Thursday, July 31, 2008

Everything was going just fine until I inhaled that peppercorn

After a long hard day of sitting in a conference room planning, my local counterpart Ben and I decided to go out and have dinner. He had mentioned in the past that his wife was from Sichuan and that she had a favorite restaurant here in town that came darn close to the food she was used to. Apparently though the place is so popular that it's nearly impossible to get into and of course reservations are not accepted. But he had a plan to send his wife ahead early as a decoy and so we headed out of work and down the street to the Ya'an Xi Lu subway station.

The place is located on the south side of Shanghai near the soccer stadium, a landmark I am only too familiar with from sitting in traffic jams coming to and from the airport. I was excited to actually get out in the street in that area of town, having not been there before.

The walk down the street to the subway was really hot and damp. Ben pointed out that people in Shanghai are far more inured to this discomfort and so they don't sweat like those of us who have spent time living in the desert. Sure enough, no one's clothes were becoming transparent and no one was sporting a completely sopping forehead like I was. Something I'd never noticed before.


The subway was packed as it always is at rush hour but it didn't matter much because the air conditioning was fantastically cool. Plus it served to equalize all that sweating, we were now as crisp as the locals.

The station where we got off was in the basement of a big department store and so I didn't get to see the neighborhood as I had expected to. We just rode the elevator up to the 5th floor where the restaurant was located.

Coming around the corner it was clear that Ben's description of this place as being popular was not amiss - there were dozens of people waiting out in front in the hallway. The place's name is 辛香汇 which sounds like Xin Xiang Hui which more or less means "work to bring together savory tastes". What I liked about the sign was the English translation - "Spicy Joint." You can check out their web site at this link.

The place was mobbed and noisy on the inside too, but Ben's wife was our ringer and was waiting at a table for us. We sat down and she did the ordering, promising me a tour of the cuisine of her homeland.

Out of respect for my hosts, no pictures were taken so you will have to live with my descriptions of the dishes that came to pass. While waiting I showed off my ample conversational abilities and stumbled mightily through my obvious listening comprehension gaps but we were having fun and once again I had found another person who pronounced my Chinese "understandable." I continue to accept this as the ultimate compliment.

A couple of icy cold Harbin beers got us rolling into the food. The first course was a cold dish of paper thin sliced pork paired with equally thin slices of cucumber, garnished with a pile of chiles and garlic. It was fantastic but my hostess pronounced it adequate only.

Second up was a pile of what looked like romaine lettuce bathed in traditional Sichuan peanut and sesame sauce. Now I've made peanut sauce for a hundred years and it has never come out like this. It was the perfect complement to the previously mildly spicy dish.

Next was a giant bowl of hot chile oil brought boiling to the table chock full of slices of fish and bean sprouts. Covering the surface of the roiling liquid were hundreds of dried chiles that looked a lot like habaneros. Keeping them company was an endless supply of those nasty little peppercorns I've grown to love. The drill here was to taste the broth and determine whether it was hot enough and when judged so, the waitress brought another bowl to remove the chiles. This dish was really outstanding, spicy, tasty and so flavorful you had no idea it was fish aside from the ample supply of bones.

Halfway through that a platter piled high with dried chiles showed up. This was the chicken dish and it was very hot although my companions claimed it was mild. I heard many stories this evening about relatives in Chengdu who prefer their food all but inedible to anyone but a native.

By now I was going into capsaicin shock as most of these dishes were pegging the Scoville Scale. This was some darn hot food and we weren't done yet. We had a long talk about the western palate and how it doesn't adapt well to the textures of many Chinese dishes. The spices and flavors aren't bad, but many of the things I've eaten just don't sit well on my tongue. This conversation wandered into the Chinese notion that all foods have a purpose and a benefit to your body, and so therefore you should simply eat them. I used Sea Urchin as an example of one that just doesn't work well for me, I was informed it's good for my skin.

The final dish was targeted at the few remaining functional taste buds I was still sporting. This was lamb and it was heavenly, the best had been save for last. Tender, moist, hot as the sun, I could have eaten this one all night long.

While picking at the remainders, I managed as the title suggests to actually inhale one of those mean little buggers that were floating with the fish. Now I've aspirated food bits a million times, but there is something special about getting a peppercorn sideways in your lung. You cough, and cough and perhaps it dislodges. But the scorching reminder that it was once there is enough to make you cry a bucket and I did, until my gracious hostess offered me a pack of Kleenex to mop my eyes. The thing finally came out, but the after burn lasted for a long, long time.

The bill came to a grand total of $23 for all that food and beer and we left with plenty of leftovers to continue the suffering tomorrow at lunch. Not for me though because lunch tomorrow will be of the plain old plane variety.

All it all it was a great evening, another chance for me to step outside the confines of my westerness and get treated like an honored local guest. I was the only westerner in sight the whole evening including the train ride out, the dinner, the ride back and the walk home in the humid Shanghai evening back to my hotel. Being an outside is an interesting feeling, one which I have become completely at home with.

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