Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Try everything

"I won't give up, no I won't give in
Until I reach the end
And then I'll start again
No I won't leave
I wanna try everything
I wanna try even though I could fail" 
- "Try everything" by Shakira

Whenever I travel, I adhere to my personal Foreign Food Policy. The policy is simple: I will eat absolutely anything, but I have to know what it is before I put it into my mouth. Well, friends, China is the perfect place to stretch the limits of an adventurous eater. It is going to take an entire blog post just to tell you what I ate today. 

Breakfast was actually pretty tame. Rice soup, steamed dumplings filled with bean paste, fried bread dipped in soy milk. All very bland flavors and familiar textures. Easy enough. 

Then there was lunch. We carpooled from the university to a building that I never would have guessed was a high-class restaurant. We were ushered into a private dining room with an 8-person round table. Centered on top of the table, a glass circle rotated freely. Two of the walls were white stucco; one had floor-to-ceiling windows covered with thin off-white curtains, and the fourth was semi-transparent and covered with a carved wooden screen. Woven red ropes with gold charms and tassels hung from some of the panels. The surroundings were exactly what I would expect for a traditional Chinese room. 

Which fish?
As I set down my bag, one of the professors told me to follow the host and order food. I hestitated at first because nobody else was accompanying the host, and I didn't know what I wanted to eat anyway. I followed him back out to the restaurant entrance, though, where there was a display of seafood. All sorts of animals - lobsters, shrimps, clams, whole fish - were arranged in tanks or on the table. A restaurant employee followed the host around with an electronic keypad and pushed buttons every time the host pointed to something (recording the order, I presume). The host turned to me and asked me what I wanted to eat. I like fish, I told him. Then he lead me up to the display table and asked "Which fish?" I had no idea I would have to select the actual individual I wanted to consume, but I pointed to a safe-looking species. The host muttered something to the restaurant employee, who pushed more buttons on the keypad. 

Back in the dining room, the host made a show of assigning seats. I was placed between an OUC professor and his graduate student, who claimed to have learned English by watching Friends. As we waited for the food to show up, we sipped hot water (just hot water, not tea) from ceramic mugs without handles. One by one, waiters started bringing dishes to our table, placing them on the rotating glass tray. We served ourselves from the common plates with chopsticks, and the host even placed some food on the plates of the two people beside him. The master student did the same to me. Nobody jumped to eat or take large portions of the first few dishes, which surprised me, but it made much more sense as the meal went on. Dishes kept coming, and the dishes kept getting better. The fish I had chosen eventually showed up on a platter, cooked whole with its head still on, surrounded by a sweet brown sauce. 

There's no way I can possibly remember all of the dishes, but I'll try to describe a few. There were fermented hard-boiled eggs called "thousand-year eggs" (they're really only fermented for a few months), which tasted exactly how I would expect the green eggs in Green Eggs and Ham to taste. There was a stir fry with green bell peppers and strips of pig intestine. There were whole boiled shrimp. There was a vegetable dish topped with dried krill (yes, whole-body dried krill; apparently they're called "sea rice" in China). There were bite-sizes pieces of fried pork in a sticky brown sauce. The meat was actually pretty fatty (and some pieces were all fat), but it wasn't gross - the Chinese know how to fry animal fat to make it crunchy. There was egg drop soup with small clams in it. There was another soup with spicier broth and deep-fried pastries for dipping. There were dumplings filled with whitefish and parsely. Boiled peanuts. Chinese yams. And corn on the cob. (Not kidding; it's weirdly common here.)

As we ate, the conversation rattled along in Mandarin. Every once in a while (probably 7 or 8 times during the 2-hour lunch), the host would raise his glass and propose a toast. I never understood what it was for, of course, but I followed suit by clinking glasses with the other guests and then holding my glass awkwardly in front of my mouth, waiting for the host to stop talking so we could drink. Usually, the host would just propose the toast, make everyone raise their glasses, and then keep on talking without ever taking a drink himself. 

An hour and a half into lunch, new dishes were still being brought to the table. Only about half of what had been ordered ever got eaten, but just as I was beginning to lament the waste of food, a group of waiters showed up and started putting the leftovers into containers for the host to take home. At two hours on the dot, the host and the other scientists announced we had better get back to the university, and the lunch came to an abrupt close. 

Meals are very important in China, especially for building partnerships, so I was glad for the lunch we attended. There's a very distinct culture surrounding meals. It was great to experience!

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