‘Don’t be hot, isn’t it.’ I stared at the mobile phone screen of Helpful Chinese Man, plumbing the depths of my memory to find any recollection of the last time anyone told me not to look or be hot… I suppose I should be flattered at my age!!
I was standing at the counter of a Chinese restaurant, starving and unable to get through to the woman behind the desk. She was in no mood to even try to comprehend my body language, no matter how often I pointed at the menu or in the direction of the steaming food on nearby tables!! Any of those dishes would have done the job.
In desperation and in the absence of pictures, I just picked out a line on the menu, hoping it wasn’t anything too unpalatable for my Western palate. She seemed flummoxed and spewed out reams of unintelligible (to me) language in response. I resorted to my translation app; this did not have the desired effect either and my attempts to draw the Chinese symbols were aborted as it took far too long. So the chef was called for in the hope he could make sense of my request, or be able to describe the ingredients of said dish. No progress!!
And just as I was about to admit defeat and go home hungry, Helpful Chinese Man appeared. Not that his English was any better, but he knew the word chicken, so I was on the edible track. Hooray!! Woman Behind The Counter, Helpful Chinese Man and Chef put their heads together to extract further details about my needs. ‘Did I like spicy food’ translated as ‘don’t be hot, isn’t it’ on Helpful Chinese Man’s translation app and Woman Behind The Counter had merely been trying to establish whether I wanted food to take away or eat in… I was eventually shown a table and my food arrived: fleshless chicken doused in garlic and green sprigs, enough to feed me and the rest of Hangzhou… that is if you like garlic.
Up till then, I had been reasonably successful in ordering food in China. My first lunch consisted of what looked like pork kebab, heavenly spiced, mixed with a few salad leaves and packed in a wrap. My subsequent independent foray resulted in a vegetarian heap of egg and tomatoes for lunch, served with a huge helping of mifan (cooked rice)… and then there was the garlicky chicken. But I admit that most of my adventures with Chinese food initially happened under the skilful and beady eyes of Klaus and Eddie from the office, who liked to take it upon themselves to entertain the foreign teachers and introduced us to delicacies such as frog. I tried it and admittedly it could have been worse: melt-in-the-mouth chicken texture liberally coated with soya sauce…
But these days I enjoy lunches and dinners at the school and although I am sure that in due course I will get thoroughly fed up with the monotony of school food, for now it is a great way not to spend money!! And at least there normally is plenty of green stuff on the plates….
But not all the food is to my liking. A big container full of bony looking stuff was on closer inspection filled with duck heads and beaks – I did indeed put one on my plate to take a picture but had no intention of eating it. But rather than enjoying my lunch that day, looking at the doleful sight in front of me, put me right off my food.
I love duck but I think I prefer my duck meat neatly shredded, smothered in plum sauce, garnished with strips of spring onion and cucumber and delicately wrapped in paper thin pancakes: Peking Duck. I had it for lunch last weekend, as Walmart sells pre-packed kits; they certainly know how to entice the foreigners to keep spending money in their shops….