After five weeks consuming the compromised cuisine of Mongolia – an almost vegetable-free land of herders and nomads – eating while traveling in China was an exciting daily adventure. Each block of every city I visited boasted at least a few restaurants offering up every imaginable and some truly unimaginable foods. Considering the vastness of this land, the rich abundance of its farms, and a culture of foodies with thousands of uninterrupted years to experiment with and refine their cuisine, this was not at all surprising. What did surprise me, however, was that the proliferation of restaurants in China is a relatively new phenomenon. Before 1985, a worker’s typical lunch break lasted about three hours – time enough to go home, eat with the family, and catch a nap before returning to work. Very civilized. When the great reformer Deng Xiaopeng shortened the lunchtime siesta to one hour, restaurants sprung up everywhere almost overnight to cater to individuals newly constrained by time and government.
Thankfully, a backpacker’s budget necessitates eating where the locals eat, insuring interaction, confusion and potentially lots of fun. Armed with a goofy smile and an innate curiosity, I have wandered into places that looked questionable, but somehow passed muster with my intuition, a potentially lifesaving tool since China’s rural and street-side eating establishments utilize little or no refrigeration, making bacteria one of the major food groups. “Eat only hot, well-cooked food” has proven to be wisdom worth heeding.
Eating clean, hot meals is just part of the equation…as a ground rule in Asia, if you’re going to put anything in your maw, it’s important to get clear on what exactly it is…preferably beforehand. The kaleidoscope of colorful, edible offerings from China’s street vendors, outdoor markets and restaurants is myriad: sautéed snake, fried tarantula, crunchy grasshopper as well as other insects, and also fat grubs, worms, huge rats, scorpions, fish eyes, bird’s nests made of saliva, ram penis (I kid you not), rooster testicles (I honestly didn’t know birds even had them) and heartbreakingly, also animals that we in the west consider pets.
As an example of the varied diet typical in this mostly omnivorous country, there is a native fruit that grows in China whose characteristics could be called an “acquired taste…” But really, I don’t see how anyone could get close enough to this fruit from Hell to taste it. To the palate of the acquired tasters, the ripe, aromatic pudding-like inner flesh of this spike-covered tree-borne abomination known as Durian, registers somehow as pleasant and sweet – but to my untrained olfactory sense, its fetid stench smelled like concentrated and untreated sewer effluent. It’s no wonder some Chinese cities have banned this fruit from being carried on public transportation.
At a traditional wedding reception dinner I was invited to attend, the large turntable in the middle of our dining table was overflowing with local favorites, which my table mates dug into with gusto. As hungry as I was, the only dish I could identify was a steaming heap of glass noodles to tumble and splash into my scalding bowl of savory broth. None of the guests on either side of me spoke a word of English, but nevertheless nodded their approval as I twirled the almost translucent strings around my fork. In my experience, noodles are not supposed to “pop” when they meet your teeth. Not wanting my hosts and fellow guests to lose face because of an uncouth “Gweilo,” which means “white ghost,” i.e., foreigner, i.e., me! – I discreetly used my napkin to remove what I later found out were jellyfish tentacles from my confused Western mouth.
I must have caught them in between batches. There were no other customers in the small, quiet street-side restaurant near the Shanghai train station. I pointed to a photo of the menu items on the wall and prayed that I had ordered plain, unsurprising noodle soup. The proprietor immediately began kneading dough on a stone table. After rolling it out and cutting inch-wide lengths, he and his assistant stood by a large roiling cauldron and ripped small triangles of flat dough with remarkable speed and dexterity and flung them in quick, single motions into the boiling vat of turbid broth from about three feet away. I sat in quiet awe. They didn’t miss, not once.
Admiring their white knitted skullcaps, I took out my guide book and confirmed that they were Chinese Muslims, a minority group that has lived in China for almost 1500 years. “As-salamu alaykum!” I said to the man who brought me my soup. “Wa-Alaikum Salaam!” he sparkled back with a wide smile. This was my first encounter with China’s Muslim population. The roughly 40 million of them speak the local language, but the similarity ends there. The proprietor’s features were graceful and delicate, with pale, clear skin and warm eyes. He sang a beautiful song as I watched him mimic a fan with his hands and stretch a quiver full of long noodles from his deft fingers. People in traditional occupations in China have usually learned their trade from their parents, and teach it to their children, continuing a legacy of expertise and pride in one’s work which is a pleasure to watch. I don’t think he was showing off – this is just how it’s done here.
I ate my soup slowly and quietly, surprised and delighted by aromas from my childhood steaming from its surface. He came and sat across from me as I peeled a clove of raw garlic from the bowl on the small table and popped it into my mouth. He asked where I was from. “Meiguo,” I answered, America. My language skills did not allow me to relate my being born in Israel, nor my Egyptian ancestry. We took to each other instantly, feeling a distant but palpable kinship.
With all deference to the many “first-time-you-meet the-in-laws” jokes…you know you are a valued guest when the photo album comes out. He proudly showed me pictures of his Mosque in Shanghai. Emotions almost overwhelmed me. I want peace between our cultures so badly that I would have over-salted the soup had I not restrained my tears. We just looked at each other for a minute, blinking occasionally, transfixed by the wonders of non-verbal communication. How’s the soup? he motioned. “Haochi de!” It’s delicious, I replied, which it was.
As I hoisted my heavy pack onto my back and prepared to leave, he took my outstretched hand in both of his. As-salamu Alaykum, he said warmly into my eyes – peace be unto you. And Shalom Aleichem to you, my brother – the Hebrew version squeezing out a tear despite my efforts.
And now, some travel magic. It was two decades ago that I had that big bowl of noodle soup in Shanghai. Throughout that late lunch, I was so engaged in the moment that I did not take any photos. However, since the experience of that aromatic fare had become so imbued with meaning, the images were clearly etched into my memory. I did not remember the name of the small establishment, but on a whim, I Googled “Muslim Noodle Restaurant near Shanghai train station.” Hundreds of images came up. Sorting through them, I actually found a YouTube video of this restaurant! I remember the painting of his mosque on the back wall, the table in the far right corner where I sat, and the white knitted head covering the men wore. I experienced an unmistakable visceral knowing that this was definitely the place. Considering the traditional practice of boys learning the craft from their fathers, the young man stretching noodles in this photo may be the son or grandson of the proprietor who made my meal 20 years ago!
© Copyright Alón Sagee 2021– all rights reserved.
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Links to more of Alón’s stories published in Copper:
- The Not-So-Great Wall of China https://www.psaudio.com/copper/article/the-not-so-great-wall
- Everest Part 1 https://www.psaudio.com/article/getting-high/
- Everest Part 2 https://www.psaudio.com/copper/article/getting-high-part-two
- Everest Part 3 https://www.psaudio.com/copper/article/getting-high-part-three/
- Mongolia Part 1 https://www.psaudio.com/article/five-weeks-in-mongolia-part-one/
- Mongolia Part 2 https://www.psaudio.com/article/five-weeks-in-mongolia-part-two/
- Two Hands Clapping https://www.psaudio.com/article/two-hands-clapping/
- Sublime Moments https://www.psaudio.com/article/sublime-moments/
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.com/xiuqilong.