Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Wood on Chairman Mao

Shenzhen is the name of the town in mainland China just across the border from Hong Kong. It has a Special Economic Zone status, being a primary source of fake brand name fashion accessories and pirated DVDs. It is also a home of many restaurants that range across the vast variety of Chinese cuisines; restaurants that leave a person familiar with already-low-enough Hong Kong prices gasping at the incredible value for the incredibly little money.

In addition to the above, once every year Shenzhen plays host to a huge furniture expo. I have a couple of colleagues who visit Shenzhen often, and like to check out this expo thing as well. Last year they had invited me along, and having heard much about the Shenzhen food, I'd thought that half a day spent testing couches might well be worth the trouble. It certainly had been. Blessed culinarily as Hong Kong is, not much during the past year had come up to the levels of the Cantonese lunch and Xinjiang dinner of treasured memory.

A short detour about that Xinjiang dinner. Xinjiang is the Northwestern province, also known as Sinkiang. The Xinjiang dinner last year was in a restaurant whose only apparent English name was "Muslin Hotel", Muslin being the - a - local way of denoting Islam, since Chinese people often interchange n's and m's at the end of a syllable -- often with hilarious consequences ("Would you like a juicy bum?"). Well anyway, one course in last year's multi-course Xinjiang dinner consisted of a whole grilled goat. I kid you not. Cooked to ecstatic levels, wheeled into the room on a side table, carved on the spot, and served up on a humungoid platter off which nine of us picked out pieces using plastic gloves that had been provided, dipped the pieces into bowls of rock salt, cumin, and chilli powder, and communed with the Great Barbecuer. Allah-u-Akbar you betcher, and I as the special guest got to smuggle three kilos of leftover ecstasy back into Hong Kong.

As a result of all that excitement, this year when my friends asked if I'd like to come along, the only thing stopping my unqualified yes was the possibility that Dr. Y (see previous post) might want to hang on to my passport. The moment that didn't happen, I booked my spot on the jaunt.

A little after 10 o'clock on a foggy rainy morning saw us boarding the Kowloon-Canton Rail bound for Lo Wu, at the border. Last year I'd had some trouble at the border, since the on-the-spot Chinese visa delivery folks had inserted a typo into my visa, one that the immigration officer and his gunclad buddy hadn't taken too kindly to. This year there was no such hiccup, and it was hardly 12 when we were happily jostling a quarter of the world's population for the right to enter a cab at the station. My friend, of course, said that the ones doing all the pushing were from Hong Kong.

Shenzhen seemed to have grown since last year. It looked cleaner and less dusty, for one. More high-rises than I remembered. A pretty characterless city in all, but with certain parts awfully like India -- here a Sion Circle, there a South Ex part 2 market. The usual cars on the streets -- Hondas, Hyundais, Toyotas, but also a Shanghai GM, a Soueast, a Volkswagen taxi calling itself Santana 2000 (well, alright). The restaurant where we were headed was in a mall that looked more Hong Kong than Hong Kong -- a replica of the Festival Walk mall in the station we'd boarded the train. Our target restaurant was surrounded by the Coke store, the Zippo store, and the Jeep store. It felt weird.

The restaurant itself was Jiangnan style. I'd frequented Shanghainese restaurants before, having fallen in love with Xiao Long Bao, which are known in the US as juicy buns -- little steamed dumplings containing soup, and La Mian, a type of stretchy handmade noodle. Jiangnan is south of Shanghai, so the food is kind of similar, though less salty and preserved. The meal itself was awesome, an adventure of unknown tastes and discoveries. My friends, who had initially been surprised to find that anyone outside China actually eats fish heads, are now acquainted with the fact that it's almost like a litmus test for Bengalis. Hence one of the main things ordered was a river fish, one that sports the informative Chinese name of "big head". I am very proud to report that I ate a full half of the head (it was served in two halves), with chopsticks, without a mess.

After lunch we sloped off to the furniture exhibition. That place is a nightmare come to life -- imagine a dozen Ikeas placed side by side, filled with little Chinese shop assistants whose objective in life is to snare the foreign buyer. Me. And they get to test out their Engrish while they're at it. (Thought for next post -- a taxonomy of the once-overs one gets as a trespasser in a foreign land.) On the plus side, one is allowed to test the couches and massage chairs extensively. And my trademark bored look translates into the acme of intense bargaining inscrutability. Heck, I even negotiated for a rattan swing, hung from a spring on a metal stand. When in China...

Thankfully, the place shut at 5:30. I couldn't really believe that it wasn't even 6 and we were sitting down for dinner. This time, it was Hunan food. I've never had Hunan food. Partly because my colleague is from Hunan, and she has high standards, so nothing in HK lives upto her standards. Actually, I haven't really come across any Hunan restaurants here either. Now, she'd never been to this particular Hunan place, but it had high recommendations from someone she knows. And it had something else. I'd never have believed it.

The restaurant is dedicated to Chairman Mao.

In all seriousness, the restaurant is dedicated to Chairman Mao.

Chairman Mao was from Hunan, and apparently he liked to tuck in. And so after his death, some guys decided it wouldn't be a bad idea to have a restaurant named after him. A wholly private enterprise, of course, I believe it's now a nationwide chain (The McMao line, anyone?). With the wallpaper done up with prototypes of the Chairman's supposedly distinctive scribbling, and waiters and waitresses running around sporting red napkins on their heads. Unbelievable. (The Chairman was austere, though, he didn't like dessert. Which is why his restaurant doesn't have a dessert menu.)

Hunanese food is spicy, but not as murderous as Sichuan. So it's actually possible to eat the stuff. As usual, there was tremendous variety, in foods as well as flavors. We skipped the frog, but the eel was good (cooked with scallions and enormous red chillies), as was the pork belly, more fish head (sweetish and spicy in sauce), a cucumber dish with the consistency and feel of eggplant, little taro balls, smoky barbecued fillets of dried beancurd, xiao mantou steamed dumpling cakes with dipping cream on the side, stuffed jujube cakes with crunchy skin, chicken broth, and local Kingway beer that tasted like Kingfisher. Man these people do themselves well.

I decided not to stick around in Shenzhen after dinner, opting for the early night home. The train ride home was quiet and contemplative, as well it should be. I'm not sure why I've written all this now -- probably a last act of defiance before another week of sixteen hour days. Another day, another weekend, another furniture expo goes by.

Footnote: The image of the visiting card from the Chairman Mao restaurant seems to not want to go where it should. You can see the "maojia restaurant" in tiny little print on the left. The "Orient the Card" printed at the top is Chinese English for "Show this card to the person who you want to give directions to."

Other footnote: For those who were wondering, the lunch came to 60 RMB per head, and dinner was 55 (four people at lunch and five at dinner). That's under US$ 8 and 7, respectively. Eat your fish head out.


Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I had two weeks of those dinners at 6. Formal ones, too, served with all the panoply of courses and toasts. Harrowing experiences.

Try to get up to Beijing some time. For the original Peking Duck. I'll give you the name of the restaurant once I remember it.


3/20/2006 12:54 AM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

Yeah, it's much more fun when the arrangement is such that no one minds if one slops stuff out of the bowl onto the tablecloth (less fun if it ends up on ones collar, though).

Thanks for stopping by. I'll look forward to the name of the restaurant.

3/20/2006 8:52 AM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

Thanks god I finished my vegetarian lunch before reading this...all that talk about eels and fish heads might have made my appetite want to do the vanishing trick :-) Just kidding!

But, at a Bengali friend's brother's wedding, I did witness the fish head ceremony. Okay, 'witnessed' might've been a tad misleading but I did watch till just before the groom tore into the poor thing. :-)

3/20/2006 5:34 PM  
Blogger Old Spice said...

Sounds wonderful. Wonder you get any real work done, with all that food available ...

Good job on the lecturing gig at UWI. (Frank Worrell was the first Chancellor - I think CLR James talks about this - so it's entirely Cricket to do it.) Are they looking after your tickets since you're giving a few lectures there? (I get the feeling Dr Y is looking out for your career as much as anything.)

3/20/2006 6:00 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

oops, you a veggie? *sigh*

i bet that groom guy didn't do it with chopsticks, did he!

how can one work, but with sustenance? must feed the fire, you know.

interesting about the frank worrell bit. i hadn't known that. but on the career angle, thoughts of doing a subhash gupte *had* crossed my mind, ;-)

3/21/2006 12:20 AM  

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