Food from China has always been interesting. Even years ago in San Francisco, New York, or Washington, the discovery that familiar foods could be transformed into exotic preparations simply by preceding the dish name with “Chinese,” was mind boggling. Later, as I embraced dishes with “Hunan,” “Sichuan,” (without having the least clue what the words meant except “HOT.” They are provinces in the South and West of China known for the use of chili peppers in their cuisine.) I fell under the spell of this culinary exotica. I bought a couple of recipe books, made (we lived in London by this time) faithful trips to local Chinese, learned to use chopsticks with aplomb, and generally felt myself cognizant of the Chinese way of cooking.
Then came China. In 2005, Sherry and I made the first trip to China, landed in Beijing, and dutifully went off to eat Peking duck. After that, unless we forced ourselves to wander into a McDonald’s or a KFC (we didn’t), our alimentary horizons broadened (as did we). First came the hotpot. In Beijing, Q’ian, and Chongqing (remember Chun King canned chop suey?), the exploration of the many ways of boiling/deep frying food was underway. There were broth hot pots, oil hotpots, communal hotpots, charcoal hotpots, gas hotpots, tall hotpots, broth/oil hotpots – all with one thing in common: we had no idea what we were doing. And sometimes, no idea what we were eating. Snakes, silkworm larvae, large insects, parts of animals that normally were hidden in US hotdogs—all appeared on our plate—if only to disappear from our palate thenceforth.
Then came Yantai. After meeting Ting, we embarked on a series of local trips that explored both sites and appetites. Dumplings prepared 10 ways, chicken that retained its whole self—battered and fried, beautiful looking fish baked to a ne’er-do-well (Chinese cooks, in my experience, cannot cook fish. That is, they cook it 10 or 15 minutes past the time they should have stopped.), and huge crustaceans that two people cannot (that is, could not) eat in one sitting.
We sampled restaurant food, small cafe food, expensive hotel food, and sidewalk vendor food—and I barely recognized any of it. One time, just to show my host, Jack, that I was game, I ate and entire plate of silkworm larvae. They don’t taste bad or good. In fact, they actually have no taste, but (according to Jack) abound in good things for your health. But, even though tasteless, I was not eating mindless. The thought that I was eating a bug’s baby had dug its way into my subconscious. The larvae kept threatening to spin their way out of my digestive tract, but fortunately didn’t.
Then came Tom and Annie. (To Be Continued)