Forget even the unpleasant notion of accidentally eating dog, at least you can tell that meat is some kind of meat. This stuff…?
What did it used to BE? And it all comes with the same uniform smell, that reminiscent of a Brooklyn street market at the end of the day at the height of summer.
Anyway, so I wasn’t overly brave with my eating habits in China. But my worst food experience was simply sitting down in a restaurant to eat normally.
It sounds simple enough. Order some food. Eat it. Hmmm…
I order prawns on a bed of breadcrumbed-garlicky-toasted flakes of I don’t know, but it’s very tasty. However as the prawns are shallow fried with their shells on I attempt to de-shell, with chopsticks. The waitress is already suspicious of me for not wanting to order rice, having pointed at the picture of rice three times whilst I politely declined, hoping my enthusiastic nod and smile will make her realise that I understand the concept of rice, I just don’t want any. Within three seconds of attempting to de-shell my first prawn I send several thousand of these pieces of fried garlic crumbs flying across the table and onto the floor.
What I want to do is yell “We’ve invented the fucking knife guys, why am I trying to de-shell a prawn with two sticks?” What I do is look around me very slowly to see if anyone has noticed. My waitress has. She smiles at me. Not with me. At me.
I eventually peel back the fried shell to find the shit-tube full and proudly on display. This is not unusual with seafood, I would just prefer it removed. It’s just the way I am, if I’m going to eat faeces I would prefer to invoke my maternal grandmother’s mantra ‘what the eye doesn’t see the heart can’t grieve about’. She used to say this in relation to using the chicken fat for gravy that she would then serve to my then-vegetarian sister.
Faced with a plate of fruit-de-la-mer effluent and with a substantial percentage of my lunch now either on the table, the floor, or my lap I resolve to use my fingers to de-shell my lunch. The look of polite derision I face from the waitress upon witnessing this is that which I would associate more closely with her finding me trying to de-shell her brother. I have spent a lot of time in Germany and am therefore used to obnoxious, unhelpful or indifferent waiting staff. However the food is easier to eat in Germany.
My side dish of Chinese broccoli really shouldn’t be cause for further troubles. But it is. They are all rather large pieces and again, as I am sans knife I lift a piece to my mouth reasoning I will bite it in half and the unrequired half will drop to my plate without fuss. Wrong. The broccoli is far too al dente to bite in half in one go so I am faced with the instantaneous decision of gnawing further and spitting out what I can or chomping down quickly and eating the entire stem of broccoli in one go, a little like the way a T-Rex would devour a small cow.
By this point the waitress has placed the bill in front of me.
I look down. There are eight more prawns and a whole plate of broccoli to go.
After the eternity that is lunch passes I pay. I attempt to tip. I am refused. Whether this is cultural or personal I don’t know. There isn’t a strong tipping culture here but it does happen and my cab driver from Shanghai airport to the hotel was very keen to prise a further ten quid out of me, on top of the already exorbitant fee. A 20 minute cab journey in Shanghai costs two quid so this guy wasn’t afraid to stand tall against traditional values. Good for him. I gave him a fiver.
Taking back my change and unwelcome tip I asked if there was a bathroom (I say toilet, the potential for miscommunication here is strong). I had just had a nice litre of beer and was going to attempt my second visit to the Forbidden City – it was closed on my first – and figured I might be wandering for some time.
The waitress points to the exit.
She isn’t directing me to the bathroom.