Do you remember your first Chinese meal? Think back to your introduction to egg rolls and the virgin sting of soy sauce on your tongue. Did they feel like foreign foods to you then? Did the words wonton, chow mein and moo goo gai pan feel as strange in your mouth as the water chestnut, rice noodle or prawn? Did everything taste of mysterious shores and alien area codes, of communism, of Zen Buddhist calm?
Near as I can remember, my first experience with Far East cuisine -- or what used to pass for it in this country -- started with a ninth-birthday meal at a restaurant (now gone, I think) called Ng's in Rochester, New York. My family was big on meals out to celebrate special days like birthdays and anniversaries, and whoever's special day it was got to pick the restaurant. My parents usually went with solid American steak-and-seafood kinds of places. My younger brother picked McDonald's and Burger King until he was old enough to understand the lure of a Red Lobster.
For me, it was Ng's. Even back then, in those white-bread, beans-n-weenies suburbs where Chinese was the most daring international cuisine available, I had a low-grade fascination with the power of exotic foods. They were a mystery, with names I didn't understand and strange, transportive qualities (or so I thought). Whenever I ordered something at Ng's, my parents would arch their eyebrows and ask me, "Are you sure that's what you want?" And when I was done, someone would always inquire, "So, did you actually like that?"
And that's power. No one ever asked me what I wanted for dinner at home, or how I'd enjoyed something from the drive-through. The mere fact that they were asking meant I was getting something different, strange and special.
Trouble was, no matter what I ordered at Ng's -- no matter how difficult it was to pronounce, how far toward the back of the menu it was located or how much my parents questioned me -- it was never strange enough. Lo mein was just dirty spaghetti, sesame chicken a McNugget that had suffered some horrible industrial accident. The shrimp were still shrimp, even if they were cloaked in some sort of gummy sludge that was allegedly a lobster sauce. And sure, a slice of water chestnut was something I couldn't get just anywhere, but those slices would inevitably end up stacked on the corner of my plate because, exotic or no, I still thought they were gross.
In the end, every dish at Ng's tasted like plain old food to me -- gussied up a little, maybe, but when you dress a mouse up as an elephant, underneath it's still a mouse. I don't know what I was expecting, really, beyond that notion of tasting something "foreign," but even today, Chinese food (as eaten by non-Asian Americans at restaurants catering to a mostly Western clientele) has about as much relation to true Chinese cooking as a marshmallow does to a scallop. And while its preparation and presentation have changed little, other native cuisines -- French, Thai, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Indian, Japanese and Brazilian -- have surged forward, fighting for their moment in the spotlight of sociological haute cuisine.
I was thinking about all of this -- about Ng's and foodies and the assimilation of food as culture -- while sitting at a big, round table in the crowded, noisy, L-shaped dining room of Ocean City Restaurant, staring suspiciously at the plate of sliced pigs' ears as it made its wobbling way toward me on the lazy Susan.
It seemed so harmless, what was on that plate: a pale crimson pile with a few strips of what looked like some kind of vegetable -- julienne celery, maybe, or the root of something unfamiliar -- under a thin sauce speckled with crushed red-chile flakes. I told myself that this was what I'd been looking for all those years ago as I clumsily transferred a few pieces from the serving plate to my own with chopsticks. This was something truly foreign, something strange, something to terrify your average round-eyed diner.
This dinner was something special. Arranged by a friend and his wife who speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, it was an opportunity to eat "real" Chinese food -- things normally only available to those who can decipher the Day-Glo squiggles that run as elegantly as falling water down the black dry-erase boards and yellow construction-paper menus tacked up on the dining-room wall. Knowing that I have this wild streak running through me -- this nose for sniffing out little places operating on the fringes of the restaurant community, this taste for the bizarre -- my friend had asked if I'd be interested in joining his group. A restaurateur himself, he assured me that Ocean City, which is open until midnight every night of the week, is where servers and kitchen crews from other Asian restaurants come for dinner after their own places shut down, and that you can sometimes go a whole night without hearing a single word of English spoken in the dining room. It would be nothing formal, just him and his wife and a couple of local chefs with whom I have a passing acquaintance, and did I want to tag along?
Of course I did. I'm a fan of "real" anything, and trust almost without reservation any of those places where the cooks, cabbies and waitresses go to eat. Memories of Ng's, a succession of delivery guys bearing leaky paper bags, a hundred forgettable plates of shrimp and lobster sauce be damned, I wanted to know what I'd been missing all these years.
And apparently what I'd been missing was pigs' ears, sliced thin as paper and served cold with a light, hot chile sauce that was just spicy enough to wake the tastebuds and rough them up a little in preparation for the rest of the night's adventures. The restaurateur's wife explained to the table that this was a very traditional dish, familiar as dirt to millions of people, served during the Chinese full-moon festival (which we'd just missed) or at gatherings of friends and family. I listened as I chased a piece of ear around the plate with my chopsticks. It took me a while, but I finally caught the thing and popped it into my mouth.
"Tastes like crunchy Jell-O," one of the chefs decided, and the rest of us nodded. Each reedy slice was chewy along the edges, but shot through with a vein of stiff, white cartilage that had a strange crunch like -- well, like eating cartilage, I suppose. Touch your ear and feel its hard bits. Now imagine eating it.
"Eating in China is not like eating here," my friend explained, pausing now and then to speak with our server, jumping smoothly back and forth between English and Chinese. "It's many small plates and big plates all shared." He gestured to another table heaped with plates of raw meats and vegetables all circled 'round a steaming cauldron of broth; a half-dozen young Asian guys wearing the blacks and whites of waiters were dipping and eating and talking together. "Not one big plate for each, like with American food or like how Americans are served in Chinese restaurants," he continued. "When I arranged this dinner with the owner, he asks me, 'Are these Asians or Americans eating?' and I tell him, 'It's Americans, but they want to eat like Chinese.' The Chinese love to eat and drink and talk and eat some more, so every meal is like an event."
As our server set down the next course, a huge bowl of cold lobster salad, one of the chefs described a similar experience eating his way through long meals in France and Italy. The salad was simple and wonderful, filled with fat, juicy chunks of golden pineapple, cherries and the tender meat of a lobster that had been alive and swimming in one of the tanks by the front door until the minute we'd all sat down to eat. It was finished with a dressing of mayonnaise spiked up by the fruits' own juices that set a solid stage for the incredibly fresh, sweet pale-red lobster meat.
The courses began coming more quickly as we talked and ate, platters and bowls stacking up on the lazy Susan in the middle of the table. There was a soup of strong greens and oddly crisp-yet-soft bamboo membrane (the part between the hard stalk and the core, which tasted like shaved water chestnut or unsalted potato chips left in the rain) in a thin broth. Another plate carried huge pieces of Australian abalone in a light oyster sauce with steamed broccoli and asparagus. Abalone is out of season right now, and it had arrived frozen at Ocean City, which gave the meat a tougher, chewier texture but also muted some of its briny flavor. The upside? That silky, delicate sauce, no more overwhelming than a whisper, didn't have to compete with the deep-sea funk of fresh abalone. The downside? The meat was so solid and thick that it ranked somewhere between an overcooked Diver scallop and a rubber ball, making the experience more akin to eating tenderloin than something oceanic.
We ate broiled sea turtle in a thick black-bean sauce with earthy, soft mushroom caps, thick slices of whole ginger root and squares of squishy soy goo that -- if I understood the explanation correctly -- comes from the skin that forms on top of batches of soy paste, skimmed off and cooked. It was like chewing a sponge that dissolves as soon as you bite down, releasing all the flavors it has soaked up. This was the first time I'd eaten turtle meat, and I found it delicious: tender and juicy without the heaviness of red meat or the deep-green fishiness of some of the ocean's stranger creatures. It was a liminal flavor, suspending itself somewhere between the taste of the land and the sea, belonging entirely to neither -- a perfect place for the essence of an animal that lives the same way, I guess. My only problem was with the pieces of shell (or something) that I kept biting down on and surreptitiously depositing in my napkin.
After the turtle came a whole tilapia, a medium-sized white fish split jaw to tail, topped with mint leaves and ginger. We attacked it with chopsticks, pushing back the skin with spoons and pulling out chunks of steaming, soft meat that we dipped in the puddle of thin, bittersweet soy sauce in which this lovely, perfectly cooked fish was taking its final swim. As we picked at the fish, my friend's wife told us a story about how when Richard Nixon first went to China, the people there tried to impress him by serving a fish that was still alive. A Chinese chef famous for his speed with a knife scaled and gutted the fish right in front of Nixon, then flash-fried it in 400-degree peanut oil with the head held out so that when the first fillet was cut for the president, the fish was still alive and thrashing on the plate.
"The American people were horrified when they heard about this," she said. "And so was Nixon, to see it. But the Chinese were very proud. This was something very special they had done."
And probably something you won't be seeing on the menu at P.F. Chang's anytime soon.
We eased into a simple dish of long-grain rice studded with tiny cubes of mushroom, potato and smoky Chinese sausage, then moved on to sweet crabs pulled fresh from the tank and killed to order; we cracked the shells with our hands, using skillful chopstick work to prize meat from the long, spidery legs. Then, finally, came dessert: a chilled soup of black beans, sugar water and ginger that tastes syrupy-sweet and bizarre to an American palate accustomed to pastries, chocolates and ice cream as a final course, but settles the stomach like oil poured on choppy seas.
Dinner had started around seven. It didn't finish until after midnight, and I don't think any of us shut up the whole time -- except while we were chewing.
I returned to Ocean City twice in the days that followed -- no translator, no special orders. There weren't any pigs' ears available either time, but that was because the ears had been a special dish prepared for the full-moon festival; as a substitute, I was shown plenty of other pork dishes -- including some featuring fried pigs' intestine and others using pigs' blood. Instead, I retried some of the things I'd had at that first dinner, and while the abalone was slightly smaller in portion, it had been prepared with the same care. The melon soup with meat -- popular as a starter for large tables, served in a big tureen and ladled out as needed -- consisted of a handful of melon cubes soaking in a simple chicken broth with some pork, a little seafood, some duck and what-have-you thrown in for flavor. It wasn't complicated, but I liked its rustic preparation -- even if I didn't understand the melon, which added nothing to the soup.
An order of fried dumplings was the only real disappointment. Filled with a bland pork paste and limp vegetables, the dumplings were overcooked and hard. But they came with a sharp, spicy rice-vinegar sauce that proved perfect for dunking the shrimp puffs that were included with the smoky, deep-fried chicken I ordered off the late-night menu. Available after 9 p.m., this menu features smaller plates for about half the price of dinner portions, to encourage grazing. Still, the fried chicken was enough to fill me. The bird had been hacked into crisp-skinned little morsels with no apparent concern for what part of the chicken was being used, which makes it slightly scary when you bite into a big chunk of bone and gristle but a good meal if you keep your eyes open.
Making my way through the large and varied menu, I stumbled upon a seafood porridge that had me fishing around like a piranha with my chopsticks, gobbling down the little bits of shrimp, fish and lobster that sank to the bottom of the thin lemongrass- and ginger-flavored mush. It was incredibly filling, but not at all heavy. And sitting alone by the windows that look out onto the dark storefronts of one of Federal Boulevard's rougher Asian neighborhoods, in a narrow room surrounded by people whose language I don't understand, I finally felt transported.
"This is the way the Chinese eat," I remembered my friend telling me on our way out the door after that marathon meal. It had been one of the most foreign, most educational, most singularly enjoyable dinners I'd ever eaten. And while no meal eaten alone at Ocean City will probably ever measure up, the food there is still miles above what you get in most strip-mall joints. The kitchen is kept honest and authentic, because it's cooking every night of the week for people who'd know the difference if it weren't. And even if you stick with the English version of the menu, it's an adventure -- as with any great travel book, where mystery, oddity, the peculiar and the sublime are all hidden within its pages.
Ocean City had everything I'd hoped to find at Ng's when I was too young to really knew what I was looking for. Although it may have taken a couple more decades than I planned, I finally got that special meal.
And I didn't even have to wait until my birthday.
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