It is served as a semi-solid glassy blubber that jiggles this way and that, like jello. I spooned it around in my bowl, thrusting it against lettuce and cow stomach. Then I closed my eyes, prodded my soul for courage, and lifted the stew to my lips. Grrackk! I wish I could say that I savored this crunchy rampage of jumbled body parts, this casserole of Chinese tradition that fractured but would not go down. Wish I could.
A Chinese investment banker, Mr. Shi, and his son had treated us to lunch, and we were all hunched over a pot of boiling water. It’s called Beijing Hot Pot. Waiters heap the table with raw food, and the customers dip that food into the bubbles, thereby cooking it.
The process allows us to be our own chef, which sounds marvelous—if you’re a harebrained teenager. I had spent the last 20 minutes stockpiling my plate with slithery entrails from multiple beasts, submerging them in the cauldron until I could practically hear their souls bleating for mercy. To further convey enthusiasm for the meal, I tore apart a loaf of meat, released a mini battle whoooop!, lowered teeth to platter, and razed everything within scent-range like Godzilla after a bad breakup. Not everyone did that.
“Wow guys, it’s so…so delectable.” I said after coming up for air.
“I knew you’d like it,” Mr. Shi said.
But I wasn’t done. “Hey Ricky, aren’t you going to try some?” A silence, as Ricky pondered how he could best preserve his manliness.
“Well, of course,” he replied. “I’m not one to duck a challenge.” (Badaboom!)
He dipped into his duck blood while warding off applause for his bulls-eye wit. Nice, Ricky. But luckily I had been saving my own buckshot for deployment at the right time. “I just love the fowl taste.”
“You say it tastes foul?” Mr. Shi’s face hardened.
“No! I mean, err…” Rats. A silence, as I pondered how I could best preserve my dignity. I didn’t have to ponder long. “Oh, he’s just dabbling in the lowest form of wit,” Ricky said, coming to my rescue. “And drowning.”
Times like this have made me long for real Chinese food. You know, the kind they have in America.
But times like this have also shown me China’s rich, soft underbelly: the gracious friend of a friend who treats you to an unforgettable meal, displays the true meaning of hospitality, and who then can’t go home with a smile until you’ve tried some of his duck blood.
My suggestion is this: next time you visit a foreign country in the hope of discovering a New World, eat local food and learn the local language—no matter how rubbery the meat, or how grueling the grammar. Your life will leap open. Next time you’re strolling by the Western Wall and feel the stomach growl, don’t go for the ubiquitous pretzel stand. Instead, waffle down some Falafel. Next time you’re being chased by bandits in Colombia, turn around and, en espanol, offer them your wallet in return for some home-cooked potato sopa. If you lose an arm along the way, well, at least you’ve still got another. And it’ll make an awesome story for the grandkids.
Ahh, but my mind wanders. Duck blood will do that to you. For now, at least, I’m back in the dough-colored room. Ricky and I are smiling professionally at our host.
“I’m so glad you like it,” Mr. Shi said as he reached for our plates. “Here, have some more.”