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

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