I absolutely loved Chinese food growing up. The most well-established Chinese restaurant in my hometown, New China, was a landmark on the eastside. And aside from Dominos, it was the only place that delivered. Like all middle-America Chinese food aficionados, I savored the egg rolls, egg-drop soup, Mandarin Chicken, and fortune cookies. But when I arrived in China for a one-year stint at the tender age of 22, I was heartbroken when I found out that New China was not so Chinese after all. Check out Jennier 8 Lee’s Ted Talk in which she shares a similar experience of searching for General Tso.
I had a fellow American show me the ropes the first few weeks in China. He took me to nearby restaurants, and he knew exactly what to order, what I’ve since termed the laowai go-tos: gongbao jiding, tangcu liji, jinjiang rousi, yuxiang rousi, chaofan, haoyou shengcai, ganzha mogu, and hongshao qiezi. But three days later my American friend and I ended up at a traditional Spring Festival dinner at the home of an older colleague’s parents. Unlike in restaurants where we had the freedom to choose dishes we liked, or at least dishes we knew how to order, I was about to experience, for the first time, the Chinese house meal. We sat at the table: two Americans, Dr. Pan, and his elderly parents. Looking back now, I’m still not sure of everything on the table, but I do remember this being my first time seeing the infamous cold dishes—chicken feet, pig feet, and some other gelatinized preserved meat.
There were also vegetables, or what I assumed were vegetables: A big plate of black tree fungus (木耳 ) with raw onions and vinegar as well as lotus root slices and celery with peanuts. The only dish on the table that looked remotely appetizing was the cucumbers. As I struggled to take all of this in, a bottle of clear liquor that was introduced to me as baijiu hit the table. During my first three days in China, I had learned two words: nihao and xiexie. This night I would double by vocabulary by learning both baijiu and a word that would haunt me for some time afterwards—gan bei.
Before I could even eat my first bite, I was poured a large glass full of baijiu. Dr. Pan made a toast and we drank. It felt as if my throat was on fire. I grew up drinking 3-dollar fifths of Skol vodka and 2-dollar bottles of MD 20⁄20, but that all tasted top-shelf compared to this. After our first sip, we began eating. I was not sure if it was the flavor of the food or if it was my taste buds being tainted by the baijiu, but I was unsatisfied with each bite. I chugged down water in attempts to get rid of the aftertaste, but to no avail. I drank some coke, but nothing. After a few more bites of cucumber and a little explorative sampling of various feet dishes, it was time to drink again. The night continued like this for hours as the dumplings and other hot dishes hit the table.
I had never in my life seen so much food and left a table completely unsatisfied. This was my first experience with the Chinese banquet, and it was also the first time in which I experimented with some of the tricks of the trade of politely dealing with such situations.
- The how to discreetly spit unpleasant food into a napkin technique.
- The burry things under various bones technique.
- The pretend like you’re taking a sip of baijiu technique.
- And when that doesn’t work, the spit baijiu into the soup bowl technique.
I have since learned that I’m not, nor was I ever, the only one experimenting with such mealtime maneuvers. Nearly every foreigner in China has such a story. While today I still refuse to eat feet of any kind, some of the dishes on that table for my first Spring Festival, such as black tree fungus and lotus root, have become some of my favorites. And while it took me over a year of experimenting with various Chinese alcohols, I eventually fell in love with the sweet bamboo wine known as Zhuyeqing. Today I rarely drink Zhuyeqing, but I am one of the few laowais whom I know that not only enjoys, but has quite the passion for, drinking baijiu–particularly Fenjiu.
If you have a bit more time, check out Jennier 8 Lee’s 2009 book: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food.