I was introduced to the game of Russian Roulette when I was living in Estonia, and while I have no recollection of who it was that introduced the game to me, the terrible law of racist nationalism dictates that were it introduced to me by an Estonian, they would have given it a different, likely more Estonian, name. So as far as I know this game is authentically Russian, and does not have much of anything to do with a revolver. It involves getting a lazy Susan and all the shot glasses you own, lining them up along the rim of your lazy Susan, then filling all save one with Vodka. The last one you fill with mint vodka. You then give the lazy Susan a spin, and one by one the you take turn putting the shots back. The person who drinks the mint vodka shot is the loser, but when I played it the mint vodka was so good that I looked forward to losing.
Which, let’s be honest, is antithetical to the concept of losing.
You can kind of see the parallels to the blow your brains-out-game that shares the same name.
But what I wanted to do was to create a new game that somehow combined the two. I would call it ‘Eating out in China.’ To play this game you would line a lazy Susan with shot glasses, fill all save for two (randomly) with Vodka, then put mint vodka in one, and vodka tainted with the bacteria that causes dysentery in the other.
That’s the short version of what I think of not just Chinese food, but food in China more generally. The breakdown is this; largely, the food is mediocrity defined, sometimes, it is fabulous, and equally often it will put you on the toilet indefinitely.
Again, to give the devil its due I should stress that I am talking about food in China, and not just Chinese food. This must have something to do with the food quality, because I can make the same dish 10 times running with all the same factors involved and on one of those occasions it will cripple me onto my toilet for a few hours. I blame the food quality, because the notion that I have developed some kind of dice-based Chrone’s disease seems rather unlikely.
This tale of many anecdote starts with one. Long time followers of this blog (that’s you, Eric) know that occasionally my school obliges me to do activity classes, and that often I get harnessed with doing cooking classes. I god damn love cooking, but I hate doing it for others. But the cooking classes have turned out to be anthropologically invaluable; they have shown just how god damn clueless the Chinese are when it comes to food.
I was tasked with a pasta making class for reasons of a slightly racist boss. And pasta sauce worth a fuck takes a long time to make, but you can half ass an amatricana relatively quickly. All you need to do is fry up some bacon, add some onion and garlic once the fat has rendered, sautee that for a minute, then throw in a bunch of tomatoes. I figured after the great scone fiasco earlier this year, it was best to go with this recipe, as it would be the hardest to fuck up.
Boy was I wrong.
We will leave aside the fact that one of the students read the recipe and immediately wanted to add sugar so as “to make it more delicious.” The truly horrifying problem is that these students had absolutely no idea about that absolute god damn basics of cooking. I know something truly horrific was going to happen when another student looked at me, looked at the wok they were going to cook in, looked at the bacon, then said “we need to add some oil to the pan otherwise the bacon will stick”.
I should say that I have made this recipe before, with the ingredients these very students use. It was also my wok they were cooking on. I can fucking assure you that the bacon does not god damn stick to god damn anything.
But lo, they managed to get the bacon to stick. Why the bacon didn’t bleed its fat like literally every other bacon in the god damn world, I will never know. It may have been due to the fact that they were using electric hotplates set to the highest damn temperatures humanly possible to cook their food. Why? Because they didn’t have any idea what they were doing. A class of housewives, and I was the only one there who knew how to cook.
They burned the bacon, somehow managed not to render the fat, burned the onions, burned the tomatoes, burned the sauce. They also managed to undercook the pasta.
This is cooking in China.
How can this be? I mean, there is Chinese food all over the world. After Italian, it is probably the most famous ethnic food in the US. My only guess is that every person with some fucking sense in the kitchen fled Mao’s regime. Or, as a more sophisticated argument, it just might be that those things that make for good chefs are many of the same characteristic that are generally lacking in China overall. There is no love or pride in their work, and their is a massive frugality in everything they do. For another food class I had to do here I needed ordinary canned tuna. The member of the staff in charge of buying the ingredients, an other wise very nice young lady, bought tuna of such poor quality I wouldn’t feed it to an abandoned cat in order to save its life. This answered the question I had as to why I wasn’t allowed to purchase the ingredients myself. But the idea that, particularly with cooking, Garbage in is garbage out, didn’t seem to register. By the end of that particular class no one seemed to be enjoying their tunafish sandwich.
I dared not even try it.
Chinese people do not have any conception of food or quality. The food in this country is genuinely awful at every turn.
But no one seems to ever bat an eyelash at such things. I ended up at the fish section of a supermarket one day, and saw something that truly horrified me. In china, you get almost all of your seafood fresh. Well, “fresh”. If they can give it to you alive, they will, which is why Chinese supermarkets are filled with buckets of turtles, toads, eye of newt, horn of bison, etc. But we sometimes have shit like that elsewhere in Not-China, and so that wasn’t the shock. What was, and forgive me if my ignorance is showing, was the fish that was just swimming upside-down in the water. It was swimming by all other accounts normally. Well, Normal for what the fuck I could gather. The fish was swimming upside-down after all, a rather distracting act. But no one seemed to care. One would think that one of the employees would look at it and think ‘Hey Zhou, that there fish is swimming all retarded like. You think maybe we should get rid of it, less our customers get wise that we are pulling fish straight out of fucking Fukashima?’
‘Nah Jei, that sounds like work. Just sell it at a discount.’
My first night in China was spent in Shanghai, and due to the nonacceptance of the hotel staff I ended up eating a couple of Oreo’s I had left over from Korea. The second night, however, I ended up meeting with some people I had met that day and we went to a nearby restaurant. One of the people I had met was a fairly good speaker of Mandarin and thus took it upon himself to pick a few items off the menu for all of us to share. He linguistics skills aside, he was still a foreign monkey in China. The two plates we ended up receiving differed only in color. Everything else about it was the same. This wouldn’t be a gripe if these dishes had contained any traces of proper food. Instead, what the chefs had done is taken the chicken bones someone else had finished eating, diced them finely, fried them in oil spices and peanuts, and served it to us. Each morsel of chicken bone contained approximately six fibers of stringy, now overcooked and over-spiced chicken flesh.
But that wasn’t even the comedy of the situation. What truly gets a chuckle out of me (retrospectively, mind you) is the way that none of us dared mention that fact that we were clearly being hosed. We all sat there chewing on these refried remains, trying as hard as we could to say something pleasant about it. I can only imagine the flabbergasted. amusement of everyone else in the restaurant as we sat there eating those remains. I can imagine the workers of the restaurant later laughing their heads off and slapping their knees recounting the story of the dumb laowai and how they were dupped.
Seems ridiculous? Well, so did the food they served.
It kind of set the theme going into everything else, at least food wise.
One of my colleagues would return to the said same restaurant the next night and have her purse stolen from her.
At the end of my tenure in Shanghai, about two weeks after that event, I was invited out to a restaurant by some of my Chinese colleagues, many of whom I would proceed to never see again. When we get to the restaurant the Chinese colleagues take it upon themselves to do the ordering for us, the ‘foreign friends’. I guess it was just serendipity then that all the food they ordered where things that we were meant to find disgusting. Well, they didn’t know who exactly they were fucking with: I ate the snails, I ate the frogs legs, I ate the chicken’s feet, and I ate the damn duck chin. All this food had one feature in common: it didn’t taste of anything. It was largely flavorless.
Incidentally, this is also what I am told stinky tofu, the disgusting food I am not willing to try, tastes of. Nothing.