No McDonalds Please; I’ll Have the Fish Head Hotpot

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — I never would have thought something with a fish head floating in it could taste so good, but more on that later.

I want to make an observation about something that always bugs me when I travel abroad. Why do hotel employees always want to send you to some place that’s foreign friendly? Even when you tell them that’s not what you want.

I suppose there is some general truism to be gleaned from this observation, but I’m not sure what it is. Surely I’m not that different from most business travelers?

Tonight my intrepid interpreter and I returned from dinner to the hotel, but I decided the evening couldn’t be done yet. It is Friday night, I’m in a foreign city — I’m not going to go to bed early. So we asked a bellhop to direct us to a good nearby local bar. He disappeared behind the concierge desk only to return and apologize that there were no bars nearby, and then proceeded to give me a card from some Irish bar, making it a point to say that it was popular with laowai, expats, etc., and that it was only a short cab ride, blah blah blah.

I promptly declared “Rubbish!” and strolled out into the night (that was probably the bottle of Great Wall cabernet we had with dinner talking), Zhike in tow. This is a business class hotel — people on expense accounts are constantly running in and out — smack in the middle of a city of 4.1 million people; there was bound to be a local pub somewhere nearby, I reasoned.

Sure enough, I promptly spotted two within a stone’s throw of the hotel. Had the bellhop never actually set foot outside the Sheraton? Why does this always happen in nicer hotels when traveling abroad?

Sure, I could understand if I moved to a foreign land permanently, I’d want to have a bit of home now and then, and go to the American restaurant or the Irish pub. And it was fun in Shanghai to introduce Zhike to all sorts of goofy Western food and drink.

But when I’m visiting a foreign place and only have a short time, I don’t want someplace familiar. If wanted to experience familiar, I’d stay at home. If I travel to Chengdu, I want to experience what Chengdu people experience. That’s the fun of traveling, experiencing the unfamiliar.

The only thing I can conclude is that many business travelers want what’s familiar; I just don’t understand why. Seems to me if you are there on business, it’s even more important to understand the local culture. Incidentally, I’ve found that when I’ve traveled on my own abroad and stayed in cheap hotels, you seem to get directed to cheap local places, rather than tourist/businessmen-on-expense-account traps.

Anyway, I just had to get that off my chest. After three weeks of this, it gets a bit frustrating at times. It’s hard to explain through an interpreter that no, you don’t want to go to the tourist place. You don’t want to go to the place that caters to foreigners. You don’t want to go to a club with the flashy neon lights, overpriced, water-downed drinks and bad, pop music that was old ten years ago. You want to go where the locals go. …

Anyway, Onto the Fish Heads

We couldn’t locate The Little Chili Pepper referenced in the previous blog entry. Apparently it’s so small and so local that most of the locals haven’t heard of it, although one person we stopped on that he knew of the place, but failed to prove it with adequate directions. If the folks at Agilent-Qianfeng read this, please call me or e-mail me with proper directions

So we ended up at a restaurant called Tan Yu Tou, a chain of popular Sichuan restaurants in China that started out here in Chengdu. It’s a “huoguo” place, or hotpot. Translated, the restaurant’s name refers to the surname of the person that started the place, Tan, and “yu tou,” which means fish head.

I told Zhike, my interpreter, upon hearing this — after we had left the restaurant — that he had no idea how amused it made me to dine at a restaurant essentially called Tan’s Fish Heads. And that’s true; I’m sure he really did have no idea. Cultural differences. …

But I digress. Essentially hotpot cooking is kind of like fondue; you dip meat and veggies and whatnot into big pots filled with heated, spicy oil; and I do mean lip numbing, tongue-searing spicy. It was one of the hottest, flavorful dishes I’ve had the pleasure of eating. I instructed Zhike to tell our waitress to make sure that we did not get the laowai-friendly version; I was not disappointed — poor Zhike even complained at one point, albeit with a smile on his face as he wiped his forehead, that it was too spicy.

I assured him there is no such state of being. It wasn’t as good as yu xiang rou si, the Food of the Gods, but almost. Even now, my stomach feels warm. Should have some interesting dreams when I finally go to sleep tonight.

Oh, almost forgot the fish heads. In addition to all manner of spices, fish heads and miscellaneous parts are added to the hotpot for flavor, and of course, you can eat some of the fish. Like I said at the beginning, being a Westerner, I never would have guessed that a dish with half a fish head floating in it would taste so yummy.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaThe rest of the evening, I’ve had that Fish Heads song from the early 1980s in my head. You 30-somethings like me, members of the inaugural MTV generation, know what I’m talking about. Google “Barnes and Barnes,” like I did just now, and take a trip down Nostalgic Lane. And now I know what the line that states “floating in the soup” is about.

Thank you and good night.


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.

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