I follow Anthony Bourdain on Twitter. I used to watch the Travel Channel frequently. Andrew Zimmern and his bizarre foods…I get it. To really understand another culture, you have to embrace their cuisine. But do you? Do you really have to? Can’t I just look over Jiang’s shoulder as she is eating lunch and utter some of Hunter’s favorite words, “what’s that?” and then not try it but scrunch up my face as if to say “that is a most unpleasant smell”?
We’re into our third month here in Shanghai and I hope you know by now that we are trying to embrace our new city. We try to get out often and go to different places. We try to observe and not judge. We try to be open and seek to understand by trying new things. And I think we are doing a pretty good job. But alas, I am ready to confess, I don’t do any of the above when it comes to Chinese cuisine. Anthony Bourdain would hate me. Andrew Zimmern would think I’m weak. Samantha Brown would argue I am no traveler at all. I’m just some spoiled American poser who is trying too hard to pretend to be a citizen of the world.
With that said, I hereby confess to all of the following:
- Eating too often in “Western style” restaurants
- Not trying local specialties
- Complaining the food here is “weird” (and like a good poser, only doing this in the privacy of my home)
- Longing for “normal” yogurt
- Passing by local food stands while holding my breath if I get a hint a block away that this might be best for everyone
- Being a vegetarian
I’m sorry. I know it’s wrong. I want to be a true foodie. I really do. I will try to do better from now on. Amen.
Phew. I feel better. But now that that’s all out in the open, let me explain.
One of the local specialties here is “hairy crab.” Hairy crab. I don’t like myself hairy, why would I want my crabs that way? (There is a dirty joke there but I’ll leave that to you.) You buy the furry guys alive and bundled together, with string, in a pack of four or five. They are grey and bat their hairy eyelashes at you like little creeps.
I don’t have a picture.
I DO have a picture of weird potato chip flavors. If this doesn’t convince you their taste in food is “weird”, I don’t know what will.
French chicken – because the French do chicken right. Italian red meat – not beef but generic red meats, famous in Italy.
In case your looking for something more from your chicken chips.
Okay, so maybe BBQ chips isn’t that weird but do you notice the marketing? They must have run a focus group and found that when you attach a foreign country (or state) to your chip flavor, people are more likely to buy them. Either that or Lays is really positioning themselves as the world leader in potato chips.
They also sell, and I’ve actually tried, cucumber chips and lime chips, both labeled “cool and refreshing” because when people crave chips, they want something cool and refreshing. It took me about half the bag to realize the cucumber, while tasting just as you would expect a cucumber flavored chip to taste, are not good. The lime chips are better but I prefer the “Classic American” flavor. Typical, right Bourdain?
Then there’s the yogurt. I wouldn’t say I love yogurt but I think it’s become one of those things you want only because you can’t get it. Although, that’s a lie. I can get it. But what I get is this.
That is yogurt packaged with a straw. That should give you an idea how thick it is. It’s just not the same. Why can’t they just eat normal food?
But enough of this ethnocentric, xenophobic attitude. Now that I’ve confessed, I’m really going to try. Maybe I should start here.
These are the construction workers across the street at 10:30 am. Lunch. A couple of carts (the Chinese equivalent of those food trucks so popular with urban American hipsters) pull up on the corner and start cooking. There are always noodles and rice and some sort of meat stew thing. Sometimes I spot something green. They squat or sit on the curb and twenty minutes later, the sidewalks are again empty save for the bones of whatever animal has been (presumably) boiled. (Based on the size of the bones, I’d say rhinoceros or hippopotamus.) Twenty minutes after this, the streets are clean. Seven days a week. They do like to keep things tidy around here. (Have I discussed this already?)
So now that it is written, I will get more adventurous. I’m done making excuses. (Wait, one last quick excuse…I’m a vegetarian. Eating meat is associated with having wealth. Pearl Buck taught me that. But I’ve also read that because they associate eating meat with wealth and they are so status conscious, they can’t understand why someone – who can afford to eat meat – would actually choose not to. I don’t know how true this is but it makes sense given their lack of vegetarian options.) So, now, going forward…
- I vow to eat in a place where I have to order by pointing to a picture.
- I vow to try something new more often than never.
- I vow not to judge food by the size of the bones that get spit out.
- I vow to try something that smells bad.
Do you hear that Travel Channel gurus? I know it will enrich my experience here and I will start actually believing that.
But right now, I gotta go…the pizza delivery guy is here.