Monday, September 24, 2012

The One

Finally, after a few weeks of randomly stopping in whichever of the little one-room restaurants along the street outside the gate, choosing whichever one looked like it had a free table and a proprietor who would take the time to listen to a foreigner mispronounce their food, I have found The One. 

One of my favorite vegetables here in China is lotus root (ou in Chinese); it was available at any restaurant in Jingzhou.  Here, I kept trying to order it, but kept getting mei you (don't have) as a response.  I knew they probably all had it, but I didn't know the full name of any dishes it was in, and I probably was yet again pronouncing it badly, and it's easier to say 'don't have it' than take the time to figure out what on earth this illiterate foreigner wants.  In Jingzhou, they were always happy to see a foreigner and fusses over us, treating us like the children we were.  We'd squeak out, "Carrots!"  or "Cabbage!"  and they'd just smile at us and fix us whichever dish with that ingredient in it they thought appropriate for us.  And it always was.  I think we only really learned how to say the name of one full dish--tong su li ji, sweet and sour pork.  Here, foreigners are not that special, and they expect you to behave like an adult and tell them the dish you want.  If I just go in and say "Carrot!" they will look at me like I'm a little off my rocker and burst out a spiel of Chinese that I assume translates to something like, "Carrot what?  There are five dishes with carrots in it.  How do you want your carrots?  Learn to read and write already!" 

But this place...I couldn't find ou on the menu here either, but I pointed out the characters in a little dictionary I had, and the woman just said (translated): "Lotus root.  Okay.  Chao?"  I just nodded, and off she went.  (I later figured out that chao means stir-fried).  It was exactly what I wanted, and easily the best stir-fried lotus root I've ever had.  I pointed to something random on the menu--I could read the characters for shredded pork, but I hadn't figured out the vegetable it was mixed with--and it turned out to be pork and onions, which was also wonderful.  Another day I went back and managed to figure out pork and bell pepper, and again, it was the best version of that dish that I've ever had, by far.  Now, I've also been trying that old favorite, sweet and sour pork, at various places along the strip, and been dissapointed each time.  One place, it was bland with no flavor at all.  Another place it was soggy and also rather bland.  Another place it was the right level of crispiness, but the sauce had a weird aftertaste to it.  This place had so far exceeded all my expectations; would this finally be the one place to get decent tong su li ji?  

I finally ordered it for lunch today.  And....I've found it at last! The right level of crispiness, sauce with the right flavor, and friendly service.  

I've been to the little place about four times now; they now recognize me.  The grandmother smiles at me and shows me to a table, but she doesn't dare try to communicate with me just yet.  The daughter leaves me alone at my table to rifle through my pocket dictionary and try to unscramble the menu until I finally call her over to order.  The grandmother normally picks up the menu as soon as the person has ordered, but she leaves it on my table until I get my food, because she sees that I want to keep studying it and try to figure out more dishes while I'm waiting.  The son, a chubby child of about ten, often tries to start conversations with me, and has given both my pocket dictionary and my kindle (which I often read while eating) a thorough, curious inspection before his mother calls for him to get back to the table by the door and finish the page in his homework he'd wandered off from. 

And so, I've found my new favorite.  Today, I took pictures of the menu, so that I can work on learning to recognize more dishes to speed up the process a bit.  I'm looking forward to trying out the rest of my favorites there!


Anonymous said...

Could you buy some vegetables, or whatever, at the farmers market and take it to them to show them what you want?

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