Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Shenzhen: Chinese Chopsticks

The act of consuming food in a Chinese restaurant.


The act of consuming food in a Chinese restaurant. With chopsticks. During a business meeting.

Visiting a local restaurant in China is always an eventful and interesting occasion. Besides the challenge of chewing a slimy/bony entity not intended for human consumption, the mere act of getting the questionable object into your mouth is a tremendous task.

In China it is not uncommon to receive a big bowl of noodles or soup with a side of two, thin chopsticks. After numerous sideways glances to the locals occupying the surrounding tables, I have decided that there are three ways to overcome the problem of balancing unruly strings of noodles, flaky grans of rice or liquid on an area the size a pinkie nail.

  1. Lift the bowl from the table and bow your head until your nose touches the noodles/rice/soup. Slurp, smack and suck down the contents of your bowl by making plenty of loud noises. Use the chopsticks to enhance the speed and volume of said act.
  2. Ask for a spoon. Repeat step 1.
  3. Do not eat at all. Keep yourself entertained by observing everyone else's slurping.
There is no other way. I have tried the subtle, non-slurping option by sticking both my chopsticks into the bowl at a right-angle to the table and rubbing them between my hands, not unlike the way in which we were taught to make fire in the Voortrekkers. My hope was to twirl the noodles into a meaningful bite, but the chances of concocting a fire in my soup-bowl was probably better. After drenching myself with splatters of soupy liquid I decided to call it a day and surrendered to the slurping. Even using the spoon did not help and I was starting to suspect that Chinese spoons were especially designed to further enhance your spluttering. 

Slurp-Enhancing Spoon

Although these unappetizing eating noises would've resulted in a hiding during your childhood years or being sent to bed without food (in your childhood or any subsequent years), no one in China will even take notice of your slurping. Because they will be too busy conducting noises of their own. In fact, in China, you should slurp your noodles to indicate your enjoyment of the food!

When going for lunch at a Chinese restaurant, many dishes will be ordered for the table and everyone will share the food. Usually you will be presented with two sets of chopsticks as well as a chopstick stand. One set for transferring the food from the table onto a small plate in front of you, the other for eating.

As one dish after another was brought out to our table during a business lunch, I felt the panic rise in my throat: I hadn't even mastered the art of using chopsticks to get the food into my mouth. How on earth was I going to transfer it from the middle of the table, to my plate, to my mouth by using two sets of chopsticks, whilst managing to converse in an intelligent and cheerful manner? Oh, and apparently you should refrain from resting either set of chopsticks vertically on your plate as it is a harbinger of death.
Death by chopsticks vs. lasting humiliation by chopsticks.

Balancing Act

In a few minutes our table was sufficiently stacked with sweet-and-sour fish, bean curd, miniature ribs, fried rice, and other bizarre dishes - an even number, so as to avoid death yet again. Just as I was strongly contemplating to play it safe and only touch my Chinese tea throughout lunch (perhaps I could keep myself occupied by refilling everyone else's tea cups, as this is an indication of gratitude and much less ominous than death), one of the locals reached for a dish and lo and behold! sent a lobster-ball of sorts flying. The slippery ball landed with thud in another colleague's teacup, spraying him with hot tea. For a second everyone stared in silent horror and then we all burst out laughing, even the tea-splattered colleague.


With the ice adequately broken by the flying lobster-ball, I dug in for a happy meal, splattering, slurping and all.

Chopsticks for Dummies

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Shenzhen: Dubious Dishes

I might live in "wild" Africa and thoroughly enjoy exploring all that nature has to offer in this - and other - countries, but I still prefer viewing a snake from behind its enclosed, sturdy, reinforced (yes, the more adjectives the better) glass cage, surrounded by numerous warning signs.
In China, it seems, you are more likely to find these slithering reptiles in your glass than behind glass.

Snakes in Oklahoma (2006)

When it comes to life and food, my motto is "try everything at least once", but occasionally, for the sake of survival, this rule has to be bent. 
In South Africa my What Not To Eat list includes licourice, mopanie worms, walkie talkies, smileys, tripe and the worst of all: Future Life cereal. I don't care if it now comes in strawberry and chocolate flavours. I don't care if it contains the 217th vitamin needed for longevity and a superior quality of life. I don't even care if Chad le Clos eats it every day, swimming goggles casually positioned around his neck at the breakfast table.

In China my What Not To Eat list has been vastly extended to include crawling, jumping, and sailing reptiles. You can apparently select your snake from a cage, after which it will be specially prepared to your liking. This process gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "pick your poison".

Combine the Chinese's lunchtime preferences of slippery snakes and colossal toads with their inability to communicate in English / my inability to converse in Mandarin and you are bound to turn every lunchtime outing into a Fear Factor extravaganza.
Every lunchtime I would saunter out to some or other Chinese Mall, pick a random Chinese restaurant (if there's a queue the food must be at least moderately appetising, right?) and try to order something edible. 

Chinese Mall

There is one prerequisite when selecting a restaurant: The menu must have pictures of the dishes. Otherwise the ordering process starts to resemble a circus spectacle - the role of the clown being played by the person who cannot speak the local tongue. Me.
This obstacle can be overcome if the dishes are displayed, but there is a risk that viewing the raw food will put you off eating altogether. For a week.

Interesting Meals

Once you have selected a suitable lunch establishment, do not under any circumstances peer into the kitchen when going to the restroom. Of course, the restroom is always positioned next to / on top of / basically inside the kitchen, making it virtually impossible to not see what's cooking. But for the sake of your sanity, try nonetheless. If you do catch a glimpse of the kitchen, be prepared to loose your appetite. Possibly for ever.

The ordering process usually consists of big hand gestures (you), a scattering of Mandarin (the waiter), a lot of pointing (you), followed by more pointing (the waiter) and a few alarmed and concerned facial expressions (the other customers). 
I would select a picture on the menu (please let it be chicken this time!) followed by one finger. And then I would wait and hope that I will be presented with 1 x Dubious Chicken Dish, instead of 1 x Human Finger.

If I am accompanied by another non-Mandarin speaking person, the process gets even trickier since the order would now consist of 1 x Dubious Chicken Dish + 1 x Dubious Beef-Noodle Ensemble. Try explaining that without using words.

"And two Tsingtao beers, please," we would try, thrusting two fingers in the air. Because surely Tsingtao stayed "Tsingtao", whether you are speaking English or Mandarin?
After several confused glances, more pointing and a rapid downpour of foreign words by a borderline frantic waiter, we concluded that it did not. So with our best charade-like gestures of "drinking" and "menu", we summoned the drinks menu and pointed to the Tsingtao.
"Ah! Tsingtao!" the waiter exclaimed.
"Yes! Tsingtao!" we bellowed and threw our hands in the air in exasperation. But, alas, the big hand gestures further confused the poor waiter and we had to start all over again. With the restaurant manager.

When the food arrived, one dish had an alarming number of resemblances to an illustration of a vertebrae in my high school Biology textbook. So I steered clear and apprehensively chose a safer option: a dumpling of sorts.
As I was taking my second bite of the surprisingly tasty dumpling, a local colleague walked past and we summoned him to join us for lunch.
"Great," he said and reached for one of the dumplings. "I love tripe."


Dangerous Dumplings