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By Anya Eber
I gazed down the menu in trepidation. Thirty items: all of which were written in a language I could no more read than speak.
One of these items just had to be edible I thought with little hope. Only a rare few meals on this list of thirty would be normal dishes free from dog, cat, and snake ingredients. Considering each item’s squiggly characters looked the same to me I was more likely to pick something inedible then not. Asian meals had become a nightmarish ordeal that came three times a day like clockwork.
I took one more look at my menu and sighed. These Mandarin characters spelled doom no matter how I looked at them. Had I not been experienced in the horrors an Asian cook was capable of concocting I might have been more courageous but unfortunately that wasn’t the case.
Back in Beijing China I had learned my lesson about Chinese restaurants.
We had just visited the Imperial City and so, being the naïve tourists we were, we decided to have lunch in a tiny local restaurant. The place was crowded and trying to be inconspicuous we sidled to a table in the back. Our tiny waitress arrived and handed us four menus. We looked at one another. How were we going to choose our meals?
“Ok, well I guess I’ll be adventurous,” my Dad said and jabbed his finger at the menu. The waitress looked at his decision and scribbled it down her notebook. Yvonne and I followed suit and picked another two items.
“I think you’re going to be sorry using that method,” my Mom said.
“How else are you supposed to order?” Yvonne asked confused
“Like this.” My Mom stood up, looked around the room and then began pulling the waitress over to a Chinese couple busily eating their meals.
“I want this,” my Mom said pointing to the man’s dish of food which appeared to be noodles. The waitress shrugged and wrote the item down.
“Interesting method,” I mused once my Mom had sat back down at the table.
Unfortunately neither of these methods proved effective in supplying us with edible food. Five minutes after our orders had been placed the waitress returned. Dad had ordered a bowl of tripe soup or cow intestines, my sister a plate of overcooked bok choy (China’s form of cabbage). Mom’s plate of noodles turned out to be fried worms and I was graced with a bowl of rice noodles covered in a sauce of what appeared to be mud.
With these experiences in mind we decided that dinner would be best attempted in the Night Market where one could actually see the contents and preparation of food.
“Turn right, no left. Oh blast it. How am I supposed to read a map with no English on it,” my Mom muttered angrily.
I was starting to have hope that we would skip dinner. Lunch had certainly quenched my appetite for Chinese cuisine. Sadly my poor stomach was not getting a reprieve from torture. We took a left turn down an alley and the night blazed into light. Hundreds of lanterns hung across the street shining down onto the swarm of people and vendors.
“I think we found the Night Market,” I said uselessly to no-one in particular.
As we were towed along in the crowd, I was able to glimpse stalls selling anything from silk to chicken feet.
“This way,” my Dad yelled over the crowd. I followed him to a busy meat stall selling shish kebabs.
“What type do you want?” my Mom asked.
“None,” I said eyeing what could very easily be dog or cat kebabs.
While my parents and sister haggled over a price I watched a man at another stall running his hand along a red shish kebab that wiggled in response. Looking closer I was horrified to see a row of scorpions skewered on a wooden stick. The vendor kept running his hand along their pinchers and they kept trying to strike him in return.
“Sure you don’t want to have a shish kebab?” my Mom asked worriedly.
“Yes, very sure,” I replied on the verge of being sick.
Things hadn’t improved very much I thought looking down at the new menu. Instead of finding a solution to my food problems, I had only increased them by finding out what the possibilities were.
“Oh well, I suppose its may fan (rice) again,” I thought locating the few characters I had memorized. It certainly wasn’t a very nutritious meal but at least I could recognize it.
Last Updated: February 3, 2004