Between 2011-2017 I spent three months in China every spring. During these sojourns, I covered an impressive swath of turf, including well-known places like Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Chengdu, Mao’s birthplace. Also, as is my wont, more obscure places (to the Western tourist) like Dali, Yangshuo, Zhouzhuang and Pingyao. It is the last of these places where my story will soon focus.
To earn money, illegal without a working visa which I never had, I taught English, sold my poetry book (2,000 copies) and played music (busking and in bars and clubs). These enterprises conspired to make me very popular with the police who are, despite their bluster, not as strict as I thought they would be but definitely lazier. Which is to say, they never tossed me in the slammer. Amen for that.
These activities afforded me opportunities to make friends, many of whom generously treated me to all manner of food and drink. Unfortunately, except for some seafood and river fish, I limit myself to a mostly plant-based diet.
Among the sixty-plus countries I have eaten in, China’s cuisine encompasses the widest and wildest fare, including a staggering variety of excellent fresh fruit and vegetables. Not that I eat much flesh of any sort, as I said, but they fry and steam and grill and cure some fairly obscure and, dare I say, nasty fare. Ever had chicken feet, starfish or scorpion? How about massive spider, duck head or flying lizard? Rat, snake, rooster blood? Had enough? I thought so.
Except for those places which attract tourists, most restaurant menus are not in English. Some do have pictures, although they are not always helpful. Who knows what critters lurk in those stews and stir fries?
Windy Pingyao, with its dusty wide streets, reminds me of a forsaken town in a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. I swear I was expecting to see Clint Eastwood, chomping on a cheroot, emerge in a poncho and wide-brim sombrero on a massive horse.
Well, one afternoon, after I watched the LeBron-led Miami Heat vanquish my beloved Boston Celtics, I commenced to wander in the road to shake off the painful loss. I didn’t get too far, the restaurant next door, in fact, where a couple of young ladies were sipping beer and picking from a plate of sliced meat of an uncertain identity.
The hand-held gadget, with its translation App, solves most riddles. They were enjoying donkey. Yes, Hee Haw, Hee Haw. When they offered, I snagged a finger nail-size morsel, winced and chewed it down. At least I have tried donkey, I told myself. What an intrepid traveler I am.
Further on down the road, with still no sighting of Clint, I espied a menu in English outside a restaurant. And quite a menu it was. In fact, I haven’t seen anything remotely resembling it since. And probably never will. It was intriguing, to say the least, although I have to admit it did nothing - and I mean nothing - to stimulate my appetite.
Well, there was Cook Pimple and Mushroom-Stewed Bullwhip, Colorful Hunting Ears and Pulling Rotten Son, Bubble You Gao and Bald Salad Bowl or, if you prefer, Dip Bowl Bald Is and finally, mercifully, Clear Cooks The Bull’s Penis and Grasping The Donkey. Had I had a finger-nail portion of that?
Shame on you if you think I am fabricating this epicurean’s delight of a menu.
Hey, don’t be dissuaded from going to or eating in China. The food, different by region in this enormous country, is often excellent. Bon Apetit!