The food in Beijing, China was absolutely nothing like any Chinese food I have eaten in North America or anywhere in the world, for that matter.
Because they were business dinners, we had fairly formal dinners in the better restaurants. All of the dinners were served on large round tables with a huge turn-table or Lazy Susan in the centre.
At least twenty dishes would appear on the table, and no matter if the end of the business dinner was obvious, no dish, according to custom, could become empty and would be replaced as soon as it was about half gone.
Protocol was extremely important. I had heard about this but did not realize how serious it is taken.
Seating arrangement was carefully indicated. The host must be sitting facing the entrance/door. Main guests must be sitting on the right of the host. From the right to left are the most to least important guests. The person facing the host is the one from the host’s party who does most of the drinking and hosting on behalf of the host.
Respect is a key value in Chinese culture, something to admire. Being considerate, polite and well-mannered represents humbleness and modesty.
But back to the food.
The Szechuan Chicken had teeny tiny minuscule bits of chicken hidden among piles and piles of red-hot chili peppers, exuding a rich aroma and exotic scent. It was was spicy hot and exquisitely flavorful, and often I tried to inconspicuously pluck a few pieces of chicken with my chopsticks, since it seemed like the only dish with meat in it. Later I discovered that this is sometimes known as “digging one’s grave” or “grave-digging” and is extremely poor manners. How to make a fool of yourself in one easy lesson!
Most dishes were vegetable dishes, but vegetables that we did not recognize. Sometimes there was a whole fish.
There was not one single food on the formal buffet Lazy Susan table that we could say we recognized! In fact, we could not even recognize any of the individual ingredients in a dish, not one vegetable, not one meat, not one noodle, with only a few exceptions.
We didn’t even know there was meat in the Szechuan Chicken at first, until we asked the interpreter. Many times she was unable to name the food in English, so even if we asked what was in a particular dish, she could not tell us in English. Her English was perfect otherwise and she was an excellent interpreter.
One day though, we did have goose feet, and they were served warm in a sauce – delicious! They have a unique combination of textures with a delicate deep flavour that makes it almost impossible to stop gnawing on them, just as the Chinese do.
Another time shrimp with the heads and tails, eyes and antennae, appeared on the table. I didn’t know how to eat them, so I waited until the turn table offered something else. Now I wish I had tried them, because since then, I have heard they are rich and crunchy, and that there could be nothing sweeter and tastier than shrimp heads.
Our Chinese hosts were appropriately impressed that I used chopsticks (and quite proficiently, I might add). Years ago, I had decided to try using chopsticks in a local Chinese restaurant. Of course, I fumbled and twisted and dropped food until I gave up. One day we were in a Chinese restaurant that used only chopsticks! It was by accident, that day, that I discovered the trick to using chopsticks! Do not worry about how you hold the chopsticks. Forget any directions about where to put your fingers, and focus on the FOOD. Focus on getting the food to your MOUTH because you are starving! No problem using chopsticks with this attitude.
One day we did go to a Mongolian food restaurant. Scrumptious, fresh food with something we had been craving for weeks – meat!
There was only one food that was SHOCKING! Eating it was simply out of the question. Deep-fried bird fetuses. Yes!
Later research solved some of the mystery foods.
“The Monk Jumps over the Wall” is usually served as a main dish when entertaining heads of foreign states and honourable guests. It consists of layers of abalone, sea cucumber, dried scallop and Chinese black mushrooms. Very healthy!
Other specialties in China include cow’s lung soaked in chili sauce, goose stomachs, fish lips with celery, goat’s feet tendons in wheat noodles, shark’s stomach soup, chicken-feet soup, monkey’s head, ox forehead, turtle casserole, pigeon brain, deer ligament, snake venom, lily bulbs and deer’s penis.
That made shrimp heads and goose feet seem absolutely ordinary!
Don’t you just love food adventures!