Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Breakfast in northern China

Next morning I arose, relatively fresh and ready to explore. I packed up my little day-pack a little early, then went down to wait for Driver to arrive at 8. The restaurant was in the appealing part of the hotel, so I decided to try breakfast there. It was only 5 RMB, so I didn't have much to lose.

The table was huge for one person, and the center was a giant turntable, the likes of which you've probably seen in Chinese restaurants. First, I was served a hard-boiled egg in a little bowl. When I had eaten that, the waitress came by and deposited an array of foods, shown on the left. The white balls on the top right are dumplings. To their left is bean curd. Under the bean curd is some sort of crunchy veggie mix in a strong-flavored vinegar marinade. At the bottom is a plate of peanuts. On the lower left-hand corner, you can see part of a bowl that I had hoped would be some sort of rice-based porridge. I grabbed a handful of peanuts, found them tasty, then started in on the real food.

I bit first into the mixed veggies. Their crunch was pleasant, but the marinade was way too strong and tasted of spoiled curry.

I quickly bit into a dumpling — I've had those before, in Dalian and in various cities of North America, and always liked them. I expected them to be like something one would get at a dim sum restaurant back home: pasty bread on the outside, with maybe some meat or something sweet on the inside. Not this dumpling: it was paste all the way through. Actually, that's an insult to paste: Elmer's Glue has more flavor than this stuff. Imagine that you made bread dough, but forgot to add salt, sweetener, or flavoring of any kind, then took the bread out of the oven half-baked and still a little sticky. That's about what this was like.

Becoming desperate, I lunged at the bean curd. It was yellow, with the texture of tofu. I like tofu. It was covered in red sauce. I like red sauce. I jabbed off a little corner with my chopsticks.

It tasted like gym socks in pepper sauce. Fermented, stinky, and disgusting.

So my choice seemed to be disgusting flavor, or no flavor at all. Surely, the rice porridge would be my solution. I like rice, and surely this was some sort of breakfast cereal that might perhaps have the right combination of flavors.

It turned out to be nothing but rice in water. No salt. No flavor. Just... rice... in... water. It had only slightly more flavor than the dumpling.

I couldn't quite believe that every item on the table except the egg and the peanuts had tasted awful. So I tried everything around the table, one item after the other, thinking that something here must taste good. Then I tried them in different combinations: bite of dumpling, bite of bean curd. Ick! Bite of bean curd, spoonful of rice. Ick! Bite of veggies, bite of bean curd. UGH! Bite of rice, bite of dumplings. Blah. I went like this for some time, chased around the table by my own disgust.

I once rented a room from a woman who had a very spoiled little terrier. When I cooked, as I like to do, the little dog was always underfoot, looking for me to throw him scraps. I accidentally kicked the poor little guy pretty hard a couple of times, because I'm not used to having a dog underfoot while I cook. So finally, to break him of the habit, I decided to try giving him little bits of my food — but first, I would dip it in cayenne pepper sauce. The dog would try it, make a funny face, spit it out. But he would keep eying it, and a few seconds later he would try it, make a funny face, and spit it out. I could see him thinking: surely that didn't taste as bad as it seemed — I must've gotten a bad bite. Maybe if I come at the other side...

Try it, make a funny face, spit it out.

Try it, make a funny face, spit it out.

I felt a little like that little dog. Finally, I gave up, admitted defeat, poured the remaining peanuts into a baggie, and escaped. Driver was waiting for me.


  1. that dumpling you were eating as 'mantou' in chinese. if you wanna try some sweety in it, that will be 'baozi', another different dumpling. have u tried it, professor? by the way,so much fun to read ur stories from a chinese lady in dalian.

  2. Thanks for the information! Glad you enjoy. I have had baozi. I love them! How is one supposed to eat mantou? Are they just eaten plain like that?

    This was the first food I have had in China that I really didn't like. So far, everything else has been wonderful.

  3. On the bright said . . . your photography skills, what with the tilted perspectives and high contrast of background to foreground, are coming along very, very nicely.

    I once knew a fellow with a doctorate in philosophy who went back to graduate school as a student of photojournalism . . . there's another possible future career for you!

  4. for that fresh mantou, that taste would be softy and a little sweety in it not plain at all. for this restaurant, that cook wasnt nice to make that. if you try one in some decent restaurant, that experience would be different.