Thursday, June 30, 2011

That Pot is HOT!

 "So, how is the food?  What are you eating over
there?  Are you sick of Chinese Food, yet?" 

"As the Tummy Churns"
Chapter One

Being raised in the Depression, when food was a luxury, my mother told me that she suspected that her mother (my Grandmother) would feed her three growing children, but not herself some nights. Food was expensive and money was tight.  My Dad once said that his father (my Grandfather) was critically ill for much of his adult life. Therefore, he could not be the bread-winner for his family of five. Dad recalls that catsup soup was considered a meal and my Grandmother and Dad's older sister worked as domestics to keep even that on the table.  I'm guessing you've heard or even experienced your own family's hunger stories. 

Fast forward to mid-century when every night of the week in a suburban bungalow on a tree-lined street there was a plateful of food, a glass of milk and a dish of canned fruit happily awaiting our family of four.

"One Bite Rule" -  In that house on Vassar Street
 there was a fully enforced "One Bite Rule."  This meant that if it was put on your plate you had to have at least one bite of it in spite of your crossed arms and pouting lower lip. (my parents often cautioned me that I might trip on that lip.)  Brian and I learned that we had to try everything...once. Mixed results, of course, but we sampled everything or you couldn't be excused from the table. (Yes, we had to say, "May I please be excused?" before getting up from the table.)   My memory recalls trying just one bite of minced meat pie, acorn squash, asparagus, cottage cheese, calves liver and even deep-fried smelt. Pinching one's nose closed during the sample tasting was allowed since Mom knew that the olfactory sense was a large factor in how things tasted.
It did make it hard to swallow though...go ahead and try it.  :o)

Fast forward 50 years to the other side of the world in Nanjing, China and that is where my food story begins...

This past Sunday we were invited to experience a very different type of cuisine known as Sichuan Henan or authentic "hot pot."  We were invited by Julia, the Big Guy's co-worker.  She wanted to be the first to introduce us to this slice of Chinese culture and food.  We waited for Julia to pick us up in her FORD Focus (blatant product placement reference) and whisk us through the wall of Nanjing to

Hao Di Lao Huo Guo
 <A rough translation is: To scoop up from a vast trench>

Located in an office building we converged on the fourth floor, the doors opened and "POW" we were overcome. Hao di Lao Huo Guo hit us smack in the forehead with lights,color, rooms, tables and people.  Wait staff darted down slim hallways with high arches.  Everyone said "Hello!" to us.  (This does not happen in China like it does in the USA.) These folks were determined to take customer service to the 'nth degree. If you wanted to, you could have your nails done or play a game at your table while you waited.  I secretly wished it wouldn't be that long. Seated at a tiny game table we were offered plum juice, herbal tea and a salty popcorn-like snack.  Julia perused a carbon copy menu that was all in Chinese.  Checking off several boxes she politely explained what she would order for us and why..."Nothing with eyes today!" she grinned. 

Shortly we were escorted to a dining booth fitted with a sunken stainless steel vat/pot/trench. A young smiling waitress filled the two sections with a translucent white broth and a red peppery one and turned up the heat. She invited us to the "sauce bar" where we concocted our own dipping sauce as back at our table the pots began to brew and gurgle.  Dipping sauce choices included; hot peppers, coriander, cilantro, green onions, ginger, chopped garlic, peanut paste, fish paste, several soy sauces and many more spices and toppings. She explained that coming back and trying again was an option if we determined our first choices didn't quite make the grade. Great to know, as we were novices in the Chinese dipping sauce game, that's for sure.   The waitress brought beautifully presented food that Julia had earlier selected. We nodded with wide-eyed curiosity as she added shrimp balls, mushrooms, a squid smash, tofu, lamb, beef and green leaf lettuce.   One at a time they plopped into the broth and Julia explained "When they pop to the top they are done."   We scooped out what was added with a ladle and placed it in our individual bowls, dipping and chatting away.  Darn tasty and each bite delightful.

This was quite the dining experience and like so many Chinese dinners became a social event based on aromatic food and conversation. 

We occupied our table for about 3 hours of a lovely Chinese Sunday evening. Being the only Westerners in the place (I wonder how they knew?) we were invited to see their immaculate kitchen and the entire operation.  They were quite proud of their restaurant and with good reason - very efficient, very clean and well-run.  The waitress touring us asked if we had any suggestions to improve their restaurant. "A picture menu of choices, or even a symbol indicating, fish,fowl, beef, might help." I said.  She nodded approvingly and smiled as if it were the first time she heard that one. 

I'm told that one can find hot pot restaurants in Michigan, but we've never been to one, so it was a superb introduction by an informed host in the country of it's origin. We ate way too much...but with nearly 3 hours of good food and conversation the result was 3 satiated happy people. Stoking steam had the added benefit of a facial, I'm sure - Sichuan style! 

The "One Bite Rule" of my youth proved advantageous to both of us that evening. We tried food that was different than anything we had ever tasted. Needless to say we had more than one bite of everything.  Julia's choices proved delicious to our palates and customizing our sauces to our personal spicy barometer provided a happy outcome for all.

With a new experience 'round every bend in the lu (road) I'm happy to say, I grew that day, dipping deeper into Chinese culture and food and making a new friend in the process. 
Julia ~ May Bride

Xie xie, Julia!  

Thanks for Reading,


Look for Future Chapters of
"As the Tummy Churns."


Becca said...

Food is so important in the Asian culture -well, it's important to Westerner's too, isn't it??
I think the Asian culture puts more emphasis on sharing food, and on food as a ceremony, so it's a very social event, one you're expected to spend a lot of time over.

This sounds like a really nice evening, and Julia is a beautiful bride :)

Anonymous said...

Carol, Sounds like you are really enjoying your adventure! I've always admired people who are so open to new things. You always handle things with such grace and diplomacy... hugs to you and Gordan! xxoo Robin

unicornvonchina said...

I love hot pot dinners. The three hour long affair is a unique opportunity to share food, stories, and laughs. Not to mention, I've rarely had fresher vegetables than in a fancy hot pot establishment. Who knew that spinach, or other lettuce varieties, boiled in tasty broth could be so fantastic?!? I'm still not keen on the slices of dried, gelatinous calf blood, but try it I did. I think your one bite rule is essential for experiencing all aspects of a new culture. It's fun to read your account of shared experiences.

Becky in Alaska said...

I have to say that I am jealous, jealous, jealous. We OWN a hot pot and love this way of eating. But I too stick to the "no eyeballs" rule, although my dh would and does eat anything.