afar like flakes of parmesan cheese - except that it wasn't parmesan cheese; it was dried krill. The tiny crustaceans caught me off-guard, but they really just added a crunch to the eggplant.

Of course there were plenty of other dishes to go around. Tofu and octopus soup in a purple broth (yes, purple). Lotus root. Breaded fried taro. Pickled celery sticks. Hard-boiled eggs soaked in brine for a week. And jellyfish. Yes, jellyfish. I expected jellyfish to be floppy, watery, and non-substantive, but the thin, clear strips were actually crunchy. Well, maybe crunchy is the wrong word. They were dense. It felt crunchy to chew just because the jellyfish bits were so compact. They had been thoroughly dried, leaving behind only the organic part of the jellyfish's body. It was definitely not the texture I expected.

Steaming seafood
If I haven't already worn out your patience, I want to tell you about one more dinner, because we went to a restaurant that used a different cooking style. We sat at a round table in a private dining room, but this table had a metallic pit in the middle. A waiter poured hot mushroom broth into the pit and then heated it from underneath. The broth was covered with a metallic grate, and an array of seafood was placed on top. I remember there were clams, mussels, scallops, mantis shrimp, oysters, and large clams on the half shell with giant scoops of garlic. The whole collection was then covered with a wooden lid so the seafood could steam. When it was done cooking, we helped ourselves to the shellfish and dipped the meat in a mix of garlic and vinegar.

I'm an adventurous eater, and China has offered plenty of opportunities to stretch my limits. I'm grateful for the new experiences!

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