If the human stomach is capable of digesting it, chances are that it’s considered food in China. I admit that Chinese cuisine is not my favourite, but I do enjoy a culinary challenge, so during my short stay in China I close my eyes, plug my nose, and bite down on whatever slinks my way.
A floating cafeteria
On board the Xinjianzhen ferry from Osaka to Shanghai, the meals are provided cafeteria-style. Breakfast is included free of charge, and consists of several options: fried noodles, Tang, jellied something, and—worst of all—congee. For the uninitiated, congee is a sort of runny rice puree soup, with the consistency and flavor of papier-mâché paste. On the first morning I reach for a cup each of Tang and instant coffee, but a furious cafeteria lady unexpectedly yanks the latter from my hand with a sharp rebuke. Apparently I am entitled to only one drink.
For dinner and lunch, low-quality Chinese dishes are available for purchase at Japanese prices. The vegetables dishes are oily and drowning in slimy sauce, while the meat and fish dishes are booby-trapped with bones. All around me, hoards of Chinese tourists rake food from their bowls directly into their mouths. Everyone talks loudly with full mouths.
Fortunately, I had the foresight to pack a bag of food bought in advance from a Japanese grocery store. This I supplement with 50 yen bowls of rice and beer from the vending machine to get me through the two-day sailing. My new friend Ma reassures me that the food will be better on land.
Into the hotpot
My friends Pingtao and Ella meet me in Shanghai and take me to a highly-rated hotpot restaurant near the Shanghai Library station. The restaurant is in the basement of a nondescript building with a tile floor, fluorescent lighting, and plastic tables, but the humble décor does not detract from the excellent food. At a hotpot restaurant, the guests are also the chefs, and we are free to order from an extensive list of raw ingredients. A charcoal reservoir heats our pot of broth to a frothy boil, to which we add the various meats, vegetables, and noodles that Pingtao has ordered for us.
The broth imbues a lip-smacking flavor to the food, and it only improves as we cook the food. Thinly-sliced beef, enoki mushrooms, bitter greens, glass noodles—all are familiar enough not to give me pause. Whole heads of garlic and fish balls? Unusual, but delicious nonetheless. Things get weird when they bring a plate of tiny snow-white strips covered in tiny papilla. I ask what part of what animal it is; Pingtao shrugs and says he thinks it’s from the digestive tract of a land mammal. After we polish off a plate of abdominal confetti—it’s actually quite tasty—they bring a bowl of gelatinous red cubes the size of Snakes and Ladders dice. The congealed blood cubes are absolutely impossible to snatch out of the hotpot with chopsticks, so we are forced to use a spoon.
The dining car on a Chinese train
I spend the rest of my time in China on a train, so my food options are severely limited. On the new ultra-fast trains, a stewardess trundles up and down the aisle with a cart filled with Pringles and Coke. From time to time she also offers pre-made hot meals. I try the General Tso chicken with a tea-boiled egg. It’s not offensive and doesn’t have bones—it could easily have come from a shopping mall food court.
Things are more interesting on the slow train between Urumqi and Kashgar, a route that has so far not been touched by the forces of modernization. This train has a galley kitchen, a chef, and a dining car with little tables covered in plastic tablecloths. I order the most expensive item on the (all Chinese) menu, and a few minutes later I receive a pan-fried fish. The entire fish—tail, skin, bones, fins, head, gills, teeth, eyeballs—partially submerged in a red broth. It’s absolutely delicious. The white flesh is tender and flaky, the skin crispy and covered with spicy peppers, and the sauce loaded with flavour. I eat around the bones and cartilaginous appendages, leaving a head and tail connected by a skeleton. When I motion for the bill, the staff give me a puzzled look. They keep pointing at the fish’s head, and eventually someone hands me their smartphone with a poor English translation on the screen: “eat it?”. Eat what, exactly, I don’t know, but clearly I’ve unknowingly left the best part. The fish’s glazed eyeballs look up at me accusingly as I leave.