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Monday, September 22, 2008

Curious Chinese Cuisine

Our 2008 Taoist retreat this year again featured very bland boring vegetarian food (and weight loss).  The diet is supposed to encourage meditation and mitigation of desire. And all that white rice. (Not a problem for me, I live in a rice culture, and a billion Chinese seem to do well on of the food sources that don't seem to be laced with melamine.) Soon however, everyone was sick of cabbage with the ubiquitous tofu soup and tomato-and-egg stir fry for protein sources. So when we came down the mountain to Xian, several of us enjoyed a fine meal in "Xian's Most Famous Restaurant" (XMFR). Alas, the menu was in Chinese and everyone wanted ME to interpret it. Like I can read characters. I had a phrase book, but I need Hanyu pinyin to figure things out. But wait, the menu had photographs. Usually I find it best to avoid restaurants with photographic menus (and plastic models of food in the window) but when you're pretty much totally illiterate, and hungry for flavor, photos look good. Except, what were these things? Even the photos were impossible to interpret without spectral image processing software. That thing that looks like sauce on baby fingers? (Sweet and sour fish.) Or is this curious item a vegetable? (As opposed to animal or mineral. Who knows? Melamine curry?) We threw ourselves on the mercy of the server and weren't even sure we had actually ordered when little dishes began to arrive. Was this all there was in the set menu? No way. They were just "Xian special appetizers."

It turned out to be a sumptuous feast, although I am hard pressed (like pressed duck?) to say what everything was, apart from the fish fingers and some delicate stir-fried asparagus. Oh, and the lamb.  I was determined to get lamb kebabs, a street delicacy I had enjoyed years ago in Beijing. Never made it to the Muslim quarter where they are on offer, but there was an excellent lamb barbecue included.  Satisfied my craving.  

The craving for meat was, I think, even stronger than a craving for sex among our group of many married-but-traveling-alone people out on personal spiritual quests.  
One day back in Wudang, some of our meat eaters, invariably Type O blood types, NEEDED chicken.  I helped again, to order a whole steamed chicken.  The Type O's became tooth-gritting vegetarians though when the chicken was proudly presented in a huge bowl of steaming broth, seasoned with big slices of ginger, scallions and garlic, naked and with head and feet still well attached.  (Did they expect KFC in Wudang? This was rural China.)  It was the best chicken I have had since I raised my own free-range broilers and I think we all needed the chicken broth for our colds, to say nothing of simple physical strength.

But back to Xian, after our little farewell banquet at XMFR which came to the extraordinary and extravagant $10 US per person (I missed the big formal free farewell vegetarian banquet later that night), we discovered the best ever Starbucks in the world, in the Bell Tower area in Xian. The waitress in XMFR couldn't understand us when we asked for "cha," but the cute Chinese barrista who looked like Jet Li was able to deliver a perfect "caramel macchiatto" without any questions or misunderstanding.

Then we closed the afternoon, my last before flying down to Hong Kong, with a stroll through an alley of fresh seafood and ...other things. A vendor grabbed up a handful of some...squirming...appetizers , grinning, saying "You eat!" "Bu yao, YOU eat," I said. I suppose thumb-sized larvae are a good protein source, but suddenly I had a desire for cabbage!  I guess a whole steamed chicken I can handle...I've dispatched and plucked the things.  Come to think of it, I've dispatched my share of big cockroaches too, but,"Bu yao...YOU can eat 'em."


sybil law said...

Bu yao, indeed! Ugh!
What an interesting trip!
For the record, I thought the saucy dish was some kinda larvae, too. I'd have never guessed it was fish!
I love cabbage but I think that place could help me lose some weight, too! Probably too much!

baroness radon said...

Thanks Sybil. The S&W fish was great. Keep tuned in, I have more reflections coming.

holly said...

oh BLECH!!!! why was my first thought "oh i could NOT kiss anyone who'd eaten a crawlie?"

the heads on the chicken? that would make me go veggie. i don't want to eat anything that could argue with me.

i can't wait to see more reflections.