A Gweilo in 1980s China pt. 6
Written by Tai Pan
Read the previous chapters in ‘Story of my life’ section!
CHAPTER 6 – DISCOVERYING THE CHINESE CUISINE
Right after the funny and unusual episode that I told you about in the previous chapter, the people in charge of the National Textile Import Export Shanghai Branch offered to take me out for lunch. I wasn’t the only Gweilo visiting their offices and dealing with their business department, indeed, there were other two men from Naples that were there to do business with the Chinese.
Before going to China I never really tasted their local delicacies; I only went to a restaurant in Italy that offered Chinese cuisine, but I didn’t enjoy it too much. To tell you the truth, what I had in my home country had nothing to do with the tasty Chinese food that I tried when I was in the Republic. Since the very first moment that I got to know China’s culinary recipes until now, it has been my favourite cuisine in the world!
Once we got to the restaurant, the waiters welcomed us into a private and cosy room that was being prepared only for us. The place was characterised by red velvet couches and a huge table covered by a white linen cloth. In addition to this, on the side of the dining table there were several containers that looked like chamber pots – that I found out to be spitting pots, where people could spit after and during their meals…
Whilst the waiters were serving the numerous dishes that the Chinese hosts ordered for us to try, I noticed that a lot of wine was also coming to the table! At first I got quite worried since I hated – and still hate – any kind of alcohol, but then I got more relax as I noticed that our Asian business partners didn’t really mind if I was drinking or not! I remember that at that time – 1980s – the only beer available in China was the Tsingtao beer, a local product that the Chinese learnt to make from the Germans. A part from beer and wine, the only drinks available in the Republic when I was there years ago were mineral water, Coca-Cola and, obviously, the Chinese teas. During our lunch, the National Textile Import Export people also ordered a bottle of Maotai – a popular local liquor that looked just like water, even thou it didn’t really taste like it – to celebrate the beginning of our business relations together.
I explained to the person in charge of the Chinese group that I couldn’t drink alcohol, so he kindly pored some coke into my glass so that I could at least join in the toast.
Among all the delicious things that were served at our table one in particular caught the attention of one of my fellow countryman. “Oh they are serving buffalo mozzarella, amazing!!” He excitedly said out loud.
Now try to imagine China in 1983, when globalization hadn’t yet hit the country, and the Republic was still closed to foreign influence…How could a person even think that in a country like that we could have been served an Italian food! He immediately rushed to get one of the white soft balls that he thought were mozzarellas, and after trying hard to grab the food with chopsticks, he put one in his mouth. First he turned white, and then his face expression changed from happy and excited to surprised and disgusted. He had no idea that what he just ate was actually white boiled jellyfish!!
Despite this funny and relatively disgusting episode, my first ‘encounter’ with Chinese cuisine was being quite positive. I began to think that the famous local saying of: “eat before putting clothes on” was actually truthful, as their food was – and still is – one of the best I have ever tasted in my life! I also discovered the Kikkoman soya sauce, which still up to today I use to enrich my meals.
I must admit that my favourite Chinese dish was – and still is – dumplings stuffed with vegetables, meat or seafood. They are called Jiaozi, and they can be fried, boiled or steamed.
I learnt that according to Chinese customs, bones or any bits of food of any kind had to be put on the table, right next the plate, as leaving things inside the plate was actually considered quite rude. Besides, at end of each meal it was impolite not to burp: if you didn’t ‘openly’ burp in front of everyone, it would have meant that you didn’t really enjoy the food…
I began to learn about their customs, their way of living life and the reasons behind their, sometimes ‘silly’, actions. I began to open my mind to a different culture that was the opposite of mine.
To conclude, the long lunch that we had with the officials of the National Textile Import Export Shanghai Branch, started around 12pm and ended at almost 5pm!
At that time I still didn’t know that 5pm was actually rush hour, as everyone would finish work around then. So when I left the restaurant I came across another very interesting and fascinating aspect of Shanghai: public transports, and to be more precise, buses. In particular, one of the Italians that was with me at lunch, managed to experience the crowded transports even better than me and the other man! However, I will go into more details about this in Tai Pan’s adventures’ chapter 7.