I went to dinner the other night with a colleague, itself a rather unremarkable occurrence. We decided to just walk out on one of the narrow roads adjacent to the university and try to find something interesting for dinner before heading back to work on whatever each of us was busy with that particular day. Along the way, we noticed a little restaurant advertising “Xuzhou hot pot” (I’d describe it as a “hole-in-the-wall,” but along this particular street that’s what all the restaurants are – none hold more than about four small tables). Never having had Xuzhou-style hot pot before (and, to be perfectly honest, not being entirely sure where Xuzhou was other than somewhere in Jiangsu Province), we decided to venture in.
Now, I can read a Chinese newspaper without difficulty or much need of a dictionary, but Chinese menus forever give me trouble. Part of the reason for this is that there is just a lot of food vocabulary I haven’t encountered yet – not to mention a lot of things to eat in China that I’ve never dreamed of – but the other part of it is that the names of dishes don’t always translate directly to what’s in them. (Or at least, I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten dragon or phoenix despite the prevalence of both terms of regular menus.) My general custom, then, is to ask a lot of questions and get recommendations from the staff. Usually they are more than happy to help, and often extraordinarily patient with my Chinese accent (which, I believe I have already mentioned, is a bit dodgy).
Looking over the range of Xuzhou hot pot options, my friend and I discussed going with one of the fish items. The only problem was that although I could recognize the word “fish,” I didn’t know what kind of fish it was, and therefore just what we were getting ourselves into. What if it wasn’t a fish at all, like the dragon dishes, but something else altogether? Just to be sure, I asked the helpful restaurant owner what a 鲶鱼 (nianyu) was. She didn’t even try to explain it; she just told me I could come with her back to the kitchen to see for myself.
Now, I never pass up an opportunity to look into a restaurant kitchen. Especially in a restaurant that’s smaller than my own apartment. She brought me back down a narrow passage, and then into the kitchen. On one wall there was a large stove filled with burners and woks; lining the other walls were tables and cabinets filled with vegetables, spices, and oils, scattered along with knives and spatulas. Under the tables there were all kinds of plastic bins of different shapes and sizes with pieces of what looked like scrap plywood covering them. She brought me to one of the bins, lifted the plywood, and there swimming in the water was a large dark fish. It was about a a foot and a half long, and bigger than both my fists put together around the middle. “See?” She asked, “Delicious!”
And this is how I became George’s executioner. I returned to the table and informed my colleague that I had met our dinner, named him “George” (in honor of our first President, who featured heavily in my American History lectures this week), and ordered his death. It was not long thereafter that George appeared before us, cut in pieces and cooked in a spicy broth filled with tofu and mung bean noodles.
For the first few bites, we were too busy spitting out bones to think much about how good George was. But after we paused and confirmed that each of us was fully prepared to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on the other, we dug in with great enthusiasm. After those first few mouthfuls, we started to learn which parts of George had the fewest bones. Avoid the fins, I advised my dinner companion, nodding wisely. You see how I’ve learned? We looked in vain for George’s head, but although we think we found part of the skull, we never located the eyes, though that was probably for the best. We ate George alongside a very nice stirfry of greens and mushrooms. It was a marvelous dinner, and I will certainly go back. Of course, I came straight home afterward to Google George and learn that he was actually a catfish, and that Xuzhou is in the very northwest part of the province. Tasty AND educational, that’s our George!