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Archive for May 5th, 2008

Solo dining is an oxymoron in the Chinese culture. Food at mealtimes is meant to be shared and so a person dining alone is an oddity. The nearest nod to an accommodation that I have observed after a month in China is the large bowl of noodles, vegetables and sometimes meat which can be had almost everywhere. However, a bowl of steaming hot broth, while wonderful and warming during the cool, crisp days of early spring, does not seem so appetizing now that the weather has turned warm. And I like the variety offered by the multiple courses of a typical Chinese meal. But it does seem excessive and frankly wasteful since I can rarely finish even one of the plates offered.

The meal you see above was my attempt at a “modest” dinner. I did not realize that the “duck” meant a variation on Peking duck, with the traditional treatments of separate meat, crispy skin, the pancakes for wrapping, and couscous? Yes, the latter was unexpected. Since I had also ordered rice as the starch. A warning for diners in China: unlike in North America, serving staff will not tell you if you have ordered too many courses, how large the dishes are in volume or if your meals come with a starch accompaniment or component so ordering an additional noodle or rice dish is not necessary. Just tuckin and enjoy.

However, they will emphatically make their feelings known if you order too little! I happened on a mid sized respectable looking restaurant in the town which was home to a series of Buddhist grottoes I had toured that day. It had real cloth table clothes and napkins, as real cloth as polyester can be, and that is generally my hurdle for a dinner spot. (My standards have fallen somewhat since going on the Silk Road! Or perhaps just adjusted to my circumstances. ) Tired and dusty, I was looking for a little sustenance before heading back to my equally tired hotel . So I ordered from the illustrated menu, what looked like a half of a roast chicken or duck and some cold buckwheat noodles as an appetizer course. Well, she threw the order pad down in a huff, went off on a rant to the back office, and the next thing I knew there were 5 Chinese people, including the imposing lady owner herself, standing around my table, all trying to tell me the error of my ways.

First, they were pointing at the chili peppers in the noodles, making blowing noises, indicating heat I assumed. I nodded that yes, I understood heat, and that was OK. They made those universally understood, tsk tsk sounds, since I clearly did not know what folly I was about to commit. They then turned to a page with other meat dishes pointing emphatically at what looked like pork in a sauce of some kind. OK, I can go along with the recommendation of the house, and tried to turn the page back to the roast chicken, to indicate that I would have pork instead. No, no, no, more finger wagging, and turning the pages of the menu to the soup page. Dinner is not dinner without soup apparently. I was given a choice of two, and then I naturally picked the wrong one, and was corrected with more emphatic pointing to the other more robust choice. Well, this was 5 on 1 in a foreign country. I conceded to their greater wisdom, closed the menu to indicate agreement, which resulted in satisfied nods all round. Sino-Canadian negotiations round one successfully concluded.

The buckwheat noodles, while served in a chili oil vinaigrette, did not come with the chili peppers promised in the photo. I could see how this was going to go. It was fine regardless. The roast chicken was an entire bird, with crisp mahogany skin and globules of golden fat I tried hard to avoid. Sweet and sour pork, naturally, was that extra meat dish I needed to have. It must be the fall back dish of choice whenever a Caucasian happens by. It was more sweet than sour, being heavy on the corn syrup which was literally laced across the generous pile of pork ribs like spun sugar. And then a full sized tureen of tomato soup. The Chinese grow allot of luscious, rich red, densely fleshed tomatoes which are appearing in the markets now: none of those came near this soup during its creation. It was reminiscent of Heinz but then again, that might have just been the amount of salt and sugar I tasted, both of which are used with a heavy hand in China.

So while I was picking my way through my 4 dishes, owner lady hawk eyed one table over, an earnest young man came and sat down opposite me, and asked in not so bad English, if I liked his city. Well, this posed a wee bit of a conundrum, because frankly, his city, like many polluted post industrialized cities in China was the civic equivalent of a junk yard dog. Dirty, ill kept, smelly, noisy are few of the adjectives that readily came to mind. I chewed slowly and thoughtfully, as I crafted a diplomatic response. His hometown did have 3 redeeming qualities. The Longman grottoes of Buddhist art that I (and 2000 Chinese tourists) had seen today. It holds a famous annual Peony Festival, and large hanging banners with photos of that gorgeous flower in all variations were still hanging from street lamps. And as an effort in civic beautification, there are roses planted among the public thruways: showy floribundas were heavy with pink, red, yellow or orange blossoms in the median of every 4 lane road way and pink carpet roses filled the spaces defining the on/off ramps. So I was able to say in complete honesty that I thought that all of the the flowers of his town made a very beautiful impression, and I liked them very much. Sino-Canadian relations remained positive at the conclusion of discussions. And I think that the staff enjoyed the soup too.

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