I think the measure of a Chinese host’s hospitality is how much food he or she can get their guest to eat. Whether it is at one meal or several meals throughout a single day, force feeding the guest with all manner of strange foods is as important as successfully hosting the Olympics.
We were visiting Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in west-central China. Our hosts were Mr. and Mrs. He. They were the parents of a boy who had stayed in our home for three weeks during a student exchange. Mr. He didn’t say much, but Mrs. He was a dominant chatterbox who was determined to win the Hostess of the Year Award. After visiting their apartment in Chengdu and touring the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, it was time for lunch.
We stopped at a nice restaurant in the countryside on the way back to Chengdu. We were led to a private banquet room on the second floor overlooking a tranquil pond. We sat at the typical round table with a “Lazy Susan” serving platter in the middle. There were five of us – our hosts, their son, and my wife Lisa and I. Yichen, the boy, was our interpreter, to the best of his fairly limited English skills.
Mrs. He launched into a lengthy dissertation on the culinary merits of the restaurant and the specialties of the Sichuan region. Or at least that’s what I think she said.
“My mother wants to know what you like to eat,” said Yichen.
I didn’t think they had what I like to eat in this provincial diner in Western China. No steak and new potatoes, no beef enchiladas with fresh taco chips and salsa, no pepperoni pizza.
“Whatever you would like to order is fine with us,” I politely replied.
First the waiter brought us some tea and soup. The waiter then brought a variety of appetizers. Some were delicious, some were not. Next the waiter delivered the main courses. There was enough food on the table to feed 15 people. All of these items were shared around the table by spinning the platter. It seemed that whatever landed in front of you was expected to be consumed. By luck or fate, I’m not sure which, a large bowl with a strange green substance arrived directly in front of me. I had no idea what it was. Vegetable? Meat dish? Dessert served early? Who knows.
Mr. He, who hadn’t said a word all day, started talking excitedly and waving his hands around.
“My father says that it is his favorite and you should eat,” said Yichen.
OK, I will do that. Should I check my life insurance policy first? I gingerly got a very small portion on my personally provided plastic fork. I put the fork into my mouth, faked a smile, and started chewing.
The taste exploded into my mouth. It burned hot and unbelievably caustic. I started to choke, my eyes flowed like the Yangtze River, and my body convulsed like I was spastic. A jet fuel fume burst through my sinus cavities into my brain. The taste reminded me of a mixture of turpentine and horse radish, although I don’t think I have ever drunk turpentine and horse radish, have I? I think I must have looked like Tom the Cat in those old Tom and Jerry cartoons when Jerry gets Tom to eat a load of hot peppers. My eyes bugged out, my hair stood on end, my extremities flailed and twitched. I knew that Sichuan was known for spicy food, but this was beyond belief.
I grabbed for my Coke and hurled it down my throat. I needed something to stop the pain and sensation of burning all the way down my gastrointestinal tract from my mouth to the other end. No fire extinguishers were within sight. I think I needed some of the water from the Dujiangyan Irrigation System.
My fellow diners looked at my distress. I calmed down and weakly spun the platter.
“Well…” I said. “Not my favorite so far. Let me try something else.”
The platter came to a stop. The strange green substance was in front of Mr. He.
He smiled at me and quickly devoured the entire contents of the bowl. He kept smiling the whole time.
Tip #2. Take a small portion of an unfamiliar food
This story was one of the winners of the First Travel Blogging Competition for Travellerspoint.com at 8 Blogs to Inspire Your Next Trip.