The common Western perception of Chinese food usually encompasses a few select dishes, dictated by exposure to run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurants, the type found in every corner of the United States and other countries. These unspectacularly common items usually include dumplings, noodles, egg rolls or other fried snacks, and of course untold varieties of fried rice. The crucial thing to recognize is that this smattering of relatively bland fare is tailored to the perceived tastes of Western consumers. The true scope and scale of Chinese cuisine is far greater.
Each region of China’s land mass has its own trademark culinary flair. And if you’ve taken the time to consult an atlas, you’ll see that quite a lot of geography is available for tasting. From tip to tail, the country has an abundance of flavors for the adventurous palate to sample.
On a recent foray to a restaurant with Xinjiang-style fare, I rediscovered a bold tableau that hails from the remote western reaches of China.
The atmosphere in the restaurant was diluted through and through with smoke, and unlike some eateries this smoke wasn’t pouring from cigarette butts. This was a rich haze that emanated from savory flanks of mutton roasting in the kitchen, and even a few basking over charcoals at the tables.
The main course was a whole roasted lamb, and its presentation alone was enough to convey that this was no ordinary supper. The lamb had arrived earlier that day from Shanghai. By the time it was borne unto our crowded table, it was skinned, gutted, roasted, and done up with a fancy bow at the head.
The crowd of eager diners wasn’t given the opportunity to indulge atavistic fantasies about tearing into the lamb firsthand, but they were instead treated to a show of sorts. After two waiters brought the lamb-laden cart up to the table, awed onlookers craned their necks to get a healthy look at the whole carcass before it was carved. Then the two waiters parted, allowing a stout man to approach the cart and put on some sanitary gloves. This man, apparently the sole restaurant employee allowed to wield the knife, began to slice and dice up the lamb with aplomb. The onlookers affectionately dubbed this knife-wielding wizard “Wolfzone” after the quirky monogram on his aqua-green shirt. He made short work of the carcass, loading two oversized platters with heaps of meat. Then it was up to the crowd at the table to do their part and tuck in.
Make no mistake—this wasn’t a refined dining atmosphere where one had to be mindful about which was the correct fork to use. No one made a fuss about the lack of bread plates. This was a primal encounter. From the moment the lamb had us salivating with its much-ballyhooed entrance to the time it was whisked off the platter and into our gullets, this experience was about eating. It was a reconnection of sorts. And I find it especially refreshing that in many incarnations of Chinese cuisine this is the preferred attitude to have: leave your manners (most of them anyhow) at the door, because you’re here to eat.
Most Chinese restaurants assist you in forgetting pretentious attitudes about feasting. The décor can be a little splashy at some establishments, but the state of things is far less attractive on closer inspection. The carpets are often strewn with cigarette burns, and the floors usually need a good once-over with a mop; but it’s entirely OK because you’re there to eat. One important thing to consider, though: if you must visit the bathroom, do so after you’ve finished your meal. If you’re in a restaurant in China, you’re never too far away from the physical evidence that, as a matter of fact, we are all human. We arematter. And usually, there are things to remind us of this physiological truism in most any restroom in China.
After paying the bill and leaving, the diners sauntered out to the street to head their separate ways. While waiting to hail a taxi, an acquaintance and I were recounting dining experiences that could rival the feast we had just ingested. The list was short, to be certain, but the conversation spawned an interesting term. When trying to use the word ‘gastronomic’ to describe some sensation or experience, I instead coined a portmanteau of the intended word and ‘economics,’ thus saying ‘gastro-economics.’ It resulted from a mere slip of the tongue (and a healthy dose of tryptophan from the heavy meal) but we both agreed it was fitting to the circumstances. A spread equal to the one we’d just devoured in the Xinjiang restaurant would cost a pretty penny in the United States. But this is China, so luckily our pocketbooks weren’t too much the worse for wear and we were able to continue the night’s excesses in other fashions.