Saturday, July 14, 2007

Putting the Hot in Hot Pot

I am in Chengdu. Where? Well, it's pretty much the capital of the Sichuan province, jumping off point to go to Tibet (or in our case, to go visit a national park with Tibetan villages in it while not leaving China proper), China's fifth largest city, China's second most livable city (we don't know what number one is), and the home of hot pot.

But first-- our last few hours in Xi'an merit chronicling. This China trip has turned out to be a culinary adventure, and a fun one at that. First, we went back to the Muslm quarter to sample an intriguing concoction I saw them making on the street. It turned out to be a disk of rice lightly sweetened, then topped with a syrup, some dried oranges, and some nuts, all stuck on two skewers. It was divine, and a good warm up for our main event, yangrou paomo at a Shanxi restaurant. See, now the food is Sichuan, but way back in Xi'an (yesterday), we were in the Shanxi part of the country. This is supposedly one of its most famous dishes. This dish was so perfectly described by Frommers (more on why this is the greatest travel book ever despite sometimes cryptic directions and listing the Louis Vuitton store under 'shopping' in every city in every book I've ever used) that we were somewhat able to navigate yet another restaurant where we were the only non-Chinese. After some pointing to the blessedly illustrated menu, we were brought two bowls with two buns in each. We then tore up the buns into little pieces (because Frommer's told us to). Our waitress returned and chastized Nisha for not tearing hers up small enough, so we were given a second chance to further shred her bread. They then approved and took away our bowls and brought them back five minutes later filled with broth, mutton, beef, veggies, noodles, and our pieces of bread. This bread was pretty dense, so it soaked up the broth well but not so quickly that it got oversoggy. And it was all pretty delicious. On the side, we got chili sauce and coriander, which we put in the broth (because Frommer's told us to), and whole cloves of garlic that had been soaked for a month in vinegar and sugar, which we ate plain between the occasional bite (because Frommer's told us to). It was fabulous, and we felt like rock stars for finding this place with only two false starts, and for sampling something truly local.

This morning, we flew to Chengdu on CAAC/China Eastern again, but wisely brought Starbucks scones (good flavors here! I had strawberry rhubarb, which Roger would love) so didn't have to even look at the breakfast-box-of death. We had the aisle and middle, and when our window companion came, he decided charging right into our row without giving us a chance to get up and let him in was the right approach. Nisha happened to already be up, so I found myself in the middle seat with an older Chinese gentleman ramming into my legs. I looked at him in shock, waved my arms until he stood back, and then got up and let him in. Truly priceless. He clearly had not seen the helpful video about airplane etiquette.

Anyhow, we got to Chengdu, it was the first time the airport was less than an hour from the city (yay!), and we set out to navigate and deal with flights to Jiuzhaigou for tomorrow. Our two attempts to find restaurants in our books failed (Frommer's is good, but the place we tried to find was in a building that had been demolished, so not their fault), so we decided to risk it and go into a hot pot place we could see was semi-crowded with only Chinese people. Our agreement was that if there was an English menu or a picture menu, we'd do it, and if not we'd try the hot pot place we knew had both. We walked in and mimed menu. Blank stares, and then entreaties to please sit in the waiting area. I pull out Frommer's and flip to the back to the language section to find the word for 'menu'. I say it to them, and somehow flip to another section I did not know I had that is chinese characters/pronunciation to english for Chinese food organized by cuisine with a whole PAGE on hot pot. The guy lights up as the woman brings us the 'menu'. This is an 8 1/2 by 11 form with carbon copies (you can order in triplicate!) more complicated looking than a tax form, all in Chinese with tiny writing and at least 100 boxes on it. The guy starts pointing at my hot pot page and pointing at the teeny tiny type on the page. We decide to risk it, get whisked to a table, and I start pointing. I start with "half spicy half broth", because Chengdu hot pot is Sichuan, and is notoriously spicy. We are brought a pot divided down the middle, but unlike the Mongolian hot pot, each side is filled with stuff already. The hot side has tons of chilis and some leeks, and the water is red. The broth side proves to be a hilarious treasure trove, with tomatoes, leeks, slices of what looks like lunch meat, and (as we discover late in the meal to Nisha's chagrin) a whole fish-- all of this just for seasoning. After much pointing, we get beef, lotus root, mushrooms, and another kind of beef. It was amazing, and I was surprised by how well I could handle the Sichuan spice. Texas paid off, I guess. Of course, our lips were burning by the end, so we had to go get milkshakes after. But it was fantastic, and I can only describe what we experienced as not just culinary satisfaction, but something like triumph for having managed to order under these circumstances. And I bow down to whoever put together that section in Frommer's. I owe them a Mons (the local beer we washed down our lunch with today).

I think it's pizza tonight.


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