Adventures in Chinese Dining – Tip #1

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

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