Friday, June 17, 2005


We were invited to our first Chinese meal, with Chinese, in Lijiang. We were fortunate to find a guesthouse in Lijiang that was run by the friendliest Chinese couple in the country, and likewise full of the friendliest Chinese tourists. We were immediately invited to join them for dinner our first night, and it became something of a ritual for the rest of our stay there. I have never experienced generosity to the degree that I have in China... we were always invited, and never asked to pay.

Dining in China is always a group activity -- so different than in the States, where families hardly ever sit down together to share a meal anymore. I remember 'every man for himself night' in my teenage years, where leftovers were microwaved and hastily eaten in front of the TV. "We make the community," our friend Simon commented when I pointed out this observation to him. Some say the culture of shared meals is the reason for the strength of family and community in China. I would have to agree.

A Chinese meal consists of many dishes, which everyone shares. Each person gets his own individual bowl of rice and chooses what he wants (and how much) from the overflowing plates of food in the center of the table. A bit unhygenic, one might think, as chopsticks go from the mouth back into the communal plates of food... and over the course of several days, I believe some of us passed a mild cold amongst each other.

The First Night

When dinner was announced, we all sat down at the round table on tiny stools, the kind found in kindergarten classrooms or perhaps, even, oversized doll houses. It doesn't make sense to me, the reason why such an old society as the Chinese have never taken to comfortable furniture, much less furniture that is made for people other than hobbits. The food was laid out, filling the entire table, and glasses of Bijiu, Chinese whiskey so strong it makes the hair on your arms duck for cover, were poured. I fidgeted and adjusted things... the placement of my itsy bitsy chair...the placement of my left buttock on said chair (the right one hung off... not enough room, you see), the arrangement of my chopsticks in my fingers... I wanted to give others a head start so I could see how things were supposed to be done.

Simon mentioned we probably wouldn't like the chicken because of the bones. I was more wary of the colorless chicken head sitting on the plate. The eye was half open and it appeared to be staring at me, like a schoolyard bully, daring me to eat a piece of it, which was rather unappealing as well. The chicken must have been cooked, I presume by steam, for it had the appearance of being raw: dimpled skin, the color Crayola has dubbed 'flesh', the red coloration of blood where major bones and arteries had once been connected to each other.

Chinese etiquette dictates that one should at least try what she is offered. It's a bit rude to decline food, especially. I found it difficult to imagine the chicken going into my mouth, but I am known as one who likes to please. It was even more difficult to manage the bony chunk with my chopsticks... I ended up just using my hands but still found it impossible to locate any meat on the thing I held in my hand. I watched my fellow diners to see how they managed the feat and discovered that all I had to do was chuck the thing on the table. That's what they did when they were done with their bone shard. The table is were everything you don't want in your mouth anymore goes. In fact, it's not rude to spit things out onto the table... and for the lazy, you can just lean over and let it drop out of your mouth.

I flashed back to meals at home when getting a piece of gristle or some other undesirable thing meant a carefully calculated maneuver of wiping the mouth with a napkin while at the same time depositing the thing into the napkin discreetly, so no one will notice -- but I'm sure everyone does notice. There's always the problem of what to do with the napkin afterwards, especially those fancy cloth ones.

The rest of the meal was more appetizing, except for the bowl of 'insides of chicken' as we were told. The meal was over when everyone was sufficiently stuffed -- Simon repeatedly told Benjamin to, "expand your stomach." I don't know how the Chinese stay thin with the amount of food they eat. The family meal doesn't end when the food is taken from the table. People sit around and talk. They hang out. And in this discussion time, in the haze of full bellies, somehow we'd signed ourselves up to cook something for dinner the next night.

I laid in bed awake much of the night fretting about our 'assignment'. There are certain challenges, or limitations I should say, when it comes to the Chinese kitchen. There is no oven or grill -- Chinese food is steamed or fried -- I read somewhere that the Chinese consider roasting meat barbaric, although there are plenty of grills on the street serving up meat on sticks. Our guesthouse had no grill, though, and no oven. There wasn't even a refrigerator. The other issue had to do with utensils. What could we cook that could be eaten with sticks AND was steamed or fried AND with ingredients we could locate in the market AND, finally, something 'American'? The question was mind boggling.

After hours of tossing and turning, with visions of roast beef and baked potatoes smothered in butter and sour cream invading my dreams -- or should I say nightmares as this was food that was totally out of reach and long missed -- I woke at 4 a.m. shouting the words, "Beef stew!" Benjamin mumbled something like, "Huh? Oh...Yum," and then continued to make snoring noises. I went back to sleep peacefully thinking that I had solved our dilemma. I knew we could get the basic ingredients for the stew at the market and while the beef might present itself as a challenge in terms of the form it came in, I felt assured that we could make a mean stew, a meal cooked in a pot (or wok in this case) over the flame of the stove. And spoons are not foreign eating utensils in China... it was perfect.

However, when we woke the next morning the question of broth came up and while we figured we could boil bones in water to make our own, we didn't want to spend the whole day in the kitchen. And while potatoes and carrots and the like would be easy to find, what about the spices that give the thing any flavor? Bay leaves and marjoram... even salt... are not typical Chinese ingredients. So we chucked the plan and put our minds to something simple, something that didn't require utensils or even cooking for that matter. We were also let off the big hook and place on a smaller hook, as our host told us, as we headed out to the market, that we didn't have to do it at all, but if we wanted to make something, to just make one thing... a salad, perhaps (read b-o-r-i-n-g, and besides... what about salad dressing?).

We strategized our plan through taking on a selfish approach. What did we miss -- what have we been salivating over... what would we trade a few thousand tastebuds for a bite of? The answer came to us in a flash... Benjamin had been pining over something since the day we left San Francisco: chips and salsa. We craved something from our favorite neighborhood in the city, The Mission. We figured it would no problem to find the ingredients for the salsa. They're simple. It was the idea of chips that had me nervous, but Benjamin was optimistic and confident that we could make them from scratch, with a recipe from the internet.

We ambled around the market in search of ripe tomatoes and ended up with a handful that looked as if they had been set out on the porch for Halloween to scare little children. They were split from age, dark red, and mushy in some places, but they would do. Onions were easy to find and while we'd seen cilantro in food that we'd eaten, we couldn't find any. Benjamin asked me how much parsley I was going to sample before accepting the fact that there was none there. We picked up some fresh strawberries and cake for desert... we figured that making an appetizer and a desert would be our 'American' contribution -- Chinese meals have neither.

A side note about the market: As a dedicated carnivore, a Chinese market is the one place that almost turned me into a vegetarian: live squealing pigs were held up by one leg for inspection, mangy dogs were crowded in cages like the nearby chickens, animal hearts, hooved legs, brains, innards, and whole heads were on display for sale... it's a place where the term 'meat market' takes on a whole new meaning. In the states, it's easy to buy meat, all nicely packaged and arranged in neat rows by smiling people wearing spotless white overcoats. It's a different story when you see the meat in its original form, before the butcher has turned it into something more artistic by comparison.

We spent 3 hours in the kitchen upon returning from the market. Lilly, our host, was concerned about the amount of time we were spending on our contribution to the meal. But we had fun cooking. After months of traveling, doing something normal, normal being something we would do at home, was a nice respite from sight seeing.

The chips and salsa were moderately hailed with acceptance -- I was struck by how fresh the salsa tasted (Chinese dishes are soggy and pungent)... I'm not sure the fresh taste was one the Chinese are familiar with, hence strange. We had to inform our diners that the chips need not be eaten with chopsticks, another oddity for the Chinese. They even eat french fries and pizza with sticks. Desert was also received with some hesitation. We were told that Chinese don't really like sweets, which explained the reason why cookies bought at bakeries taste like chalk.

We were not asked to contribute to the meals after that night, although we were still invited to join them to eat. And I was a little less bashful about refusing the strange things they served up. We were now all on an even playing field.


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