Thursday, June 5, 2008

China Day 06: The Great Fish Debacle

Lunch today was in a restaurant in a shabby-looking hotel, but the restaurant itself was pretty and the food was some of the best we've had. Unfortunately it was also the site of the Great Fish Debacle of 2008.

All the restaurant meals here have followed a strict stereotyped pattern: when we arrive at the table there are cold appetizers on the lazy susan in the middle of the table. Our places are set with a teacup, a bowl and one of those funky porcelain spoons, a saucer (the plate; maybe 5 inches across) and a glass. You can have one glass of beer, Coke, or water for free; refills are not free (though the beer is 10 yuan - about $1.50 - for a pint bottle, so that's pretty cheap, and if you are lucky you may be able to score more than one cup of tea.) There will also be a fork and a pair of chopsticks.

It's an important part of Chinese food philosophy that individual portions are not plated. We almost never had a meal that came the way American meals do, with your personal portion of the various dishes sequestered on its own plate. Meals here are always family style - the dishes come out on serving plates and go on the lazy susan, which you then spin to bring the various items over your way for you to take some. So almost instantly after we sit down the wait staff start charging up and putting food on the lazy susan. There is a sense of urgency about the pace of the service, with an implied pressure for us to be quick about it too, so the early meals especially were not taken in the reflective style that is the ideal in Chinese cuisine. It was more like being in a mall on Black Friday.

The dishes usually arrive so fast the waitress often is stacking one plate on the edges of the plates that she gave us earlier, and if you are lucky there is a serving spoon though I have taken to keeping my fork clean for this use. (This is only possible because I've gotten good enough at the chopsticks that my hand does not cramp up before the end of the meal from clutching too tight. Yay me!) Then a tureen of egg-drop soup arrives, soon followed by a plate of fruit that stands for dessert. This is almost always watermelon or a really delicious cantaloupe-like melon, but today it is apples. When you see the fruit plate you know the meal is over.

Anyhow, today it seemed like it was taking a long time for the second entree to get to our table, but eventually we had our fill and it was great. There was beef with onions and peppers, a shredded pork dish, a diced chicken dish, a spicy eggplant dish... However, I did notice, as did some of my tablemates, that the table next door had a sweet-and-sour fish dish that we hand't seen. (We knew it was fish because the head and tail had been placed upright at either end of the plate.) In fact, on closer inspection, the table nearest us had two such fish dishes. Aha! It turns out that that table had noticed their extra blessing and had tried to tell the waitress, but she didn't understand what they were trying to communicate, and since the guides don't eat with us we had no translators available.

Someone told Fred afterwards, and I overheard him kind of chewing them out in angry Chinese. I hope he isn't mad enough to stop Grand Circle from patronizing that restaurant, because it really was good food.


AlisonH said...

Wow. Thank you for my vicarious trip to China!

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