Ask my mother and she’ll tell you that I have always been a finicky eater. As an adult, I am certainly a meat and potatoes guy. So before I traveled to China I was a little apprehensive. I didn’t want to go on a self-inflicted crash diet during the trip. I was hoping there would be something I could like to eat in a land of 1 ½ billion people. Something other than Pizza Hut or KFC that is, which are found by the thousands in big Chinese cities.
Traditionally, there are four great traditions of Chinese cuisine – Cantonese, Huaiyang, Shandong, and Szechuan. Cantonese involves meats and stir-frying. Huaiyang is sweet and includes fish. Shandong is seafood with steamed breads, vegetables, and noodles. Szechuan is spicy, using garlic and peppers liberally. None of these resemble American Chinese food that we are used to here in the US. They also don’t give out fortune cookies in Chinese restaurants. I’m not sure who made that up.
Beijing food is in the Shandong tradition. One of the notable dishes in Beijing is called Hot Pot. Hot pot generally involves cooking food items in your own personal hot pot. The hot pot is a small ceramic bowl with a burner under it. The diner loads various things into the hot pot, boils them for some undetermined period of time (how does one know when it’s done? I don’t know…), and extracts the things into the diner’s small bowl. The food can then be picked out with chopsticks or slurped.
One day I was walking around the area west of the Forbidden City. My guide book suggested a local restaurant that was renowned for Beijing hot pot. It was a small restaurant tucked away on a quiet side street. I was the only foreigner in the area and when I walked up to the hostess, she chattered at me in Mandarin while shooing me away with her hands. It was not exactly welcoming to this hungry diner. I think she was saying “you don’t want to eat here! Go away back to the foreign tourist hotel zone and eat at Pizza Hut!”
“Yes, I do want to eat here,” I said to her in English, since I don’t speak Mandarin. “I am very hungry! I have walked all the way across Beijing just to come to your guidebook recommended restaurant!”
She then laughed at me and proceeded to seat me in a table in the back of the tiny place. Next to me was a Chinese family finishing their lunches. The father was pulling tasty looking meat out of his hot pot. The mother was slurping something out of her bowl. The obligatory only child was wailing away at the top of his little lungs.
The waitress showed up and gave me a menu. Of course, the menus were in Chinese characters, and I had no idea what was available. I knew I wanted what my neighbor had, because it smelled really good. But only luck would get me that lunch because no one in the restaurant spoke English.
When the waitress came back to take my order I had to resort to pointing at random at a few dishes. She nodded, scribbled something on her order pad, and walked back to the cook standing behind me. They then laughed as if they had just heard the funniest killer joke ever in the history of the world. Do you see the combination of food that Westerner just ordered? HAHAHAHAH!!!!
In time she delivered the uncooked food that I had ordered. She lit my burner beneath my very own hot pot. I became aware that all of the other diners in the small restaurant were now watching to see what I would do. I was the star attraction, the ignorant Westerner who ordered the strange combination of food to load into his hot pot!
I’ll show them, I thought. I gathered a small handful of dried noodles and dumped them into the boiling water. I then threw in the brown weird looking stuff. I was hoping that was a good kind of meat and not Fido. I added in a few small vegetables and simmered until done. Whenever that is supposed to be, I’m not sure, but I gave it five minutes.
Now it’s show time. I smiled politely at my fellow diners observing my every move. I grabbed my chopsticks and peered into my hot pot. Smells good. Looks good. Now if I can only get this stuff out of here and into my bowl, and then from the bowl to my mouth. I tried to lift some noodles out. But here is a physics lesson for you kids out there. Once a dried stiff noodle is immersed in boiling water, it becomes like, well, uh, a noodle, you know? I couldn’t pick up the noodle with my chopsticks. It kept falling off. Over and over I tried, to the great amusement of my fans. I couldn’t for the life of me get any of the noodles out of the hot pot. If I had a fork, I might have been able to make a go of it. But not with chopsticks. I am chopstick-challenged.
I eventually gave up trying to use the chopsticks. I grabbed the hot pot and starting dumping it into my bowl. That was a bad idea. I overflowed the bowl and dumped boiling hot water all over the table. My audience roared with laughter. Even the formerly wailing small child stopped wailing and started laughing.
Admitting defeat, I asked for the bill. I apologized for making a mess and promised that next time I would do better. The waitress smiled at me as I stumbled out the door. At the street corner I hailed a taxi. To make my way to Pizza Hut.