Everyone has a food story. And anyone who has been to a culture different from their own no doubt has some whoppers (pun intended) to tell.
My work takes me to China twice a year for 5-6 weeks at a time. If you’ve been to China you know that it has rich food diversity—exotic mushrooms and tree funguses; greens of every shape and shade the likes of which are never seen in a Stop & Shop or Winn Dixie; unimaginable varieties of noodles made from flours, potatoes, or seaweed; and an assortment of odd snack foods like lobster-flavored potato chips, sugar-coated fava beans, and cucumber-mint chewing gum (really?!?). For a country that has experienced extreme starvation as part of its history, the Chinese today enjoy eating an incredible variety of just about everything and anything!
I have had many memorable meals while in China, but my most memorable gastronomic adventure happened in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Chengdu, in central China, is a city that falls below the “heating line." As a result, many buildings do not have central heating. When I was there in November (a transitional season) it was common for people to wear down-filled coats both inside and outside since the temperatures were the same inside and out. I tend to run cold, so needless to say, I was cold all of the time. Maybe this is the origin of the Sichuan hot spices? I don’t know if that’s true, but Sichuan spices are notoriously pungent. Most notably, aside from the expected red chili peppers, the native green peppercorns called qing huajiao (青花椒) are known to actually numb the tongue. For me, it anesthetized my taste buds upon contact, kind of like Novocain, and rendered anything afterwards tasteless. I don't particularly find that enjoyable, but to the people of Sichuan, it’s a pleasurable experience.
I was in Chengdu for Thanksgiving, a western holiday obviously not recognized in China, but one that many Chinese Christians are starting to celebrate. As a special treat to me, my friends arranged a traditional Sichuan hot pot feast at a local restaurant. My hosts were thrilled to share all the delights of their regional cuisine and I was game for a new adventure knowing I would have a good story to tell later, and I purposed to really show my enjoyment, no matter what the fare.
The six of us were escorted to a round dining table with a large heating plate in the center. The waiter came first with a pot of boiling broth, the entire surface of which was covered with deep red, and presumably very hot peppers. My hosts were humorously studying my face looking for a response. I’m sure I raised an eyebrow, but I knew what they were up to so I didn’t flinch. Next, the waiter put a bowl of warm water at each place. "What is this clear liquid?" I asked. My friend explained that it was just hot water and was there to wash off any food that was too spicy hot (for me especially). Oh oh! I began to sweat. What was I in for if the restaurant provides emergency rinsing bowls? I made sure to locate the nearest restroom just in case my stomach exploded mid-meal.
As the dark red chilies simmered and grew more potent by the minute, our host ordered many as yet untranslated meats and local vegetables. I was instructed how to drop the foods into the community cauldron for a quick cook, then fish them out of the pot with chopsticks (naturally) and eat. Now I can handle chopsticks pretty well, so fishing small things out of the broth was not going to be an issue. I knew, at least, that I wouldn’t go hungry because of any mechanical ability, and I was hungry and ready to eat. Soon the assortment of “meats” (and I use that term loosely) arrived. My friends squealed with delight as my translator explained what each strange looking delicacy was, almost expecting me to turn tail and run. It was as if they were trying to shock me with every new selection!
That day my traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce was replaced by cow tongue strips, wrinkled pig intestines, squishy brains (?), rubbery goose esophagus as well as other things I have blocked from my memory, all gleefully dipped in scalding hot, spicy pepper soup. Yes, I tried each and every dare and was surprised to find that some were better than I would have thought. Goose esophagus is not unlike chewing a rubber band that eventually dissolves, and intestine, once cauterized in the broth, was actually tasty. Other “delights” I need not try again—ever. And no, much to my surprise, the peppers didn't burn a hole in my stomach. I think I managed to represent Westerners pretty well, taking a “no thank you” portion of everything, and demonstrating that I could thoroughly enjoy the whole experience. My friends were simultaneously disappointed and pleased.
I knew it was not an inexpensive meal for my Chinese host, and I was truly grateful for their lavish gift to me. That’s how I remember these friends in Chengdu, extreme both in peppers and generosity, so desiring that I come to love China as they do. And their love is contagious. I will always cherish that day, and that meal. Indeed, I did get a good story out of it, and some kudos for being willing guest.
Image credit: Sichuan Hot Pot by Andrew Smith via Flickr.
Christine Novak is the Executive Director of New Song, a non-profit that partners with registered and unregistered Chinese churches and NGOs to equip local mentors/coaches/teachers to implement a unique biblically based, culturally relevant self-worth curriculum to children all across China. For more information about New Song, visit the website www.newsongchina.org. View Full Bio