Outside these places, people in line wait for the goods. We stop twice to eat.
Hello. Thank you. So far that’s all the Chinese I know. Nihao (KNEE-how). Xiexie (sheh-sheh).
I could use one more word, right away: fork.
Coming to Shanghai I knew I would face the challenge of how to get food in my mouth. I’ll use chopsticks in restaurants back home. It’s kind of fun, for about five minutes. I adjust my grip and the length of the sticks, align them and go for the pinch and lift. When my grasp fails, I stab whatever I can with one stick and take comfort in knowing there is always a fall back plan, a life preserver. Flatware. Inevitably I’ll lay my chopsticks down so I can pick up a fork and fully engage the food.
I should have Youtubed chopstick technique before I left. I should have practiced.
For our inaugural dining experience here, the kids took us to a place called Fu 1088. The restaurant is a three-story Spanish-style mansion in what was once Shanghai’s International settlement . You call, make a reservation, and upon arrival are shown to your own private dining room. It’s just you, a big lazy susan, and in short order a lot of food. And chopsticks.
Fortunately this night we start with bamboo soup (you ladle slippery bamboo pith mouthward, my first time eating pith), which means I get a spoon. I make a point of keeping it. Next comes grilled eel, a noodle dish, hairy crab meat (I know: What?!), fresh river shrimp, fried rice, braised pork with soy and rock sugar, pumpkin dumplings, a dish of dumplings full of hot broth, a dish of green beans, something else with lychee nuts. When the server is not in the room, I set down one chopstick and push food onto the spoon with the other. I see my wife doing likewise.
“Hold them higher,” my daughter says. She shows me her stickwork.
I think I get the physics–long sticks, more force transferred to the tips and to the foodstuff. The problem is, it’s fine motor at a distance. Robotic surgery at the dinner table.
I try my sticks a little higher. No go.
“There you go,” she says. “It’s all in the thumb.”
It probably is. Just not my thumb.
Okay, I could just say, “你有没有叉子？ Or show the server that sentence on my phone. Or I could say, Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu chāzi? If I could say that. The active ingredient in both sentences being 叉子 and chāzi, the word for fork.
I could ask for a fork, but I don’t. It’s sort of a matter of pride. And, well, fair play. Back home you don’t see Chinese tourists asking for chopsticks at the Dennys or Ponderosa.
Street food is much more hand-ons. It’s a delivery system I understand and mastered a long time ago. On our way to breakfast the next morning, a Saturday, on every block there are 3-4 storefronts with clouds of steam rising from vats and tandoor ovens. Outside these places, people in line wait for the goods. We stop twice to eat.
At the first place we wait for barrel bread with mushrooms and pork. A few feet inside a double door that opens onto the sidewalk, a skinny man in a white apron and billcap rolls out dough, daubs mushroom mix or pork bits on it, and presses the bread to the side of the tandoor oven. The results are revelatory.
At the next stop we have scallion pancakes: just-in-time crepes with an egg broken and slathered over them and cooked, along with hoisin sauce and scallions and a crunchy fried bread stick. The chef is a young guy. He looks well fed. He folds the crepe, slices it, wraps it in tissue paper and hands it over.
My wife eats. I know that look on her face. “We’re coming back here,” she says.
“There are hundreds of places like this in Shanghai,” my son-in-law says. “Probably thousands.” Indeed.
My wife says nothing. She doesn’t need to. Or is temporarily indisposed as she reckons with her crepe.
I picture that mountain of mushroom mix and the bowl of diced pork at the first stand, and think about Shanghai summer. “Do you ever wonder,” I say to my daughter, “about, you know, hygiene?”
“I didn’t eat this stuff when I was pregnant,” she says. “But it’s so good.”
I picture the local chapter of the Shanghai Head Department, its office in a garage down at the end of an alley. CNN Travel reports that Shanghai has more the 10,000 local food stalls. An investigation in 2011 of chuan (cooked foods) on 11 streets in Shanghai found that 609 of the 650 street vendors had no licence. “Only 30 percent of the city’s street food had reliable ingredient sources,” the Shanghai Evening Post reported. (I went to a grocery store today for the first time, a subject I intend to explore further.) In the CNN article there’s a link to another article, “Shanghai Cracks Down on Toxic Hot Pots.” I pass on that. Where ignorance is bliss….
“It’s pretty simple,” my son-in-law says. “I look for a line. If there’s no line, I don’t eat there.”
It’s an indication of how hungry she is, and how good the food tastes, that my wife eats this street food at all. Visiting our son in Manhattan, we walked by a gazillion kebab carts, along with pizza, kwik meat, empanada, memela, tortilla and taco, gourmet grilled cheese, French fry, preztel, waffle, noodle, barbecue, sausage and schnitzel and hot dog stands. She could be starving and would still walk past them without blinking an eye. I don’t eat street food, she would say.
When we got to Shanghai I expected her to say No xiexie.
The next day we have lunch at a Yunnan restaurant. The cuisine is Southwestern Chinese, my son-in-law says, spicy, famous for its mashed potatoes and mushrooms. I try longsticking everything on the table, with limited success. Mashed potatoes, I’m happy to find, are chopstick accessible. Feeling very conspicuous I adjourn occasionally to my chopstick-drag-and-spoon method and get through the meal. At the next table is a family of five. Their stick skills are impressive. One guy I watch could probably reach into his pocket, jingle the coins, find and extract a penny.
“Pass the potatoes,” I say to my wife, wondering about the incidence of carpal tunnel among chopstick amateurs.
“I really think you’re getting it,” my daughter says. I grab a glob and eat.