I’m not in China anymore. But part of me has become China, and I have many stories in the journal and in my head that I think could be entertaining, so I’m going to keep sharing. Most of this is going to be straight out of my journal, so it could jump a bit between present, future and past tense. It’s going to be “China Raw”, with stories or thoughts on train rides, imposition, tea, landscapes, economics, education, exercise, and more. And food. Because my-oh-my the food was mighty fine in China.
That meal was ridiculously good.
I’m at the “dining room”, as my new friend Bruce calls this type of eatery. I call it the “cafeteria”.
Everything about this spot is stellar. It starts and ends with the staff. I’ve been here at least 5 times (in the last 6 days) and they’re stoked to see me every time. “Ni Hao, ma?” says the tall fella, about my age. The older ladies smile and their eyes shine. They want people to come enjoy their craft, their wholesome, carefully, artfully prepared food in their clean and comfortable dining room. They are excited to share. They have pride and they take pleasure in my enthusiasm and enjoyment of their eatery.
There is a line, a cafeteria-style line that you walk along with your tray. First are cold, plated dishes – cold chopped chicken or duck thigh, red cabbage, unknown tubular vegetable in vinegar, agar/seaweed vegetable, chicken feet, roasted salted peanuts. Next is hot, plated protein dishes. These are art. Whole fish in crisp skin, most and tender flesh, plated with several garnishes, finished with a bright vinegar or reduced stock. Hangzhou specialty pork belly fat cubes, 1.5” perfect cubes. Bowls of steamed egg. Sliced and plated pork. Then there is wok-shaped, bulk-style section. You point at what you’re interested in, the server carefully spoons it onto a small dish, taking care to include the right proportion of meat, vegetable, garnish, whole pieces of spice, againifinishing it with a final bit of soy sauce, stock or vinegar.
It’s hygienic. You don’t touch food, plates or serving utensils. No customer reaches their hand or leans their body over the food. The server reaches out to put plates directly on to your tray. There is a glass barrier to keep customer breath and fluids off the food, and servers accomplish the same with hats, gloves and surgical masks.
Tonight I managed to avoid, mostly, the pork fat, Hunks of pork fat are relished here in Hangzhou. Where does all the pork go? The meat, that is? And on that same note, where are the chicken breasts, thighs and legs that go along with the vast quantity of chicken feet, those plates of chicken feet that are served everywhere from the most common of street vendors to the most rarified of banquet rooms. Anyway, the pork fat – often, I order a dish, or point at the plate 3 feet away, behind the glass, only to be a wee disappointed upon sitting down and, upon closer inspection, they forgot the meat! This is skin and fat. Just skin and fat! Dang! I’m all for the idea of eating the whole animal, the fats, organs and cartilaginous bits – all of it, fine! But these dishes in Hangzhou – it’s just too much for me here – I mean, come on! I don’t need that! You don’t need that! I’m not an Eskimo living off whale blubber. Eat the whole animal, fine, but don’t partition it and then serve just the fat!
Fat, carb. Those are easy to find here. Lean protein – rare. People shovel in the rice. That’s a whole another topic, the white rice culture, but briefly:
Seriously – shovel. Hold the bowl up and use the chopsticks to shove it all there, vacuum up that white rice. It’s not something that I’ve seen once or twice. It’s every city, every eatery, every patron. I’m looked at sideways for not doing the same. One bowl of rice is the minimum. Most diners take down 2, even 3 bowls. I’ve even seen 4 bowls taken down. Devoured, absolutely consumed.
I'm not such a prodigious white-rice-eater. This doesn’t slide by, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Nothing I do goes unnoticed. I haven’t gone a meal without being approached in some manner. It’s gestures, it’s comments. In the Cafeteria, a fellow might be walking by and he’ll make a comment to me. He’s saying something like “Oh! You eat your rice!?!?” I wave him off. Get outa here, man. I don’t know you, you don’t know me. Then he jabs his eating companion, and now it’s become a group show, a tag team of suggestion-givers. They point at the hot pepper I’ve spooned onto my fried eggs. They gesture at me to pick up my rice bowl. Demonstrate how I should hold my chopsticks differently. Wordlessly encourage me to switch to a spoon to eat the tofu. They point at my untouched bowl of white rice and remind me, “Freee!”
It’s mutual entertainment, I think, for everyone. The cafeteria line servers, the cashier, the owner, the patrons – they’re all stealing looks or openly staring at me, and me back at them. Everyone is both a spectator and a character in the show, watching and taking part. To them, I imagine my part being as if I’m a grizzly bear at the zoo, chomping down bananas with the peel still on. Fascinating.
Certainly I’m entertained by the onlookers, suggestion givers, insisters. They’re just curious and friendly. But, really. Get outa here. You’re exasperating. Whatever you think I’m doing or that I need help with, it’s fine. I’m fine. I can handle it. We have Chinese food in America, too ;)
From left to right, top to bottom: (1) Baby eggplant (2) Tray of goodness (3) Tofu, eggs and unknown greens (4) Unknown crunchy vegetable (5) Rice-stuffed Lotus root (6)Hangzhou Specialty Vinegar Fish (7) Roasted Peanuts (8) Sauteed green beans, chili pepper and pork (9) Carrots and pork (10) Pork fat cubes (11) Duck fat (12) Pork fat (13) Pork fat and beans (14) Duck (15) Sweet Potato potato rice porridge (16) Pork and unknown greens (17) Steamed egg (18) Happy belly
Two additional notes:
1. An experience at The Cafeteria is approximately free. $2 is enough for unlimited rice and a complex, 15-ingredient, carefully prepared, locally caught, artfully plated Hangzhou fish. $7 could be enough for the whole day. It would buy you 1 fish, 2 meat dishes, 2 vegetables dishes, a soup, peanuts, rice and tea. $7 for plenty of the best food you can ask for, all without having to catch a fish, raise a pig, plant a tomato, fire up the grill, cut vegetables or clean dishes.
2. I didn't cook once in China, or eat anything out of a package. That means I ate a snack or full meal at some type of eatery 1 to 5 times per day, for 42 days. Say I averaged 3 times per day. That means I ate 126 meals and snacks 'out' over 42 days. I had nary a stomach ache, in 126 times 'eating out'. Try that in the US, or really anywhere in the world.