Saturday, November 01, 2008

Guest Post: Culinary Delights

Since Lynne is without internet access this weekend, I will fill in today and make a guest post regarding one of my favorite topics: food. Since we arrived in Asia, we have had the opportunity to sample many new dishes - most of which we are glad we tried, some of which we love, and a small minority, well, end up exiting our bodies much quicker than they entered...

Today I will give a few highlights of "interesting" foods I have tried (3 of them in the last 2 days). The octupus-looking squid with black gunk squirting out at the hot-pot place in Qingdao would have been on this list, but Lynne covered it already. And I'll leave out a bunch of things I'm pretty well used to by now (cow stomach, pig knuckle, chicken/duck feet, tongue, eel, etc. etc.).

As one more piece of background: I am a "try anything once" type. My coworkers tend to take this as a challenge... "anything?"

1. Stinky Tofu: This is tofu that is marinated to make it smell as bad as humanly possible. There are a number of times in China where we have been walking along the street and were suddenly overcome by a strong odor and assumed we were near an outdoor latrine used by construction workers with a fondness for Mexican food and placed on top of a sulfurous geyser. Nope, just a stinky tofu stand.

The good news: it doesn't taste as bad as it smells.

The bad news: that's about as much as I can say for it. Use lots and lots of chili sauce.

2. Silkworms: Apparently, after a silkworm's "useful life" is done, they get retired to restaurants, where they are dried out and fried. I've got photographic evidence of this one. Again, it wasn't as bad as it sounds (it wasn't slimy or anything) but it sure wasn't good either.

3. Drunken shrimp: In the US, when a dish is called "drunken", it generally refers to a dish that was prepared using beer or other alcoholic beverages. In China, when you are served drunken fish, you take it a bit more literally. The shrimp are, in fact, drunk.

Basic preparation, as far as I can tell, involves mixing bai jiu (Chinese rice wine, worth a separate post of its own) with various sweeteners and other flavors, and then dropping some live shrimp in. Wait until the shrimp get nice and drunk (stop thrashing about so much), and then fish 'em out and munch away.

Luckily for me, my coworker who took me out for this provided a tamer version: they had "marinated" long enough to be pretty well dead (alcohol poisoning?) so they didn't fight too much on the way down. And, to be honest, they tasted fantastic. I'd have these again, but I'm still not sure I'd do it if they were more "loud drunks" than "quiet drunks".

4. Frog: Sichuanese food (sometimes "Szechuan" in the US) is some of my favorite Chinese food. It tends to be spicy, but a different kind of spicy - sort of numbing, due to the special pepper they use. A coworker took me to our favorite nearby Sichuan restaurant, and she said one of their best dishes was the frog. Sure, I thought, no problem. The dish arrived: a fairly typical looking Sichuan dish, with pieces of meat and vegetable floating in a broth covered in Sichuan peppers and other spices. "Try it." I gamely poke in with my chopsticks and grab a piece of meat. Pulling it out, I quickly realize that the butcher did not spend much time on this. It's a full frog, although the head was (mostly) gone.

Many meats in China are served "bone-in" and without much meat on said bone. Chinese people believe the meat right on the bone is the best (on a side note, this makes chicken breast super cheap). Usually you have to really gnaw at the bone to get much of anything, and it's not worth the effort. The frog was an exception. Although these weren't real well-fed frogs, there was enough meat to taste, and it was super tender, falling right off the bone. And with the Sichuan spices - fantastic! Another winner, as long as you're prepared for the "full frog" visuals.

5. Ikizukuri: One of my favorite restaurants in town is a Japanese dive where you can pay RMB 150 (about $22) for all the food, beer, and sake you want. It's worth spending a long time there and filling up on sushi, sashimi, teppanyaki, tempura, okonomi yaki, and other great stuff. Last night I went with my coworkers, and they told me to try the fish that was already on the table. Fish is often served whole in China, so I no longer bat an eyelash at having the fish staring at me. This particular one had it's head and tail held up, and a covering of radish over the middle; on top of the radish were some leaves, with sashimi on the leaves. Sure, I'll try it. Grab a piece, dip it in my wasabi... not too bad.

"Take a closer look. Watch his fins."

The fish was still alive. I decided I had enough of that one. I won't be doing this one again, for both culinary and ethical reasons.

But I did want to get a peek at the chef's handiwork, to see how he managed to keep the fish alive and (sort of) breathing while I ate his innards. After the females at the table excused themselves, Yan tried to move the radishes/leaves to give us a view. But just as he did it, the fish made a lunge for his hand. We quickly passed the plate back to the wait staff without seeing the surgeon's work.

Tomorrow, I'm taking the girls to O'Malley's for a burger and fries. I need a break.


Beth, Bill, E,B,and C said...

Thank you so much for the smile this morning! The whole family enjoyed this post. One of our favorite parts of China, is the unexpected and bizarre. This post was chock full.

Beth and BIll Arnold (Lynne's friend in PuDong)

Karoline said...

Thanks for the guest post. I loved it! I think I'm going to have nightmares about lunging fish though!

Take care!