Greetings from the land of pandas and spicy food: Chengdu, Sichuan, China!
We have been in China for three weeks, starting in Yunnan (toured Kunming, Dali and Lijiang), and all the Chinese we met raved about the food in Sichuan, especially how spicy it is. Being a moderate heat kinda gal, I was a little worried, especially after the trouble I had in Thailand.
At a cooking class in Bangkok, I received some advice on how to interpret spiciness on an Asian menu, courtesy of the wonderfully cheeky, Chef Jay.
- One chili = spicy for the mouth
- Two chili = spicy for the belly
- Three chili = spicy for the a$$
Despite my attempts to avoid super hot food (which was actually quite tolerable going down), all the meals I've eaten in Chengdu have been a three chili situation.
What goes in must come out, but luckily, we haven't had any emergencies only to be stymied by this signage.
Apologies in advance for any grossness, but today's installment is all eating related, one end or the other.
One thing we've been doing poorly fairly regularly is managing at restaurants. We want to try all these new and exciting foods, but sometimes there is a trick to it that we miss completely. You would think that someone with an aversion to looking like a dumbass would not choose the traveler lifestyle. Yet, I plunge head-first into one embarrassing food-related episode after another.
One of the first was in Thailand where we tried a Korean BBQ joint in Chiang Mai. Why eat Korean in Thailand when we are going to Korea later? Exactly, but we passed this place every day for a week and it smelled so good, I couldn't stand it anymore.
At a Korean BBQ, you select raw food to cook at your table on a dome-shaped grill surrounded by a moat filled with boiling water. While your meat cooks on the grill, the juice runs down to flavor the water where your vegetables are boiling. I think this is how it's supposed to work, but at the time, we had no idea what we were doing.
First, there is the matter of deciding what to grill. There was a buffet filled with meat, vegetables and condiments, which doesn't sound too intimidating unless you realize you've never seen half the stuff before. We selected a variety of items and sat down in front of our grill.
I'm kind of a food safety fanatic and was horrified to learn we had one set of chopsticks each. Realizing you are supposed to place the raw meat on the grill with the same chopsticks that you put in your mouth, I chased down a server and procured several sets of chopsticks for various purposes- one set for raw meat, one set for vegetables and two sets for eating.
Cross-contamination avoided, we began to cook, but the embarrassment was only just starting.
Far from easy or enjoyable, we couldn't figure out how long to cook many of our items. Also, I didn't realize most of the meat was frozen, so when I popped a nicely golden piece (chicken? pork?) into my mouth, it was raw and cold on the inside. I tried to discreetly pluck it from my gob and luckily, had the cover of darkness to hide my spitting.
Yes, adding to the awkwardness, the power had gone out (not just at the restaurant, but the entire street). The grills ran on gas, but there was no air-conditioning or lights. So there we were, sitting over a steaming hot grill in 90 degree heat with sweat dripping down our faces. Candlelight did not magically transform this into a romantic moment. I felt like a caveman.
On it went, trying to figure out how long to cook something on the grill or in the water. I couldn't get the hang of it- it was one extreme or the other. Either I ate the meat raw or charred to a crisp. The vegetables were either rock hard or boiled into mushy oblivion.
Maybe we'll figure it out by the time we arrive in Korea.
The embarrassment has continued here in China while trying Hot Pot for the first time. We had been walking by Hot Pot restaurants for well over a week and I kept asking Perry if he would like to try it. His wise observation was that it looked a bit 'involved.'
Finally, in Dali, I insisted we try it and he relented. With his Mandarin speaking skills, I guess I was feeling cocky and needed to be taken down a peg.
Well, ordering Hot Pot isn't a feature of Pimsleur's Chinese I-V. If he needs to inquire on the status of a Chinese-German joint venture, he's solid, but asking for another pair of chopsticks or other truly helpful restaurant phrases remain elusively out of reach.
When ordering Hot Pot, you first need to decide which vat of boiling oil to choose. We stared at the few hand-written English translations on the menu, saw a surprising variety of selections featuring offal, but settled on the familiar sounding 'pork spare ribs.'
Then, we needed to order the bits to cook in the pot. Sounds easy, but when half the ingredients aren't translated into English and you don't know how much to order for two people, it's not. After pointing at a few items, we looked up at the waitress with questioning faces, trying to solicit any reassurance that our order wasn't completely inappropriate, but she remained poker-faced. We tried to order noodles, not seeing them on the limited English menu, but this only confused her, so we dropped the request after several unsuccessful rounds of charades and Google Translate-fueled phone show and tell.
The items arrived and we faced the same problem as the Korean BBQ. How long to cook? As the restaurant got busier and more lively, there was a slight paranoia that every bit of banter and laughter in the room was a result of our ineptitude. After much trial and error, we were just getting in the groove when a man appeared before our table.
'Do you want noodles?' He asked it in a way that I couldn't determine if he was asking sincerely or incredulously, like 'Don't you morons know you don't eat noodles with Hot Pot?' Forgive me, this actually happened once in India, and it scarred me.
We confirmed yes, we did want noodles (30 minutes ago, and still), but asked whether or not it was normal. He laughed and assured us it was. We ate our noodles and left quietly, relieved it was over.
Slightly gun shy by our experience, we ate dumplings for dinner the next four days.
Isn't it really why we visit China? To try strange and gag-reflex inducing delights?
I have to confess, my first two weeks of eating weren't super adventurous and the odd things I've eaten have been by accident, like the small bit of beef stomach in my Cross Bridge Noodle Soup in Kunming and a piece of goat intestine in a local Naxi soup in Lijiang. Perry has been a bit more daring, trying hot yak milk and yak butter tea, which he says tasted like burnt popcorn butter. Mmm.
Our cautiousness ended last night, however.
We met up with Bob and Johanna, the Swedes we first met in Dali, who invited us on a local food tour sponsored by their hostel.
The lovely young lady that led our tour took us down back alleys where every stall is a 'shits about to get real' situation. First, there were the carcasses being butchered just inches from the pedestrians trying to avoid being run over by aggressive motorbikes. Once cut, every part of the animal is displayed- feet, head, nose, stomach, heart, liver, intestines- it's like a free veterinary anatomy class!
Bob tried a rabbit head, and having eaten rabbit before (not a head) I can attest that it does taste a lot like chicken, but watching him nibble on cheeks and rip open mouths to eat the tongue was a bit too much for me. Taking a break from the carnage, we walked for a bit, watching vendors make fresh noodles and fry up dumplings as customers shouted, gestured and haggled over them. I was almost back to normal when we came the stall with the Century Egg.
The Century Egg (or 1000 year old egg) is an infamous Chinese culinary delight. An egg is buried in the ground with something caustic (usually baking soda) and two months later is dug up to be 'savored.' The yolk turns a very dark green/black color and the white converts into a brown jelly.
See for yourself in this video.
We capped off the night with a super spicy Hot Pot dinner which was quite fun since our Chinese guide did the ordering. We have officially recovered from the shame of our last Hot Pot experience.
In mundane-related food news, Perry and I are both big vegetable eaters and were looking forward to China suspecting there would be plenty of interesting new options. This was confirmed during one of our walks around Dali, where we marveled at the quantity and variety of lush greens at the fresh produce market.
But there was no such luck when eating at restaurants. I scoured the picture menu looking for vegetables and found precious few, just a few bell peppers and green onions for garnish. I even pulled up a photo of broccoli on my phone which elicited zero results.
It was like being in a Chinese restaurant in the US, except the food isn't fried to a golden brown.
In Lijiang, we passed a fast casual Chinese restaurant and something caught my eye in the window. Lo and behold, there were photos of dishes featuring broccoli. Score! We sat down confident that greens were in our future.
The dish placed in front of me was conspicuously absent of green veg. Perry used his Mandarin skills to question our server, while I smiled and pointed at the placard featuring broccoli on the table. With a confused look, she barked and gestured at us for several minutes until she stomped off to the kitchen and returned with four small sprigs of broccoli.
After ten days of hostels and guest houses, we finally arrived in Chengdu to an apartment with a kitchen. That night, I steamed a head of broccoli and ate the whole thing.
Thanks for reading!
Next time on Gobsmacked: I Quit My Job to Travel: One Year Later