I had the opportunity to go to China last month, and was blown away – literally and figuratively.
Literally because our trip was extended when Typhoon Haima hit Hong Kong on the day of our scheduled departure. Figuratively because the country is in such rapid transition that it is difficult for a visitor to grasp the scale of these changes. One thing that they have managed to retain is the communal spirit of their dining experience.
We began our trip in Hong Kong which, because of its history as a former British colony, is a bit like “Asia for Dummies”. We spent our first day in this cocoon, where everybody spoke English, the activities were cosmopolitan, and the food was mostly recognizable. In fact, after a long flight and getting a bit acclimated, we found ourselves in a pub serving German beer and wurst. After a day of sightseeing and overcoming a bit of jet lag, we headed to Shenzen, a bustling metropolis of 11 million people, to visit one of our suppliers.
Before we got down to business, our contacts, Roy and Eve, took us for lunch at a local restaurant. As we perused the pictures and broken English in the menu, Eve took the steeping water in the teapot and rinsed our chopsticks, bowls, and plates. This act of purifying the eating utensils was repeated at nearly every meal for the remainder of the trip. I was initially a bit put off, wondering whether I could trust the hygiene, but I soon realized that this custom was more about welcoming and hospitality than cleanliness. That sense of warmth and kindness pervaded all of our dining experiences. The hosts went out of their way to make us feel comfortable and at ease. And they always had several bottles of Tsingtao beer for us to share.
One thing that may confuse western visitors is the perception of what a Chinese restaurant looks like. In the large cities and fancy hotels, the restaurant seating will be familiar, but once you get away from the coast or go to a more traditional Chinese eating establishment, you are more likely to see several small rooms with a large, round table and a turntable in the center. Rather than order individually, the host usually orders for the whole group, often focusing on local specialties, which are not typically familiar to Americans like me. When consulted, I would typically request chicken which I figured was pretty safe – except when they brought the dish with chicken pieces chopped into bite size pieces, complete with all the bones and including the feet. Although I couldn’t bring myself to try the tripe, there was enough variety that we always found something worth tasting, and the Tsingtao helped wash it all down.
Perhaps the most memorable meal was in a Mongolian restaurant near Nanyang, a small village 600 miles west of Shanghai with about 3 million inhabitants. At this spot, the tables actually have a large metal bowl built into the center, and the base is surrounded by a barrier that protects the guests from the wood fire heating the wok from below. When we arrived there was some liquid boiling in the bowl, and in it, some form of meat was cooking. They said it was lamb, but it may have been goat, horse, or dog for all I knew. We all proceeded to dip our chopsticks in the pot, grab a hunk and take a bite. It seemed a bit primitive, but it was quite tasty. Still, I was looking for something to enhance the flavor, like sirachi, soy sauce, or maybe even ketchup. I found nothing familiar, until our host pulled out a garlic bunch. He proceeded to peel a clove, and I expected him to drop it into the mix. Instead, he proceeded to eat the whole clove…raw. Yikes. As the meat was consumed, someone added vegetables, then mushrooms, and finally noodles, making a hearty soup that I managed to gracelessly slurp up with chopsticks. Throughout the meal, the Tsingtao was poured liberally and as a result the conversation got louder and more robust.
We had a lot of really great meetings and conversations during our 10 days in China. We made valuable contacts, and solidified a number of relationships. Most of these connections took place in meeting rooms and offices, but they were enhanced at the communal dining table. Even though we relied exclusively on translators, we shared a common language when we ate and drank together. Even though we didn’t really get any good egg rolls, I loved the Chinese meals I did have.