The Celebrated Chef of Guangdong Province
(Excerpt from "Totally Losing Face and Other Stories")
When I first moved to Shenzhen, China, in 1999 to work for a U.S. computer accessory company, I remember hearing a story about a foreign couple that ventured into a local pet store. The husband intended to purchase a puppy for his loving wife. They spent an hour in the store looking over the puppies, playing with them, and cuddling them. The puppies were all so cute; it was very difficult to decide. Finally, they chose a small black and white half-breed with a lot of pep.
The owner of the store sat the happy couple down in an adjoining restaurant and offered to feed them while he readied the puppy. They ate a very satisfying meal and an hour later waited anxiously for their puppy. Surprised, the owner told them that he had already given it to them. Horrified, the couple abruptly realized that the pet store was not a pet store after all, but a restaurant specializing in dog meat. To make matters worse, they had just been served and eaten the puppy they had painstakingly selected!
To westerners living in China, it seems that there is little the Chinese will not eat. Indeed, I was once on a business trip in Kunming and was politely asked by a factory owner to attend his daughter’s wedding. It was an honor I could not refuse.
At the wedding, I found myself seated at a small, cramped table along with nine other people in a huge ballroom filled with guests. Along with eleven other courses, we were served a strange sausage-shaped meat with a hole in the middle. The meat was extremely tender and tasty. I had three huge helpings of the satisfying dish. I liked it so much; I asked the waiter what type of meat I was eating.
“Coin meat,” he calmly replied in Mandarin.
When this particular meat was sliced it looked a bit like an ancient Chinese coin, which also had a hole in the middle of it: Hence the name “coin meat.”
“Yes, but what type of meat is it?” I asked in Mandarin.
“Donkey dick,” he joyfully replied.
My eyes almost popped out of my head when I realized that I had just eaten three heaped helpings of donkey dick!
“Very tasty?” he asked.
“Hen hao,” I said, which means “very good,” trying to contain my shock. My stomach actually churned a bit. I couldn’t believe that I had just been served and eaten donkey dick! At a wedding! But the meat was actually very edible. And the Chinese believe that eating the penis of any animal is supposed to make men more potent. I can’t say that the donkey dick made me any more powerful in the sack than usual, but it sure was scrumptious.
While I was living in China, I always tried to eat most of the food served to me, but there were some things I just wouldn’t knowingly eat, like insects, tiger penis, bear claw and chicken butt. Street vendors all over China actually serve chicken butt on a stick with a telltale hole in the center: it’s a delicacy.
One night back in Shenzhen, my Taiwanese coworker, Lizard Ma (He chose his English name because he likes lizards, go figure), decided to take me to an interesting restaurant to try a new dish that was sweeping the city. Lizard wouldn’t tell me what the dish was because he wanted to surprise me. He was excited to be treating me to something new and famous. I was skeptical, but accompanied him just the same. If I didn’t like what he ordered, I could always order something else.
Outside the restaurant, the traffic was gruesome and the air was so thick with pollution that I felt I needed a respirator just to inhale. The smog trapped in the stench and relentless heat of the booming metropolis like a blanket. And the reflection of the bright city lights glowed high in the sky, displaying a crimson sooty haze for all to see. As usual, there were a lot of vehicles out and about, as well as huge throngs of people. The sheer volume of humanity scuttling about on that busy autumn Friday night made me queasy. I just tried to put it out of my mind, as I had grown accustomed to doing.
We walked down a long alley, past a deformed beggar bowing repeatedly for small change, past a young girl singing for tips and playing an out-of-tune guitar horrifically, past a hairdressing shop specializing in blow jobs and past two street urchins relentlessly trying to get us to enter a restaurant and a karaoke bar respectively. After making our way through the riff-raff, we eventually entered an old, brightly lit traditional restaurant that was jam-packed with people. Chinese landscape pictures hung from grease-stained walls and a massive framed menu hung above a large hole in the wall, which exposed an active kitchen practically glowing from numerous flaming woks in action.
All the tables were taken, so we stood over a young family that seemed to be finished with their meal and were just biding their time. Lizard and I spoke loudly to each other, trying to make it uncomfortable for the family to just sit and chat at their table while hungry customers were waiting. The family got the hint and quickly left. As soon as we sat down, a busboy instantly appeared and cleaned the table. I looked up at the menu hanging on the wall and tried to decipher it, based on the limited amount of characters that I knew.
“What are we going to have?” I asked Lizard.
“You will see,” he said, smiling cleverly.
A waiter rapidly appeared with a pot of hot tea and asked us impatiently for our order. Lizard motioned to the waiter to come closer to him so Lizard could whisper our order without me overhearing. But the restaurant was so noisy that the waiter could not make out the order, so Lizard had to speak loudly; consequently, I overheard a bit of what Lizard was trying to conceal.
“What?” I said, quickly grabbing Lizard’s shoulder and turning him towards me. It sounded like he was ordering “girl soup.” I could only imagine what that was.
“Don’t worry, it’s a delicacy,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You will see,” he said, excited that I was concerned.
The waiter chimed in and said that the restaurant had stopped serving that special dish. Lizard was very disappointed, but ordered black dog instead. The Chinese believe that black dog is the tastiest of all dogs, followed by yellow dog, and then by multicolored dogs. The worst tasting dog, according to the Chinese, is white dog. I was curious, having never tried dog before, so I decided to give it a shot. When in Rome or “ru xiang sui su,” as the Chinese say. After the waiter left, Lizard and I chatted in Mandarin.
Lizard had been living in Shenzhen for two years now. His wife and two kids were living with him as well. He moved them over from Tainan, Taiwan, and was thoroughly enjoying the excitement of living in Shenzhen. There were so many Taiwanese living in Shenzhen that they actually had their own Taiwan-style school strictly for the children of Taiwan workers. He said that the school’s enrollment was well over two thousand students.
Four local men were sitting at a table practically inches away. They were drinking Tsingtao beer and were red faced, rowdy and feeling good. The guy nearest to me turned around, his face was so bright red from drinking alcohol that it looked sunburnt. He said to me in Mandarin, “You speak Chinese very good.”
“Not as good as you,” I replied in Mandarin and smiled, knowing that you can never accept a compliment in China.
“No, no,” he said. “Your Chinese is very good. Where you from?”
“My mother,” I said giving him the old joke.
“Ha, ha, me too! Do you speak Cantonese?” he asked in Mandarin.
“No, not yet,” I replied.
“Me neither, I’m from Beijing.”
“No wonder your Mandarin is so good,” I said, knowing the Chinese think that people from Beijing speak Mandarin the best.
“No, no,” he said, smiling from ear-to-ear. “I toast you, okay?” he said, holding up his glass.
“Hao, hao,” I said, meaning “good good,” as he poured me a small glass of pi jiu or beer.
I slammed numerous shots of pi jiu down my throat as Lizard and I traded toasts with the gentlemen at the other table. We all chatted for a while and toasted each other over and over again, saying the traditional toast: gan bei (or literally “dry cup”).
After Lizard and I were feeling no pain, the man seated at the adjacent table came and sat down with Lizard and me. He introduced himself as Lao Liu and then told us the story about why Mr. Sheng, the owner of the establishment, did not serve his special dish at the restaurant any more. The gist of the story I have translated below.
(To continue reading this story, please purchase a copy of "Totally Losing Face and Other Stories").
Excerpt from "The Celebrated Chef of Guangdong Province," a short story in Hillel Groovatti's new book of short fiction entitled Totally Losing Face and Other Stories.