by Karen Queller
Murky Soup in China
What on earth did I just put into my mouth?!!!
It burns it burns!!! There is more to this unassuming soup than meets the eye. You would think wilted lettuce, wide textured noodles, and some kind of floating dumplings, peanut sauce, soy sauce, and a layer of orangish grease look safe enough….but they’re not!
I didn’t see any chili pepper sauce in the broth, so what is making my mouth want to do a cannon ball into a swimming pool right now?
I desperately look around for something to put in my mouth to ease the burn. I open the little plastic box of rice accompanying my soup, understanding for the first time that the ever-present rice has a greater purpose than just as a starchy filler.
My mouth tingles with a funny sensation like I have just spread a swab of numbing anesthesia all around my mouth and lips. Once I am able to breathe again I notice it’s actually not spicy exactly but does have the tingling sensation that usually goes with spicy food.
This confuses my reflexes which no longer know how to react to this strange burning. I sit confused for a moment not knowing if or how to continue this meal. Does every bite need to be immediately followed with rice?
I’m also not sure if I should use the chopsticks or the spoon that came next to my bowl (I end up using both). While I contemplate my next move, my lips keep tingling like they are waiting for a dentist drill.
Like most mothers, mine taught me not to leave food on my plate. I took this rule seriously. No matter where I am, how full I may be, or what the state of the food is, I finish my food.
So even though I am a little bit disgusted with my food, being the abiding daughter that I am, I persist. I must admit another reason for choosing to continue eating this strange soup. It was better then the alternative of going to look for something else.
Ordering food here in China is no easy feat. China can be a very difficult place to visit for two kinds of people. The first being those who don’t speak the language, and the second being those who don’t eat meat since an average Chinese person eats meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Being both of these kinds of people, a simple act like eating out is always challenging. What is usually a pretty easy procedure of viewing a menu, picking the dish, ordering what I want, paying, taking the food, and enjoying it, turns into a toddler like spectacle where people actually gather around to watch my miming skills while I order food.
Luckily most restaurants have pictures of the item so all I have to do is point and grunt at pictures I guess to be vegetarian. Although my Mandarin skills aren’t improving at least my miming skills are!
As I drudgingly continue to eat this less than pleasing lunch I pour the tingly soup over my dry rice to give it flavor even though I don’t like the strangely vodka-esque taste of the soup. As the soup cools the tingling grows slightly more bearable.
While trying not to sulk over my soup a woman sits down at my small round table. From the first day I arrived in China I saw dining at the same table with strangers was common practice since most restaurants are overcrowded.
The first time someone came and sat at my table I eagerly said hello and naively thought I would be sharing a meal with this person, exchanging personal anecdotes about our countries, cultures, families, relationships and would probably walk away with a new local friend who would surely want to show me around the city and invite me home to have their mother cook for me. Not only was I wrong but the person never even looked up from their bowl to acknowledge my greeting.
I look around. I am sitting in a huge cafeteria of one of Dalian’s many malls. Malls are a surprisingly very popular place for workers to take their lunch. There are no empty tables.
All I see is an ocean of slurping, hunched, text eaters, who I imagine to be relishing in pure delight over their meals. I am practically squeezing my nose closed to get this lunch over with. I look up at the woman seated right in front of me.
She pulls out a beautiful burrito looking wrap filled with fresh vegetables and some kind of meat. It looks delicious and I can hear her happily crunching away.
I stare back down at my meager, murky soup. At the bottom of the bowl I am surprised to find some thin glassy noodles. There are just a few and I am sure they are merely some leftovers from the previous order’s scoop which accidentally found their way into my bowl.
Lastly, I go for the little doughy balls of what I thought were fish balls (fish and flour mixture that I do actually like) but instead find these balls to be stuffed with grounded meat. I scrape the meat out with my chopsticks rinsing the inside of the ball in my soup the way I would rinse a dirty pot in a sink.
As I finish my soup I am relieved that almost all the tingling has subsided. My dad once told me that he had eaten a similar soup in China and could not feel his tongue again until he drank coffee the following morning.
Remembering this tale, I put down my spoon and chopsticks and walk away from the little round table feeling grateful to at least be aware of my tongue’s current disposition.