A Heavenly Meal Located Somewhere Near Hell, China: A Food Review
The best meal I have ever had, served by a restaurant whose name I don’t know, located in a city I have never figured out was where, in China
By Nate Thayer
July 13, 2014
You gotta admit that the Chinese have this whole food and eating thing figured out better than the rest of civilization.
I was perusing a Chinese language website that presents photographs of food as art, or more accurately culinary erotica, which is pretty much the routine approach towards food for most Chinese I know. My salivary glands physically reacted from viewing the food porn.
Having said that, the Chinese food available in the overwhelming majority of restaurants here in the U.S. is the equivalent of the horrid gruel I have consumed during those brief hiccups spent in jails that have interrupted, as it were, my otherwise upstanding life after having committed some youthful indiscretion or misunderstanding of some sort or another.
I am guessing that the abysmal quality of food in Chinese restaurants in America is because the other thing that the Chinese have proven to trump the rest of the planet with is their skill and talent at making money, and a profitable restaurant business mandates serving food which is prepared to appeal to the maximum local palate. This is why I avoid Chinese take out restaurants with names like “Wok In” with neon signs advertising fried chicken and steak and cheese sandwich’s and located on dimly lit streets next to the only other establishments open for business such as liquor stores with cashiers behind bullet proof 2-inch thick glass, Korean owned convenience stores that advertise “Checks Cashed” and lottery tickets, and Vietnamese toenail improvement establishments.
The best meal I ever had was while stranded in some obscure town on the Chinese-Mongolian border. To this day, I have no idea what it was I ate and I still have no idea where I was in China and, as not a single person spoke English and my pocket dictionary was not functioning very well, I was caught smack in the vortex of another matter that involved something Chinese disproportionately excel at–mind-numbing bureaucracy designed to drive one insane.
I know it was the Chinese border with Mongolia, because I had just arrived from Mongolia by train–in January, not a time of year I would recommend to travel if one has a choice. It was minus 40 degrees outside–the outside being the majestic but barren Gobi desert. When it is minus 40 degrees, it doesn’t matter whether it is centigrade or Fahrenheit, because minus 40 degrees is exactly where the two systems for meteorological calculation intersect and represent the exact same temperature. That means it was very cold.
The train stopped on the Mongolian side, where everyone disembarked and walked into the town on the Chinese side. I was accompanied by two strapping Mongolian men with whom I had bonded en route from Ulaanbaatar, my possession of a bottle of whiskey nudging them into a marathon socializing during the 10 hour so far train ride.
We sat at an outdoor night market that offered beverages next to the train station on the Chinese side.
The Chinese and Mongolians are not the most fraternal of neighbors. I am very fond of Mongolians. I recall one particularly witty elected parliamentarian telling me a Mongolian joke poking fun at his Chinese neighbors to the south: “The Chinese like to say ‘It takes a great country to build the Great Wall of China,'” he told me. “But we Mongolians like to say ‘It takes a great fucking country to force the fucking Chinese to have to build the Great Wall of China.'”
The less than cordial relations became apparent when my two, now perhaps alcohol fueled, Mongolian friends got into a contentious conversation with a couple of local Chinese which quickly deteriorated into fisticuffs, which further deteriorated into the arrival of the local constabulary, which quickly proceeded to alarmingly decline even further resulting in me and my Mongolian pals under arrest and in the custody of the local Chinese law enforcement authorities.
I still have no idea what sparked the disagreement as my Mongolian language skills are worse than my Chinese. However, I do vividly recall the Chinese police being familiar with the English phrase “attempted murder”, which they used several times and in a tone that was clearly not convivial.
None of the cops expressed anything resembling a friendly gesture towards me welcoming me to their country, nor did any crack a smile during the several hours of which I was their less than enthusiastic guest. They did, thankfully, eventually, let me go, which is more than I can confirm they did for my two Mongolian friends, with whom I never re-united. The last I saw them they were in a jail cell.
While I am a big fan of Mongolia, I am considerably less a fan of their food. For one they don’t eat vegetables. During my month long visit to Mongolia, I had the distinct honor of interviewing over a lunch in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian national wrestling champion. I was immediately to learn that in Mongolia, this is as close as one gets to being God.
I had also interviewed the Prime Minister and other big mucky mucks, but when it became known I had a personal audience with the wrestling champion, I was met with genuine awe by everyone I encountered–not unlike being a celebrity once removed in my own right, I felt.
The wrestling champion was one of the largest men I have ever encountered and also had one of the most genuinely gentle and welcoming demeanor’s–the sort of personality and presence that is comforting and impressive and oozes awe, respect, and affection.
It didn’t hurt that he was well over 7 foot tall and appeared to be capable of breaking me in two like a toothpick if he was inclined. He was a true national hero. He was from the small desert region in the middle of fucking nowhere in the north central Mongolian desert which was the home town, as it were–the birthplace–of Genghis Khan, the most successful imperialist conqueror in the history of human civilization.
But the most interesting fact I learned from this 7 foot, 300 plus pound man who represented all that was iconic and strong and healthy and honorable in Mongolian manhood and culture, was the fact that he had never eaten a vegetable in his life. Not once. I grilled him extensively for much of the long lunch to confirm the fact, specifically asking for confirmation citing all the names of vegetable by vegetable I could recall. The most he would acknowledge was that he had seen a jar of imported Russian pickled beets once, but that he did not find them appealing and declined to try one.
This information threatened to shatter all the food and health propaganda inflicted on me during my youth. But a month in Mongolia did not convert me to their favoured cuisine. Other fun food facts about Mongolia include that the fat of meat cost four times that of the actual meat in the market. I made a point of informing many a Mongolian during my visit that, where I came from, we cut the fat off the meat and threw it away, just so I could record and be entertained by their reaction.They were genuinely flummoxed by such an inexplicably insane practice. They also don’t eat much rice. Basically they prefer meat–the fattier the better–and various curdled dairy products. Mongolians also are big fans of fermented curdled Yak’s milk as an alcoholic intoxicant, and it is a social requirement that one offers ones guests copious quantities of the beverage when he is a guest in ones Ger–or movable residence also known as a yurt. The spoiled Yak’s dairy beverage was always accompanied by chunks of raw sheep’s fat. It was an aggressively rude gesture to refuse these offerings, which were consumed regardless of the hour of the morning.
As a result,most of my unimpaired work would peak before lunchtime. This work involved visiting people’s homes–which usually was a portable Ger set out in remote, vast desert for the most part–and offices to speak with and interview them about their new lives under the first democratically elected government to make the transition from the second oldest hard line Stalinist communist country to genuine full democracy with a flawlessly functioning parliament, opposition, executive branch, genuinely free press, and independent judiciary to achieve such a transition without a shot fired or a drop of blood shed. That process involved a lot of fermented Yak’s milk and chunks of sheep fat consumed. So, that is all to emphasize the point that Mongolian food was not my favorite feature of their otherwise delightful culture.
So when I left my now markedly more glum Mongolian friends in their Chinese jail cells, It was well towards midnight in the small Chinese border town–perhaps it might qualify as a city, I am not sure, because I didn’t know where I was except somewhere in the north of China, which is a pretty big country.
The town did have at least one small 3 story hotel, with which I managed to check in. Since arriving in the country, there had not been a single written English word in sight or English word spoken, either at the hotel, or in the entire town, and I was soon to find there would not be anytime soon.
My pocket Chinese phrasebook sufficed to allow me to register as a hotel guest, after I agreed to hand over perhaps the equivalent of ten US dollars in Chinese currency. The not overly friendly hotel clerk sniffed in derisive rejection of my Mongolian currency and rather grumpily refused my U.S currency, and sort of grunted an approval when I fished out an acceptable amount of Chinese paper currency.
In addition, the hotel staff were rather adamant that they would require to take possession of my U.S passport during my stay at their establishment, and demanded I hand over the document prior to, or perhaps in a simultaneous hand off exchange, before giving me the key to my adequate but spartan room.
The Chinese phrasebook provided sufficient tools to direct me 2 doors down the street to a restaurant where I then had perhaps the most delicious meal I have ever eaten in 53 years.
However, since there was no common language exchanged at the restaurant either, I have no idea what that dish was. I know it was pork because I pointed to the Chinese characters next to the English word “pork” in my pocket communication lifeline, and the pork was shredded and it was perfectly cooked to that perfect combination of soft and lightly crunchy, and was coated perfectly in a tangy and just a bit more than a hint of sweet savory and utterly scrumptious reddish brown sauce which I ate over several bowls of steaming rice. I nearly experienced a gastronomic orgasm.
That is perhaps the most unhelpful food review one might ever read, but it remains really the most details I can offer as I still do not know the name or ingredients of the most delectable food dish that left me catatonic with pleasure.
For that matter, I don’t know the name of the restaurant, or the name of the street it was located on, or the name of the hotel I was embedded.
In fact, I did not, and still do not, know the name of the small city I was visiting, either.
I do know it was in China, but realize that isn’t very helpful.
The next morning, my plan was to essentially flee the area and get back to Beijing. I went to the same restaurant I nearly died and went to heaven in the evening before and had the exact same dish which was a repeat of the previous night’s experience. Both meals were better than any sex I can recall (except for, of course, if that sex involved anyone who is reading this, but it still certainly did give my encounter(s) with you a run for your money).
I went back to the hotel to retrieve my passport on my way to the train station to purchase a ticket to Beijing. No one at the hotel knew when that train might depart, but they refused to give me my passport, indicating that in order to take possession of my passport I would have to produce a train ticket indicating I was confirmed as departing their town.
So I went to the train station. The one room concrete station with two barred ticket windows was empty save for a half asleep ticket seller. I pulled outmy phrasebook and indicated I wanted to purchase a ticket to Beijing.
This is when I heard my first word of English in several days. “Passport,” the train attendant barked as he thrust his hand toward me.
I explained, rather fruitlessly, that my passport was at my hotel. He made it clear that in order for me to purchase a ticket, I would need to present my passport. I failed in my attempt to explain that the hotel had said they would not return my passport unless I first had a train ticket. The train ticket seller was not sympathetic and shook his head indicating he was not going to budge on this matter. So I returned to the hotel to retrieve my passport, where that request was responded to with gestures and leafing thru my phrase book which the hotel clerk made clear that in order to retrieve my passport I would first need to produce a ticket.
My impression was that they were following a well known Chinese law or directive that only an idiot–that would have been me–would fail to understand the logic of.
So, I returned to the train station, where I was met with a wash rinse and repeat of the this now redundant series of back and forth encounters.
I think I was caught in the vortex of regimented communist rules,legendary Chinese bureaucracy, and the petty power plays of the disempowered who adamantly employ the precious few chances to exercise some authority whenever they have the opportunity. Both the hotel desk clerk and the train ticket seller guy, it is my guess fit this bill.
Then, while debating with the train station attendant, our conversation was interrupted by the sound of an approaching train. This fact did not change the resolve of the state train station employee to remain committed to his already exasperated repeating of how this now far too involved and time consuming encounter was going to proceed.
The train came. The train left, without me. It was determined the next train was not until the next day. I was no longer able to muster even a smidgen of being amused by this vaudeville act, and I returned to the hotel. Where I spent another night. After eating another exactly as scrumptious meal of the exact same unidentified pork dish I had now lived off of for the better part of two days.
And I returned to the train station, where I was informed by the attendant that the next train to Beijing was not for two more days. Since I could read numbers, I noted that there were two departing trains to some cities I could not decipher, the next morning. I returned to the hotel and slept.
When, I woke at dawn, I packed my bags, showered, and returned to the restaurant where I retreated to the gastronomical heavens and consumed my fourth meal of the now storied pork dish from the Gods.
I felt similar perhaps to a prisoner on death row who has found pleasure in developing a relationship with a jailhouse pet rodent while waiting for his judgement day to arrive.
Sated, I returned to the hotel with a new strategy.
I retrieved my bags and approached the front desk. Through what had become increasingly proficient use of the pocket Chinese phrasebook, I counter offered that I could be convinced to leave payment for another night in exchange for taking temporary possession of my passport which would facilitate the purchase of a train ticket, promising to return to properly complete the absolutely, understandably, necessary logic of checking out using the proper procedures and rules of engagement as determined by the unerring wisdom of the Party.
To boot, I was appropriately repentant enough to suggest to the hotel desk clerk that I leave sufficient collateral to ensure that I was remorseful for my contemptible mistakes and, showing my shame, and in supplication myself to the Party, whose decision on whether I had engaged in acceptable self criticism I would of course be honored to accept if they should determine I had been reeducated sufficiently to no longer threaten the best interests of the Motherland.
I then pulled out a crisp US twenty dollar bill and put it on the reception desk counter.
There was a short pause,my passport was retrieved, and I tried to look not guilty as I fled the hotel with all my possessions, if not my sanity.
I arrived at the train station and triumphantly waved my passport to the same attendant who had been given the solemn responsibility by the Party to monitor access to the state system of rail transport. I was informed there was no train to Beijing that day.
“Tomorrow,” he pointed at the English word next to the Chinese character in the phrasebook.
Then there was the sweet sounds of rumbling of an approaching train.
I determined which direction it was coming from.–the west.
Beijing was somewhere, albiet several thousand kilometers, roughly southeast.
I purchased a ticket to wherever that train was destined. I didn’t care. It was at least in the right general direction. I boarded.
That concludes my review of the best restaurant that I have ever had the pleasure to be a customer.
I apologize for being unable to provide better directions.