I’m usually an adventurous traveler, particularly when it comes to eating. My family traveled lot when I was a kid and my sister and I were always encouraged to plunge in and experience the regional cuisine. From chicken’s blood soup in the Himalayas to raw pickled herring on the streets of Amsterdam, I’ve sampled quite a few local delicacies, some more to my liking than others.
But in China I find myself erring on the side of conservatism. We are working such a tight schedule putting the show together. When I imagine one of us getting sick from being just a little too brave, it makes me want to rush to the nearest McDonalds. But I don’t like being the nervous nellie of the bunch – I have a reputation to uphold, after all. A couple of days ago, a few of us headed out for lunch at one of the nearby alleys. We walk through dirty cobblestone streets cluttered with small outdoor markets of raw animal parts, like pig heads and cow brains. “What do you feel like, Deb,” asked Nate. “Don’t care, so long as it’s clean.” Clean. “oh, then we’re in the wrong place,” said Nate. I settled for somewhere he and Xiao Yu had gone to the day before and tried to banish clean from my mind.
This is the home of Sichuan cuisine – spicy hot pots are all the rage. We sat in an open-air stall, four of us gathered around a rickety table, with a big vat of oil and a burner in front of us. Our starter was homemade fresh tofu from a stall up the hill. Dip it in Sichuan chili with enough salt, garlic and oil to cure an entire animal. Unbelievably tasty. For our main course, we chose skewers from the rack at the front of the “restaurant.” Some basics – cilantro, squash, cucumber. And some not so basic – fish skin and chicken claws – I avoided both. The tastiest was the dried tofu – it looked like skin – but softens up after about five minutes in the hotpot. Dip this in a different oil. But don’t eat the chili peppers themselves.
And so I realize it’s impossible to be in China and not experience the food culture. In fact, to miss the food is to miss part of what makes this place unique. One of the “many” Chinese sayings I’ve had repeated to me over the last couple of weeks is Chi fan le mai you, or “have you eaten yet.” It’s the equivalent of “hey, how are you,” and illustrates the centrality of food here. Though the producer in me tells me to play it safe and stick to the known, the traveler in me evokes another Chinese saying, “follow the local custom when you go to a foreign place.”