SHENYANG, China — OK, time for a food update. As reported earlier, my digestive track finally decided to rebel against all of the strange and exotic cuisine it has seen the past week. As these things go, it is a relatively mild bout; it hasn’t kept this intrepid traveler from chalking off a few items on his exotic foods list.
As I’ve explained before, while normally a vegetarian, experiencing local cuisine in strange, foreign places trumps my normal dining habits, despite the dent I’m sure it places in my karma.
So I’ve been gobbling all sorts of Chinese food left and right; and unlike Chinese restaurants in the United States, which tend to have a limited menu of American-safe dishes, or specialize in one regional cuisine, here in the actual country of China the cuisine is as varied and exotic — to Westerners — as one could hope. One of the oddest things I’ve had to date — again, odd to Westerners — would be donkey. Fortunately, I don’t believe it was soaked in tiger urine (you’ll have to scan the comments section of an earlier post for an explanation).
Being a vegetarian, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty — I’ve never ridden a donkey, but still. But that didn’t stop me from my quest to sample strange food. Here in Shenyang has been the only moment so far in this trip when I’ve encountered a dining option that gave me pause. This northeast region of China is influenced by both Japan and South Korea, and my gracious hosts here in Shenyang treated me to dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant the other night.
They were sensitive to my Western predilections — ironically, they said they were going to order lots of meat dishes, since us Westerners eat a lot of meat — and they asked me if I had any restrictions or anything I didn’t want to try. I, of course, said no. Then I was asked about dog, and then I had to pause.
And let me pause now, for the benefit of my Asian readers, who might not be that familiar with the United States and the West in general. Dogs as pets are common in the United States, and for many of us, our dogs are as dear to us as other family members — sometimes more so. I’m sure it seems odd to Asian readers (dog is not an uncommon choice in restaurants in many parts of Asia, including parts of China), but many Americans, myself included, would no sooner eat a dog than eat a family member.
But, faced with this choice, as I paused my own words rang inside my head, words you may have already read in this blog: When in Rome, emulate the Romans. Life is short, experience everything you can. If you are going to understand a culture, you have to live like them.
Man oh man; if there is one thing worse than being called out on a bluff, it’s calling out yourself. So damn the torpedoes, full speed of head. Leap, then look. Shoot first, ask questions later. So I said: “Sure, why not?”
I could only bring myself to eat one little slice of dog meat; I thought of all the dogs that I had known and loved over the years — Tasha and Sandy, I don’t know if dogs do actually have an afterlife, but wherever you are now, I hope you can forgive me. Fortunately the rest of the meal was absolutely fantastic, and my hosts most gracious, and that is not an exaggeration. If there is one thing the Chinese know how to do, it’s how to have a meal, and how to treat a guest.
Turning the Tables: Eating Strange, Exotic … Pizza?
Perhaps it was the squid on a stick that we had for lunch while wandering the streets of Shenyang on Saturday afternoon (an entire little barbequed squid on a wooden skewer; it was pretty good, actually), but I decided it was time for Tony, my Chinese interpreter, to experience a little bit of my culture.
Plus I had wanted a pint of Guinness ever since I noticed that there was an Irish pub — really! — next door to my hotel here in Shenyang. And I was curious as to just how Irish it was. You can pretty much plan on finding in any medium or large city in continental Europe a pub run by an Irish expat, and odds are the staff will be Irish expatriates too. But in Northeast China? What are the odds of that?
Surely this pub in Shenyang wasn’t run by an Irish immigrant. Well, I didn’t find any Irish people about the place, so I can’t say for sure, but it sure looked the part at first glance, polished wood everywhere, a foosball table and football (soccer to us Yanks) on the telly.
But there was insipid European pop music on in the background (something you’d never hear in any real self-respecting Irish pub, not even on the Continent), and the table we sat down at had a table menu featuring “Gratinated Harsh Brown Potato.” I shortly discovered they had Guinness in a bottle, but not on tap. OK, so maybe it wasn’t all that authentic, but they did have Beamish on tap, so what the hell.
Thus I introduced Tony to his first pint of stout. The pronouncement: “very bitter.” But he actually finished his pint before I did, so there you go.
I also introduced Tony to such exotic fare as a hamburger and French fries – with, gasp! Ketchup — and pepperoni pizza. We also had bruschetta as an appetizer. It all proved a little too heavy and exotic for Tony: he said at one point that if there wasn’t all that stuff on top of the pizza dough, like cheese and sauce and whatnot, it would be O.K. Remember, cheese really is a foreign concept here.
I couldn’t help but tease him, observing that I had been eating strange, exotic food all week. “Come on, Tony, don’t be a wuss! I ate squid on a stick today!” Not to mention dog the night before. He made it up to me by agreeing to play foosball, which he had never seen before in his life.
The next few weeks may turn out to be as much an odyssey for Tony as for me, I think. In Shanghai I’m guessing I can find a pool table somewhere, and maybe even some Mexican food. If he thought ketchup and pizza was exotic …
Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.
at 10/17/2005 8:07:32 AM, Jeff in China said:
In Shanghai, for Mexican food, I recommend Taco Bell Grande (no, it has nothing to do with the fast food chain in the US) just off Renmin Guangchuang (People’s Square), near to the Marriot on Nanjing South(?) Road. It’s right across from the Shanghai Art Museum if I remember correctly…
at 10/17/2005 12:39:52 PM, Jo said:
I can only hope that you were sick as a …. DOG!!!
at 10/17/2005 1:41:44 PM, Richard H. McKee said:
Dear Jeff, I have quietly followed your postings until now, but with all this food commentary, I feel compelled to remind you that you are in the “LAND OF DUCK”. Before you leave, you must seek out the many various dishes that involve one or more parts of a duck! Cold, marinated duck feet as an appetizer should be tried, among others. And of course, traditional roast duck comes in what seems to be as many variations on the theme as there are restaurants. One of my all-time favorites is SMOKED Duck, where fine tea leaves are used on the coals for a one-of-a-kind smoke flavor! And yes, if you look hard enough you can find good local beer options to Tsing Tao, such as “Nanjing” in Beijing. Cheers! -Richard
at 10/17/2005 11:37:33 PM, email@example.com said:
there are companies in Ireland, including, I think, Guiness themselves, that export entire “Oirish” pubs with fixtures, fittings and even authentic dust for the top shelves Don’t forget fish and chips as an exotic meal
at 10/17/2005 11:52:50 PM, Jonathan, Bath UK said:
Ketchup:- The word is chinese for tomato sauce!
at 10/18/2005 12:53:15 PM, Michael said: Jeff: Try the duck tongue! Yes, I said duck tongue. As one can well imagine, there’s not much meat.
at 10/19/2005 7:07:57 PM, Vern, Cincinnati, OH said:
Have you found any of those green tea cakes yet? If you can’t find that elusive expresso machine in the morning, chow down on a couple of these puppies…um, sorry…delights. The words will start to flow like donkey blood…um, sorry…water!