Adventures in Chinese Dining – Tip #1

Store in Beijing, China

I was in Shanghai to deliver some training to engineers of my company. Every morning the secretary in the office would ask me what I wanted for lunch. Due to my packed schedule, I didn’t have time to go out for lunch, so she would order lunch for me and have it delivered. The first day she listed a large number of local restaurants, along with KFC and Pizza Hut. Since I am not an adventurous eater, the mention of Western fast food caught my attention. Yes, a pepperoni pizza from Pizza Hut will do nicely. The mini-pizza was delivered piping hot and on time. It tasted delicious.

Shanghai View
A view of the Pudong area from the Bund in Shanghai

The second morning I preempted her recital of all of the restaurants I could order from by telling her right away I wanted another pizza. Today, however, I would be a little different and have a sausage pizza. Again, it was delivered piping hot and was delicious.

On the third morning, I had thoughts of really living on the edge and ordering KFC, but even in the US I rarely go to KFC. So Pizza Hut it was again, this time a combination of pepperoni and sausage. I think the secretary thought I was insane. A variety of excellent international restaurants were within walking distance of the office in downtown Shanghai, and I was only eating American fast food.

On the fourth day, my meetings were over and I had more time for lunch. After seeing me eat pizza three days in a row, the local manager named Jun suggested we go to a nice restaurant for authentic Shanghainese food. Since I was the guest in the office, he wanted to take me out and show his hospitality. It was my last day in Shanghai, so I thought I should be polite and sample the local fare. I agreed that it was time for a change of pace, so off we went.

Store in Beijing, China
Local signage in China

Jun, another local colleague named Simon, and I sat at the best table in one of the finest restaurants in the city. The waiter brought the menus and passed them out. I stared at the menu. Of course it was in Mandarin, and maybe even in the Shanghainese dialect for all I know. It made no sense to me.

“What would you like to eat today, Steve?” asked Jun. “Surely you eat food other than pizza?”

“I don’t know. I have no idea. Maybe you should order for me,” I said.

Jun and Simon put their heads together and came up with an assortment of dishes to try. Fish dishes, noodle dishes, vegetable dishes, who-knows-what dishes. The waiter delivered them all in sequence, a steady flow of courses. I bravely tried to sample them. One dish in particular had a nice aroma to it. I could tell it was some kind of meat. After faking eating some of the vegetable dishes, I needed to get my teeth into some beef or something.

“I’ll try that one,” I said, pointing to the dish pulling my nose in its direction. “What is it?”

“That is wind-blown duck,” said Simon. “The duck is plucked and hung to dry in the wind.”

I had never had duck before, but I figured it must taste at least a little bit like chicken. I dug into the duck dish, and it tasted pretty good. It tasted kind of like chicken, but wilder and heavier tasting (or so they would say on the Food Channel, since I actually don’t know how to describe comparative food tastes…). I skipped the rest of the other dishes and focused on the duck. The duck meat was chopped into small pieces and smothered in a spicy sauce.

After a few minutes only one piece was left. It was about three inches long, tubular, and as big in diameter as my thumb. It didn’t look like the other pieces I had eaten. Not wanting to be rude, I stabbed it with my fork and tried to cut it into smaller pieces. It was tough and didn’t cut easily. I sawed away back and forth like an Oregon lumberjack. My knife wasn’t sharp enough. I gave up and stuffed it whole into my mouth and started chewing.

It was like tough beef jerky. I chewed and chewed. It didn’t break down. I had to stop my conversation with Jun and Simon as I attempted to hack my way through the last of the duck. They kept eating and talking. After a couple of minutes I realized I was in trouble. There was no way I was going to chew this thing up and swallow it without gagging and perhaps heaving my lunch onto the table. I kept chewing while I looked for a way out.

The waiter approached the table and asked if we needed anything else. This was my chance. As Jun and Simon turned to address the waiter, I turned my head away from them and regurgitated the semi-chewed pile into my napkin. As the waiter left and my colleagues turned their attention back to me, their respected visitor from the US, I took a sip of water and collected myself.

“Did you like the wind-blown duck?” asked Jun. “It is a specialty of this restaurant.”

“I did, except for the last bite. It was about this long and about this wide, and tubular,” I said as I motioned with my fingers.

“Oh!” said Jun. “That’s the neck! That’s the best part!”

#1. Get a local to order for you

Great Wall or Bust! – Episode 1

lunch on a tour to the Great Wall

You can’t really see the Great Wall of China from space. That is just a myth. You can, however, take a bus tour there from Beijing. I found the brochure in the hotel lobby. It advertised an exciting day visiting the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall. Visiting a tomb didn’t sound very exciting to me (dead emperors!), but if you go to Beijing it is obligatory to visit the Great Wall. Otherwise when you get home your friends and family will ask you.

“What was the Great Wall like?” asks Grandma.

“I don’t know. I was too busy fighting with soggy noodles in my hot pot,” I would reply.

So we signed up for the tour. The bus picked us up promptly at 8am. It was a modern, comfortable touring bus. We were the first people on the bus. Our tour guide was a polite young Chinese girl named Lily.

“Welcome to our tour to the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall,” she said in her halting English. I think she had memorized her opening lines. Lily was an international business major at a local university, who worked on her English while leading tour groups.

The bus slowly wound around Beijing, pushing its way through the heavy traffic. At one point the driver even drove the wrong way up an elevated, curved freeway exit ramp so we could skip the line waiting to get on the freeway. I guess when you are driving one of the biggest vehicles on the road you can do what you want. Until another car comes the other way exiting the freeway at 70 mph.

We picked up an assortment of tourists, about twelve of us in all. There was a French guy, a Brazilian father and son, a family of Mongolians, and Chinese peasants from the countryside visiting the big city for the first time. Our last pickup was an elderly Chinese gentleman dressed head to toe like Chairman Mao. He was clothed in a dark blue tunic, dark blue pants, shined black dress shoes, and a cap. He looked just like the picture of Mao on the outer wall of the Forbidden City.

Our first stop was the site of the Ming Tombs. The Ming Tombs are underground (they’re tombs!), but it turned out that they were closed for renovation. Going into a cave to see a tomb of a long dead emperor is not my idea of a good time, so I didn’t really care. Lily gave us a summary of the place, most of which I couldn’t hear or understand. We all piled back into the bus.

Ming Tombs
The Ming Tombs

“Now, we are going to stop at the jade factory,” said Lily. “We will show you how jade is carved.”

Shopping is one of my least favorite activities. It doesn’t matter if I am at home or on vacation, I don’t want to go shopping. It didn’t say anything about a jade factory on the tour brochure. It occurred to me right away that this stop was pre-arranged to part tourists from their yuan.

The factory sales manager led our group along a walkway which circled the factory floor. We could look through windows at the workers hunched over their grinders, furiously turning the jade pieces back and forth to turn them into dragons and butterflies. We ended up at the showroom. I admit that some of the larger items were very impressive. They also were very expensive and hard to carry home in your suitcase too. The sales job wasn’t too obnoxious and soon we were back on the bus.

Jade Carving Factory outside of Beijing
And here is Vanna to tell you the prizes you have won

“It is now time for lunch. We will have a traditional Chinese meal and a rest,” said Lily.

That’s good, I thought. I am hungry from all of this non-touring and non-shopping.
The restaurant was a very old building surrounding a courtyard. The group was led into a large room filled with round tables. We appeared to be the only customers. Lily ordered the food for the group from the waiter who magically appeared with tea cups. There were no menus. The circular table had a large round tray in the middle of it. We were each given a small bowl and chopsticks. Even though we had talked about it twenty times, I had forgotten to bring my plastic fork. I am completely inept at using chopsticks. If I have to use chopsticks at every meal, I will starve to death in no time at all.

The Chinese peasants at the table started chattering in their local dialect, no doubt discussing which dead emperor was their favorite. We tried to talk with the French guy, but his English was even less than my French, so we didn’t get very far. The Brazilians were on the far side of the table from us, and we don’t speak Portuguese anyway. Chairman Mao stared at me intently like I was from another planet.

The food arrived in a dozen large bowls. The food servers put the bowls on the tray. There was no dinner bell, but the diners from our group instantly attacked the food in the bowls like it was the start of the Indy 500. A race to see who would get full first and get the food they wanted the most. It was a little like a church potluck picnic, with some people edging their way towards the front of the line to get the deli drumsticks and gourmet chocolate chip cookies instead of Aunt Madge’s Spam hot dish and leftover jello salad.

The tray was spinning back and forth. The hungry tourists would grab the tray and spin it towards them to make a stab at dumping some of the contents of a large serving bowl into their personal small bowl. I tried to get in the game and grab the tray. I spied some fried rice on the far side. I didn’t want the unidentified brown mush in the bowl on my side of the tray. It was probably mashed fungi. I got a grip on the tray and heaved. The tray started to spin my way. I could see the rice coming along clockwise, here it comes.

It got to Chairman Mao. He grabbed the rice bowl and dumped some into his bowl. I’m a polite and patient American traveler; I know how to wait my turn. As I reached for the bowl someone on the other side of the table flung the tray again, back their way. Away went my rice, counter clockwise to oblivion. The mashed fungi came back into view. I am hungry, but there is no way I am eating that.

The tray kept rotating all the way around the circle. It looked like some spicy chicken was coming my way. Yes, keep spinning oh mighty tray! Just then one of the Mongolians stopped the tray, dumped the last of the spicy chicken into his bowl, and let the tray go.

What stopped in front of me was a green vegetable looking substance. I had no idea what that was, and even if I did, it did not look edible by humans. I’ll pass.

lunch on a tour to the Great Wall
Chariman Mao has left the building.

The tray kept spinning. The tourists devoured the contents of the bowls like a plague of locusts. I did manage to finally get some noodles into my bowl. However, getting the noodles into my mouth with chopsticks was a struggle. Abandoning all attempts at proper etiquette, I grabbed the bowl and slurped them down. Nobody noticed my dining faux pas, they were too busy using their own chopsticks as serving utensils into the common bowls. Which didn’t bother me, but was a major rules violation according to Lisa.

When the tray stopped spinning, the food was all gone, the tourists were full, and I was still hungry.

Watch Out for the Waiter’s Scribbles!

Marienplatz view of Neues Rathaus in Munich

We had wandered the streets of Munich and ended up in the main square of the city, called the Marienplatz.  The Marienplatz is usually full of tourists and is a great spot for people-watching.  On one side of the square is the Neues Rathaus (the new city hall), which has a tower with a clock called a glockenspiel in it.  At certain hours of the day, the glockenspiel comes to life to reenact two 16th century stories of a Duke and his wife, the plague, and some barrel makers.  Stores and restaurants occupy the other sides of the square.

Marienplatz view of Neues Rathaus in Munich
Neues Rathaus in the Marienplatz, Munich

After the glockenspiel show, we headed straight for the nearest restaurant for a well-deserved lunch break.  We were a getting a little tired of sausages and sauerkraut and were ready for some pizza.  We were promptly seated by the hostess and a few minutes later the waiter arrived to take our order.

The waiter was a stout middle-aged fellow with slicked back hair.  He wore a starched white shirt, black bow tie, and a small apron around his waist.  So typically European!  He had heard us speaking English as he walked up to us.  He greeted us warmly in a thick German accent.

“Guten tag! Ja, what will you have?” he asked as he whipped out his little notepad.

His notepad was about 2 inches by 5 inches of rough buff-colored paper.  In his hand he held a small pencil.

We gave him our order of a couple of pizzas and soft drinks as he scribbled away on this little notepad.  With a final flourish of scribbling, he turned and scurried away.

The pizzas were very good.  We devoured them, fueling our bodies for the planned afternoon of touring.  With two hungry teenagers at the table, it didn’t take very long.  It was now time to pay the bill.

Getting a waiter’s attention in a European restaurant in order to pay the bill is almost always a strange situation for Americans.  In America, we eat, we pay, and we leave, so someone else can take our table and because we always have something else to do.  In Europe, people linger over their table and waiters have centuries of practice ignoring diners.

Our waiter walked by.  I waved.  He ignored me.  It happened again.  I tried a third time to get his attention.  Finally he got the message and came over.

“We’d like our bill, please.”

He rummaged in the pockets of his apron, looking for our bill.  After a few moments of searching, he pulled out a crumpled piece of notepad paper.

“Fifty-nine Euros,” he said.  I guess this was a restaurant where the customer paid the waiter, not one where the customer takes the bill to a central cash register.

As I dug into my wallet to get some cash, my brain started warming up.  How could this bill be 59 Euros?  These must be some expensive pizzas.  I don’t think the menu had prices that high for a couple of pizzas and drinks.  How could that be?  On an impulse, I asked to see the bill.

“Uh, Can I see the bill please?”

I think this was a new thing for the waiter.  He probably would go back to his waiter buddies and complain about the American tourists who wanted to see the bill.  Imagine, who would do such a thing here?

He flashed the crumpled note pad page in front of my face as he waived it around.  All I could see on the page were scribbles.  Some were numbers, some were doodles.

“59 Euros,” he said again, more firmly this time, holding his ground.

His behavior was now getting my attention.  My scam alert antennae were now in operation.  I started to visualize the menu items.  Let’s see, a large pepperoni pizza, a large sausage pizza, three Cokes, and a bottle of water.  That should be about 35 or 37 Euros.  Rounding up, it might come to 39 Euros.

“I want to see the bill again.  Let me hold it.”

He didn’t want to give it to me.  Now he pretended to not understand enough English to know what I was asking.  I motioned with my hands, pantomiming him giving me the bill and me looking at it closely.  Reluctantly, he handed it over.

I looked it over closely.  Yes, I could see our individual items, and almost illegible numbers for the total.  The final scribble showed a number that might have been a 59, but also might have been a 39.  This guy was trying to scam us dumb Americans out of 20 Euros.

“Drei nuen, nein funf nuen!” I said, trying to remember the numbers in German. I pushed two twenty Euro notes into his hand.

He looked at me with a blank look like I was an idiot child who couldn’t count.  That’s when I started to get annoyed.  I decided to pull the supervisor card.

“Let me talk to the manager of this restaurant.  Who is in charge here?”

Seeing that I was determined now, he quickly changed his tune.  He muttered something in his accented English about mistakes being made.  He took the notes out of my hand, plopped a Euro coin down on the table as change, and walked away.

“You see, kids,” I started in my typical Dad voice, “You never know when someone will try to take advantage of you.  You always have to be on the lookout…”  My kids rolled their eyes in response.  They get plenty of practice with this reaction.

“Chalk one up for savvy American traveler.”

The outcome was different in Rome.  We sat outside at a café on a glorious late summer evening.  The view of the Pantheon was splendid.  A horse and buggy were giving moonlit rides to happy tourists and local romantics.

A view of the Pantheon in Rome, Italy
Let's go for a ride!

The waiter, looking very competent in his European waiter uniform, attended to our every whim and desire.  He whipped out his notepad and scribbled away.  An appetizer, some vino, yes, a bottle of that fancy Italian water – no gas please…  scribble, scribble, scribble.

All of the courses were “al a carte.”  That’s Italian for “charge me an arm and a leg.”  And we couldn’t pass up desert.  It was chocolate cake.  Not my favorite, but not to be missed by others in my immediate family.  The waiter then brought us some limoncello, a cold desert wine to cleanse the palate.

After enjoying the nice meal, we enjoyed the view while hogging the table in European fashion.  Eventually it was time to leave.  It was the last night of our vacation, and a long travel day awaited us the next day.  Time for the bill.

The waiter was nowhere to be found.  I think he was in the kitchen practicing his penmanship.  I approached a guy who looked like the manager, although his name tag matched the name of the restaurant, so maybe he was the namesake and owner.  I motioned with my hands that we needed to go and wanted to pay the bill.

Without looking up from his newspaper, he said “One five nine Euros.”  Astounded, I gave him my best blank stare.  159 Euros, you’ve got to be kidding me, that’s over $200!  This isn’t even a nice restaurant, and the food was mediocre!

Before I could summon my best indignant, righteous anger, he pulled two crumpled pages of notepad paper out of his pocket while gesticulating wildly and spewing forth a rant in Italian.

I looked at the pages.  They were illegible.  Nothing but scribbles and doodles.  There’s no way I could reconstruct in my head what we ordered and approximately how much it cost.  As Kenny Rogers once said, you have to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.

Meekly I handed over my credit card. I had played the game with one win, and one loss.  It was time to go home.

Beijing Hot Pot

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.

A gate in the Forbidden City, Beijing China

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.