drunk friends

Mar 17, 2013

The eating continues

Homestyle in the hometown

Hot pot for dinner
Note the peppers. Sichuan cuisine is hot, hot, hot!
Mix up some cilantro and corn, and a Chinese dish tastes kind of Mexican
A cobbled-together taste of Mexico, right here in Luzhou.

It’s been a good season for Chinese food, or, as we like to call it in Luzhou, food. Our January Penang foodventures reignited our local explorations — after our initial fall push, we fell into a rut with some new olds — and we’ve expanded far beyond sticks and noodles.

The search for new has also put us in the position to consume much more culture and language. (Yum! It’s all delicious!) One of the boys at 串串, where we’re still regulars, has started teaching me vocabulary. 醋, he said one evening, as he delivered a small pitcher of vinegar. And then there was 芫荽 or, cilantro. He’s become one of my best teachers. (He’s second only to bodega lady, with whom I’ve been having conversations ever increasing in complexity pretty much since we arrived. She cheered on the day I said my first sentence in past tense! That sentence: “We ate chuan chuan.”)

At 串串 we’ve also learned that it’s no problem to order food from other restaurants to be sent to your 串串 table. The place next door does a fantastic corn and hot pepper salad — which, when mixed with cilantro, scallions and rice actually has a wonderful Mexican flavor — and the lady proprietor is tickled when I try out new words on her, too.

Out in the countryside, we’re no less social. At corner restaurant, over a meal of eggplant and pork with fried greens — the most vegetarian thing I have managed to order there — we had a chat with one of my old students one night. His father runs a clinic a few doors down, and he had “heard that there were foreigners out here and I thought it might be you.” He informed us that the restaurant owners’ son was in Peter’s class! Something, we then realized, that she had tried to tell us in Chinese several times. (“你听不懂,” or, “You don’t understand,” is a phrase we are now very familiar with.) There was general merriment all around that the facts were finally conveyed.

Our boss hates that we do this. Go out and talk with the people, I mean. We still hear about the time that we walked home to the new campus with a bunch of laborers. She’d much prefer that we spent our free time locked in our apartment, eating plain white rice and talking to no one. Our explanations that we’re meeting with friends and students and parents and fellow teachers falls on deaf ears. She just changes her lecture to “spicy food is bad for you.”

That only makes it more delicious.

Once again, finding (and being) the hot new thing

Tofu soup at our neighborhood place

We do a fair bit of hanging out in our little countryside town, and we were starting to feel like people were finally getting used to us. We wave and exchange brief words with the people we know. People help us get taxis back to school when the cab drivers give us a hard time. We’ve got a favorite vegetable stall at the wet market.

But a small change in location recently revealed that we are still the 外国人, and that still causes a big stir. In between BBQ sticks and corner restaurant, there’s a place that does a shared tofu soup that’s a lot like the one that we tried in the city with our friend Alex. A few weeks ago, when our noodle place was out of noodles(!), we decided to give it a go.

The table next to us was immediately interested. The leading man took our basic history — Teachers, Americans, Tianfu Middle School, and so on. Pleased with us — (a foreigner who can understand Mandarin is an entertaining curio; the Chinese know how hard their language is) — our inquisitor pointed at our water bottle and then his own, and said something like, “You have water, but I have some hooch! Want some?” It was 1 pm and we still had work to do, so we declined. But we have since taken up many similar offers when it was appropriate.

Last weekend, there was the two-table banquet party, men at one table and women at the other in the traditional way. The men were shy at first but they were drunk later, and found the courage to approach us with questions and toasts. It was one of the loudest rooms I have ever been in. One fervently friendly guy needed Peter to accept his gift of a cigarette. Fortunately, he didn’t insist on lighting it. We deflected with a toast, and I think he forgot about it. It’s weird to call this kind of experience normal, but it’s a situation we’re included in more often than not.

There’s a 10-year-old boy associated with the place who we actually met a few weeks before we ventured into the restaurant. He hangs out with a pack of kids who keep us company at the bus stop sometimes. He also knows a little bit of English, so we managed to have a brief chat one night. These days, he gives us a hello when we come in, and spends his after-dinner playing with the children of the neighboring businesses out in the streets. His main partner-in-crime seems to be the wild-haired girl next door, who is missing her two front teeth. They make for good dinner theater.

Birthday disasters turn fun and instructional

Birthday dinner at the Riverside Restaurant
Darting some balloons
After dinner, I tried my hand at the darts game that was set up across the street from the restaurant.

Our explorations don’t always go smoothly. Things can go wrong both geographically and linguistically. And my birthday dinner was a two-fer: The riverside restaurant we were meaning to visit for ages was a pile of rubble. It was a disappointment, and we were hungry and tired of walking. Both things ratchet up my anxiety about trying something new in another language. But we were not to be defeated. A short walk down the riverside promenade, we found a good-looking place with comfy outdoor chairs.

Between my translation notebook and the picture menu, we managed to order a fantastic feast: Sweet corn; barbecued scallions with a spicy, oily rub; garlicky cucumbers; fried rice; and chicken feet.

More than sense memory associations, mistake memory I think is even stronger. And now I will never forget the difference between 瓜, melon, and 爪, claw.

Having accidentally ordered them, though, I did feel I had to try what is really a very common Chinese dish. Chicken feet are kind of like chicken wings, where the point is really more the sauce they’re doused in rather than the minimal meat that you can free from the bones and cartilage. And, the little fingers scrabble at your face while you’re trying to nibble. It’s an odd sensation. I don’t think I liked them, but if you want, I can order you a plate.

A family holiday with kind strangers-turned-friends

I'm ready to eat

The discovery of Golden Hans taught us to look up. And on Chinese New Years Eve we scaled the heights to third-floor traditional hot pot restaurant. (This was only after visiting a fifth-floor enterprise that turned out to be an internet cafe.) Many places were actually closed for the holiday, so we were lucky that this place sat us as the last customers of the night. Our final alternative was going to have been McDonald’s.

We lucked out again in that our two servers both spoke a little bit of English. We’ve done hot pot many times before — it’s Sichuan’s signature dish — but this was our first time on our own. The four of us worked our way through the menu together — there was some drawing involved — and the woman triple checked that we wanted the spicy broth. Yes! We love the spice!

Our spread was delivered to our table on a three-tiered cart, and it included potato, lotus, sliced tofu, cabbage, winter melon, cucumber, and spicy beef slices. Happily, all deliverables conformed to my expectations. The service team hovered for a minute, to make sure the Americans knew what they were doing — Don’t eat the raw meat! Wait until the pot is boiling! — and then sat down with the rest of the staff to enjoy their after-work holiday party a few tables away. They were having a good time by the sounds of it. Throughout the meal, our guys returned to our table to toast us, wish us happy new year, and bring us small treats from their feast, including this wonderful Sichuan peppercorn cured pork sausage.

Peter and I tried to eat fairly quickly; we didn’t want to be lingerers when they were keeping the restaurant open only for us. But the staff party still died down before we finished. We are the slowest eaters in China! Our servers were gracious, however, and the man asked to take a photo with us before we left. 新年好!

Would you like fried with that?

One of our most useful recent food discoveries was maybe the most obvious: Fried rice is available pretty much everywhere, even if it’s not on the menu. Some things you know about China are true.

The basic dish that everyone serves is rice with egg and a bit of scallions or other greenery. It’s so simple but super delicious. We’ve added it to the regular rotation at BBQ sticks, which does our favorite version.

We’ve come a long way from our first time at 串串, when we stood nervous on the sidewalk wondering “How do we get them to give us some food?!” Once we figured that out — simply say yes to a question that is probably “Do you want a table?” and then grab some sticks — we spent at least six months eating dinner there nightly, because we were too scared to try a new place. Pointing and pantomime are still useful weapons in our menu-navigation arsenal, but some basic literacy has made our lives so much easier. And so much more enjoyable.

Every couple of months, I look back on how much I learned since we arrived in China, and am astonished that we were ever able to survive on the paltry knowledge we had then. And I can’t wait to see what will happen this spring.