The best way to really experience a culture? Walk a mile in a local’s stomach. On my first adventure abroad, a drunken tour of Europe after college, I tended to eat the familiar, including more McDonalds than I’d care to admit. I vowed not to make the same mistake this time around, instead aiming (with only my intestines voting nae) to try everything and anything I could. With the exception of some pizza hut (interesting in and of itself), I immersed myself in the local cuisine, coming back with an appreciation for food that whose tradition goes back centuries, my mind opened to the larger culinary world, and only a slight case of diarrhea.
We eased into the world of Chinese chow, dipping our toes into the pool with bubble teas. Frothy and delicious, they are a mix between a milkshake and fragrant tea, with tapioca balls in the bottom, waiting to be sucked up by your straw like a vacuum sucks up a stray golf ball.
Over the next few days in Guangzhou, I had several communal dinners, a great way to experience local cooking, as a variety of dishes are ordered (normally one head honcho orders for the whole table, in Chinese. Suffice it to say I was never this person), and passed,Thanksgiving dinner style. Delicately sauteed tofu, aromatic green beans, fluffy rice and braised pork were just a few of the plates that made their way around. I tried it all.
Some of it was amazing, and I went hungrily back for seconds and thirds. Only one I discreetly pushed into my napkin, a la Jerry Seinfeld’s mutton.
As a sampling fiend (I used to love to go to the market with my mom on the weekends for Super Sample Saturday…there’s just something about those tiny forks!), I found Dim Sum to be pretty much my ideal meal. An array of dumplings, pot stickers, rice noodles and spring rolls were presented in artful arrangements, the visual making you as hungry as the smells wafting up to hit you in the face like Mike Tyson in PunchOut.
It wasn’t until Beijing, in the night market, that my pledge of edible allegiance really found its true test. Walking through the brightly lit stalls, people crowding around sizzling woks and pans, steam rising above their heads into the dark night, I saw food that incorporated animals I had never seen outside of aquariums or animal planet. Rows of vendors were hawking scorpion shishkabobs, fried octopus and fish balls. A scorpion skewer was bought and I swallowed my nerve as I took a bite, the crunchiness freaking me out a bit as I imagined their tiny bones crunching under my giant teeth, but otherwise oddly not bad.
Then came perhaps the single best meal of my life. My brother, his wife, and their friends (all old pros at the duck game by now), went to Da Dong. The Duck, in Mandarin. We arrived at the restaurant and sat around a huge table with a revolving center for optimal plate passage. After the usual starters of dumplings, spring rolls and soup came out, the duck was presented at the table, roasted, and wholly intact. The waiter showed us the animal like he was competing in a 4H competition ( he would have FOR SURE won a giant blue ribbon) and after receiving verbal approval, whisked it back into the kitchen, where it was sliced and diced and brought out once more, this time for eating.
The brown skin was delicately crispy and the meat melted in your mouth, like a duck-flavored M&M. Each diner was given an array of sauces to accompany, along with paper-thin wrappers to make your own mini duck rolls. The crunchiness of the sprouts, the saltiness of the meat, and the sweet-sour of the hoison sauce combined for what I can only describe as “holy shit.” When it was over I walked out, knowing that my stomach and I wouldn’t eat something that amazing for a long time. Over the next few weeks I ate more interesting and delightful meals, but none of them could touch da dong.LONG LIVE DA DONG.