Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Lunch

Went out to lunch with the other IT guys – both local residents – yesterday and had quite a nice experience. Among other things, it was my first time driving with a resident in their personal car – all my other rides have been with personal drivers or taxis.

We started by heading to Pizza Hut. This chain and KFC are very popular among the Shanghaiese because they love chicken and both restaurants are chicken specialists. I found this to be pretty interesting, because while Americans frequent both chains, I wouldn’t say that they patronize them because of a reputation for doing any type of cuisine well. For us it’s more about speed and uniformity.

We had a short discussion and decided instead to have Shanghai food so we went around the Pizza Hut building and down a long driveway to a Chinese restaurant tucked into the back corner. The first thing that struck me was the plethora of cardboard Santa faces on every pane of glass.

The host brought us into the back room which was very modern and fancy. No neighborhood joint this. We were seated by a window (with Santa overlooking). They brought us wrapped towels to allow us to wash our hands and faces - a common practice in most restaurant – and they draped big cloth napkins over the tops of our coats which were hung on the back of our chairs. Green tea was served, and re-served with every waitress in the room coming over to fill my cup the minute it went down an inch or more. The young ladies were dressed in traditional Chinese suits with high collars and white gloves.

Three dishes were brought out for the first course, a soy curd that was very tasty despite being the consistency of a sponge, some slices of sweet, barbequed pork and potato salad. Yes, potato salad prepared in the Shanghai style which was no different than American style and just as tasty as any I have ever had.

I watched the way my two companions ate, very different than how we would approach shared meals in a Chinese restaurant at home. First, we ate off the serving plates communally and second, the pace was very slow. They would eat one bite and then rest their chopsticks on the blocks. Lots of conversation and no division of the spoils. I managed to get into that groove and enjoy it, despite my western urge to shovel it in. Another dish was brought out - cubes of pork served in a thick, sweet brown soy sauce, “Shanghai style.” It was very delicious and the flavor trumped the fact that it was steaming hot. So hot that the layer of fat in each cube instantly dissolved into a sticky coating on the inside of my mouth, burning off a couple of layers of skin. The pork was followed by a soup served in a paper filter sitting above a candle in a wire frame. Sort of a simple chafing dish. This was a hairy crab soup with soy and again quite tasty.

A dish of what appeared to be stir fried meat appeared next and Ling informed me it was “fish that looks like snake”. In other words, eel. The eels were very small – about the length and diameter of a blade of grass – and again very delicious. This was followed by a clear soup comprised of carrots and lamb shanks, the latter presenting a real challenge in being finessed by chop sticks. The final dish was the most amazing of all, a big casserole of egg custard (read flan) loaded with cherrystone clams, in the shell, poking out of the surface. Clams in the shell are very difficult to consume with chopsticks and those big Chinese soup spoons. Fingers are demanded.

As we slowly stuffed ourselves, we had some great conversation about Chinese culture, living in Shanghai, food, genology and most interestingly the Chinese love affair with western holidays. The chit-chat was kind of interesting because two of us spoke pretty good English, two of us spoke pretty good Chinese and the individuals with the weaker language skills were different in both cases. I asked for the Chinese name for Santa Claus and Ling explained that it was Shengdanlaoren 圣诞老人, literally Holy Birthday Old Man. Seems appropriate. I asked about other holidays and was informed that Valentine’s Day is quite popular for obvious reasons and that Thanksgiving is also catching on, a fact that I find quite amusing. Turkeys are hard to find in China and their pumpkins are long and tubular instead of round, but those trivialities are not stopping anyone. We went on like this until I could muster the vocabulary to utter “hen bao”, very full, and so lunch drew to a close.

This little episode reminded me well of my Chongming Island visit – it’s fun and enlightening to break out of the norm and do something different from time to time. Would’ve been far easier to just hang with my pals from the US and get whatever was easy for lunch. Instead, I was able to try some new foods and learn a lot about these emerging cultural changes. A couple of hours well spent.

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