by Karen Queller
Puffs of Steam in Dalian
Not hungry enough to sit down for a full meal, and too tired to cook dinner for myself I decide to get something quick and easy from a little alley I stumbled upon here in the center of Dalian, China.
Besides for some Chinese pop music that makes me giggle, vendors shooing away stray dogs, the sound of men spitting in every which way, and one man with a microphone apparently saying something very exciting about the fruits he is selling, it is otherwise pretty quiet for 7pm on a Friday night.
This is very different from other Asian cities I have been to where the night markets are the most popular place on Friday nights. Maybe this city is too fancy for street food I wonder as I look around and see clean wide streets, expensive cars, and shopping mall complex after shopping mall complex.
Outside the sudden climate change from t-shirt weather to wool jackets weather makes it feel suddenly like winter and my nose is searching for the smell of crackling chestnuts or something toasty and roasty.
Instead it is filled with puffs of steam and a faint smell of sewage which unfortunately reminds me of the poor plumbing in my otherwise nice apartment here in Dalian. I get excited at the site of chestnuts, but then restrain myself remembering that this is China and often what I think things are turn out to be something else. Like when I thought I found some tasty mushrooms, but bit into some animal’s fat instead.
I scan the sizzling tables around me. My eyes stopping on a sea creature perched on a stick waiting just for me. I point to one and the man grunts 5 RMB (numbers being the only bit of Mandarin I have taught myself so far). I nod. As I watch my chosen creature cooking upon the griddle next to some other creatures, I notice a crowd forming around me and one by one other people start to make their barbequed creature requests too.
When I hear some Russian chattering my head whips around to see a small group of people walk by. I can use two hands to count the number of westerners I have seen since I have been in this city.
Each time a surge of excitement fills me as I immediately want to run to the person, hug them and ask them to be my friend. Then my eyes quickly dart away as I don’t want to be too obvious about my expat longings. As my eyes peek back just before passing im pretty sure I notice the other person trying to control their excitement at seeing another westerner too.
After about 5 minutes of waiting my creature is ready. The man shoves it in my face. I take the stick and oil drips onto my fingers. My creature suddenly looks much smaller then I remembered from its pre-cooked moments. Still feeling totally ignorant about not knowing exactly what this creature is, a squid, a cuttlefish, something else in between a squid and octopus, I look the creature up and down debating this for a moment. I later find out it was in fact a squid and is actually one of Dalian’s specialties.
Before taking a bite I wonder if there are any hidden eyeballs, guts or ‘tails’ like my sister would have called it that I should look out for. ‘Tails’ was her term for any undesirable part of a food, like the crust on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a speck of apple that has turned a little brown, or an imperfect part of a chicken leg that maybe looks too chicken like, therefore making it unappetizing.
I take a bite hoping to miss any tails. Like most food I have eaten here, my creature is too heavily covered in some kind of BBQ-like sauce for me to really taste it. It’s chewy and I’m hoping not to poke my eye out with the stick.
Halfway through I see a long thin bone sticking out and I hope I didn’t accidentally consume any others along the way. I pull it out and toss it on the floor alongside many other discarded bones, shells, chewed sunflower seeds, empty sticks, grease, and plastic bags that get stuck on people’s shoes.
Needless to say, the 5 second rule would not apply here. After I have eaten the whole chewy, saucy, creature I’m forced to lick my oily, seasoned fingers because of my lack of napkins. I rub the rest on my thankfully colorful, carpet material purse I bought for a dollar in India a few months before. I eyeball someone else’s creature on a stick feeling jealous that he got a bigger one than me! Hmmmm I wonder what else I can find here.
Still craving a taste of seafood that hasn’t been drenched in sauce I decide to go for some fried calamari and large shrimp that were drenched in oil instead. I don’t usually eat fried food. In addition to its lack of health benefits, I am suspicious of it. What are they trying to hide under all that crunchy, fried batter?
My mind wanders as I remember a prank I played on my friends years earlier at a sushi making party. While the tempura batter sat unsupervised on my friend’s kitchen counter waiting for the host to come back and fill it with sliced bananas, I sneakily dropped some of the left over fish into the batter before slicing the banana myself.
I fried these little mystery balls, set out some dipping chocolate and proclaimed that dessert was ready! Everybody got a mouthful when they realized something wasn’t quite right about their chocolate covered fried bananas. Putting my suspicions aside I confidently stroll and eat my crunchy seafood from a plastic bag, reassuring myself that they are in fact what they are supposed to be.
By the time I reach the end of the street, my plastic bag is empty. I decide to get something for desert before heading home. This time it’s a long piece of melon that catches my eye.
I don’t particularly find melons appealing, but the whole it being on a stick thing made it more attractive. As I eat the melon on a stick the top tastes fine. It’s crisp and sweet the way melons should taste, but as I make my way down the stick a funny taste enters my mouth that I can’t quite recognize.
A few more bites down and it hits me. Bacon! My melon tastes like bacon! I imagine some invisible pig molecules from another stand to have sneakily made their way over to this fruit vendor’s table. Regardless of its peculiar taste I finish it telling my taste buds to focus more on the melon part and less on the bacon part.
Would I get another creature on a stick next time? Sure, but I’ll probably learn mandarin phrase ‘less sauce’. Would I get another bacon flavored melon? I think I’ll pass on that one.