A mystery we really sink our teeth into
The ride was 20 minutes of twists and turns, hills climbed and descended, and corners taken at daredevil speeds by our seemingly death-wish-driven taxi driver. As dusk settled in, Linda, my traveling companion, and I arrived at our destination, a local restaurant in a neighborhood of Chongqing, China.
We had started our search for an authentic regional meal by asking for a recommendation from our hotel clerk, a method that had always worked in past travels. The operative phrase was "the kind of place where you and your family would go for a good meal, where we won't be in a room full of tourists."
The skeptical look on our clerk's face was outdone only by our insistence, so against his obvious better judgment, he recommended a restaurant famous for the best Szechuan hot pot in the province. The only hot pot I'd heard of was the Mongolian kind, but I'd never seen or tasted it.
No problem hot pot sounded within a fondue fork's distance of that bubbly, cheesy mixture that I'd eaten eons ago in a Swiss tavern. In Szechuan province, where garlic, chili peppers, and vegetables reign supreme, hot pot would surely be more interesting.
After gladly exiting the car, we stood in front of a noisy restaurant with miniature colored lights covering the facade and a small wooden bridge to carry us from the sidewalk to the open front door.
Departing customers chattered in Chinese, then fell silent as we passed them at the entry the first sign that our desk clerk had taken our request seriously.
We entered a brightly lit space with crowded open rooms on each side of a hallway. Young male and female servers scurried about, their arms loaded with food-filled plates. When they saw us, they stopped in their tracks, silently stepped aside, and then began whispering excitedly as we walked by them.
We had gone about 15 feet when a quick look into the open dining rooms showed round tables of six to 10 people. Diners returned our glances, then quickly pointed us out to other patrons, who stretched their necks to catch a glimpse of what was clearly a strange and surprising sight us.
Now we were certain that our clerk was a man of his word. We were not only the lone Westerners in the place, we were likely the only ones this restaurant had ever seen. As staff ran to and fro in mild panic, their bowing and body language indicated that we should wait for a person of authority to take charge of us.
In a few minutes a smiling man appeared, and with great flourishes of more deep bowing and nonstop chattering, led us to one of the large tables. A round hole approximately 18 inches in diameter and fitted with a gas burner was cut into the middle of the table. A deep metal pot with a metal divider was placed on the lighted burner. From the owner's ever more animated pantomime, we understood that one side of the pot held a spicy cooking liquid, and the other side a milder one.
With great pride he presented our server, a young woman named Jiang. Jiang's claim to fame for this occasion was that she spoke English.
So far, so good. We were in a local neighborhood restaurant with an English-speaking guide to lead us on our culinary journey. The best of both worlds.
After pouring some tea, Jiang motioned us to come to another round table, fitted with multiple levels going upward, like a circular pyramid. Each level was filled with small dishes of raw foods. Jiang and the owner gestured that we should select the food to cook in our hot pot, and then stood quietly awaiting our decision.
Linda and I looked at each other. With the exception of shrimp, there was not one recognizable item among more than 30 foods displayed. Not to worry. We had an English-speaking server, right?
"What is this?" I asked, pointing to one, then another plate. Jiang's answers came in Chinese. When we shook our heads that we didn't understand, she and the owner conferred. "In English," we prodded.
With apologetic smiles and sweetness, Jiang managed to tell us that she had studied English for three months, and that was several years before our visit.
Jiang, the owner, and a collecting circle of curious staff waited and smiled. They pointed again to the table. Hot pot does not happen with one food only.
Linda and I smiled back at the waiting congregation while agonizing over our predicament.
We agreed that the hard-looking black stuff with bumps was definitely out, as was anything with bulbous eyeballs or whiskers, or creatures that looked like their means of locomotion was a slither.
With those boundaries, options were fading fast.
We decided to go with something that was cut in strips, gray on the outside, pink on the inside. My wishful thinking convinced me that it must be a fish.
Feeling relieved that we now had a dish for each of us, we were ready to return to our table. Jiang and the owner nodded approval at our choices, but didn't move.
Desperation set in. We reasoned that anything white or cream-colored couldn't be all bad. So our next choice was a white porous-looking substance rolled into tubes about six inches long and three inches wide. Probably something plant-related that would be good fiber, I hoped.
Onward to our last selection a plate of thin, flat, cream-colored rectangles. It looked as though it could be strips peeled off a large block of cheese.
The owner, Jiang, and the staff smiled broadly as we met their quota of foods for the hot pot. They led us back to our table.
Assuming correctly that we were inexperienced at hot-pot cooking, Jiang stayed with us throughout the meal, alternately cooking and serving the foods, guiding us as to which sauce each should be dipped in.
To my dismay, the cream-colored "cheese" rectangles did not melt in the pot. After cooking they crunched and cracked when we bit into them. And the white tubes did not feel dense and fibrous in my mouth, but like heavy, wet washcloths.
Linda repeatedly coaxed Jiang to explain what we had in our mouths, and poor Jiang kept trying to find the words. I was about to ease yet another of those thin, crackling rectangles between my teeth when Jiang made another attempt to identify it. She pointed to her arm and said, "Blood."
I stopped in midcrunch. Obviously I wasn't ingesting blood, but Jiang was insistent that whatever it was, it was blood-related. In one gulp I swallowed what was in my mouth and sent my elbow sharply into Linda's side. "Stop it," I snarled through clenched jaws. "Just let me be clueless for the rest of the meal, OK?"
The dinner ended and we departed, sharing alternating bows and smiles with the owner and entire restaurant staff, who came to the door to send us on our way.
After a good night's sleep with no digestive disruptions, I figured it was safe to recount the story of our previous night's dinner to our English-speaking Chinese guide. She listened intently and then nodded her approval.
"Oh, you made excellent choices," she said. "The spongy white tubes are pig stomach, and the crunchy rectangles are cartilage. These are delicacies in Chinese cooking."
For once Linda was speechless. Cartilage? Pig stomach? I resisted the urge to grimace. No ugly-American response from me.
"Oh," I said brightly, "how fortunate for us."