I'm not sure I can find appropriate words for Tuesday evening's culinary adventure, but I'll try...
First, I'm going to describe the feeling we had during the...how shall I say it? Ah yes, the absolute horror show of a dinner. You know that surreal feeling you get when you witness something in front of you going horribly, horribly wrong, but there's nothing you can do about it? Take that and add to it the knowledge that you were in actuality the one doing something horribly, horribly wrong. And you should have done something to prevent it. But you didn't. And you made it worse. Over and over again.
Before I share with you what happened in this car crash of a dinner, I want to apologize to all of you Americans who have gone before us and been wonderful examples of grace and poise. Your reputation is now trashed. And to all of you Americans coming to China after us: again I must apologize, because now all of China, or at least the wait staff of Calif. Shabu Shabu believes that you as citizens of the United States are blathering idiots.
It all started off innocently enough: we were hungry and decided to eat at one of the restaurants in the hotel. Calif. Shabu Shabu looked nice and swanky and - most importantly to those who are hungry - close by.
The first warning that I should not be doing this came before I could even open my mouth. The hostess walked up to me and said something in broken English that I assumed was just a greeting or advice that the restaurant was not part of the hotel, and therefore not free to guests. In retrospect, I now realize that she was either saying 'We're closing' (as the restaurant was completely empty save for the two of us), or more likely 'You don't belong here'.
Either way, I graciously ignored her wave-offs and smiled, nodded my head and said, 'Yes, two of us.'
With a slight sigh and shrug as if to say 'OK, your funeral', the very nice lady sat us all by ourselves in a corner and stood there. Staring. Then another woman came over. And stood there. And stared. Then one of the two asked us if we knew what to order.
As there was only one menu in front of us (another BIG hint to run, don't walk, to the exit) and Em and I hadn't even looked at it yet, we smiled and opened the menu and began to slowly look over the selection.
At this point, the waitress leaned over my shoulder and pointed to a few things, machine-gunned a few partially English comments, flipped each page of the menu and did the same thing all over again. Again I should have listened harder to her. I'm pretty sure she was trying to be graceful to the American baboon and make some recommendations, but again I ignored the warning and said we'd need a couple of minutes, please.
As we were left alone, Em and I took a closer look at our surroundings. We noticed several indications of stormy weather ahead all around us. First, we were alone in the restaurant. Totally, completely alone. Second, there were two sets of chopsticks placed in front of each of us. Now I'm the guy who still has no idea why we need both a fork and a spoon at the dinner table, and although I can with some measure of skill wield a pair of chopsticks, two pair were - and still are - completely out of my realm of experience and understanding. The only difference dinner made to this situation is that now several members of Shabu Shabu know it as well.
The third thing we noticed as we surveyed our surroundings is that placed in front of each one of us were these two, um, contraptions made of either stainless steel or silver; quite beautiful really, but their function remained totally beyond me other than that. They looked like something in between an incense brazier and a bowl. Then I noticed the burner beneath. It was like those cans of napalm you get with your pu pu dinner back home. Now I knew fire was involved in our dinner experience, but not to what extent. Oh boy.
Now warning bells were going off in my head, but being typically male, I just thought of them as a sign of weakness, and as such, were something to be ignored....stupid, stupid man....
Emily and I then opened the menus (excuse me, menu - we had to crowd over the table and crane our necks so we could both get a view of the thing at the same time) and took a look. We would have been better off telling the waitress the least desirable yet edible (?) parts of creatures we could think of, because that seemed to be our choices anyway, and at least we wouldn't have been delusional with the thought that a menu would have something we would actually want to eat.
I won't tell you folks the items on the menu because 1) I don't think you'd believe me, and 2) I feel dirty even saying them. To order such items would feel like uttering a string of profanities, and my mom didn't raise me that way. Just use your imagination and rest assured that whatever it was you just imagined, it was there.
After some queasy perusing of the menu we did come across a few things we might actually enjoy eating. Hot and spicy soup for each of us, "beef" tips for me and vegetable noodles for Emily.
Satisfied with our choices, I smiled at the ever-hovering waitress and indicated what we wanted by pointing.
It wasn't that simple, of course.
After placing what I thought was our order, the waitress stood there looking expectantly at us while we did the same at her. Finally, she went though each of the five pages and waved her hand across each in succession and with broken English, asking us what we wanted from that page. Her act was convincing enough that we felt compelled to oblige, so we did.
So in addition to the food above, we ordered another "beef" item, spicy sauce (I'd pay for that later), some types of mushrooms (if you know me, you know that mushrooms are at the bottom of my list of foods to eat even with a gun pointed at my head; but then again, I never thought someone might expect me to eat some of those other menu items either, so, yea, mushrooms!), and leafy vegetable. Yep, that's how it was listed, 'leafy vegetable'.
Satisfied at last, our waitress went off to place our order. Em and I looked at each other with a mixture of feelings, relief that that part was over and stark fear for what lay ahead of us...
Then I noticed 'them'.
By 'them' I 'm referring to the group of 4 to 6 ladies, all restaurant employees, standing quietly off to the side about 20 feet away, looking at us and talking in Chinese. They didn't seem upset we were the only ones at a late dinner that evening. They weren't laughing at the silly foreigners trying to navigate the culinary waters of Shabu Shabu either.
No, it was more like they were expectant, but not in the way a restaurant staff would be when a food critic comes in to dine. It was more like a what-are-they-going-to-do-next' look. Well, their guess was as good as mine.
At this point, Emily got the giggles over the situation, and it was only made worse at my attempts to look like I was still in control. Mine was the more ridiculous of the reactions. I looked at her like the child that didn't know any better how to cope with this predicament, and she did the same to me, then broke out in even more uncontrollable laughter. I needn't have worried about 'them' overhearing Emily though. When she gets laughing this hard, she stops breathing and thereby stops making any noise. She just shakes and turns red. A lot.
Then the food came...Little bowls of spices (I recognized chopped scallions and hot peppers among them) were placed in front of us. A big plate of what I took to be mushroom bits was them placed between us.
Then what looked like one of those big meat and cheese platters you'd see at parties was put down, but there was no cheese, just all meat. Then another plate of meat was put down: this one smaller and more prepared looking.
Then a small plate of green pasta was placed furthest away from the rest of the food. And finally the leafy vegetable. Well, it was more like a small vase with leaves of romaine lettuce sticking out of it, looking like it was prepared by some ikebana master. It looked like we'd caught a break - we could probably muddle through this dinner without too much apparent ineptitude, but once again, I was sadly mistaken...
Because out came the fire.
Stainless steel bowls full of what looked like broth were brought out and placed on each of our stands and then the napalm underneath was set ablaze. The waitress, with a satisfied smile, backed away to join 'them'.
Emily and I just looked at each other. All mirth was gone from her face at the direness of the moment. My seriousness was replaced by a cold, cold sinking feeling deep in the pit of my stomach. I hadn't felt this way since...no, wait; I've never felt this way. Terror. Sheer inescapable terror.
Then the adrenaline dump came. For those of you who don't know what I mean by this, let me explain. When faced with imminent danger, either real or perceived, the human creature has what's known as a 'fight or flight' response. Adrenaline courses through your system, bringing you to your most primitive state, where either you'll fight like a cornered animal, or run so fast as to put Jesse Owens to shame. I began to sweat and twitch, my eyes darting left, then right, breathing shallow, trying to find a way out of this embarrassment. I might have even begun to whimper. It's all so foggy now...
At this point Emily came to her senses and suggested that we might want to ask for help. Before she could even finish her recommendation, I cut her off with a feral grunt.
I would not let these people do any worse to me. In my animal state, I recognized the women as the enemy: those responsible for my terror, my pain. I begun to plan how I could take each one out efficiently and quietly and escape unharmed. The bodies wouldn't be found until I was long gone.
Oh wait, I'd have to take Emily into account. She's going to slow me down. Better perhaps that she not suffer any longer... it would be better this way.
She must have caught the rabid mongoose look in my eye, my sudden calm at the resolve before me, because like a lightning flash, she brought me back to myself.
Shaking my head, I looked up at her and realized the only real way out of this was to swallow pride and accept defeat. I motioned to the waitress. Eagerly she hurried over. She had no idea how close she came to the end of her days. With simple words and gestures, I tried to convey that we had no idea how to go about eating our meal. She smiled kindly, and with a slight cooing noise a mother might make to a screaming child, she walked off and returns a moment later with napkins. Then walked back to 'them.'
Those women! They knew what they were doing to us and must have decided to up the ante and see what our reaction would be to this insane experience by bringing a random variable into the equation (napkins) and then measure our response.
Or maybe she just thought I wanted more napkins.
I had to take more drastic and humbling steps, evidently. So with the sigh of a man going to the gallows, I pushed my chair back, stood, and approached 'them' with head down, eyes averted. Perfect submission. If I were a dog, I would have rolled over and exposed my belly to them, but in this place, they might have actually mistaken me for one and served me for dinner the next evening. The waitress saw me coming and did not approach. She made me come to her, to make my humiliation complete and public before 'them'.
Just before I reached the group however, our waitress must have felt some small measure of pity and met me half way between our table and the group. Again I tried to let her know we needed her help. I briefly considered a bribe, but knowing the situation a little bit, I'd have probably needed to pay them all off. As it turned out, we finally came to an understanding and she followed me back to our table to give us some much needed assistance.
First, she gestured to the more prepared of meats and indicated that they were to be eaten on their own. Then she took the spice and begun to add them to a small bowl of what looked to be soy sauce sitting off to the side. First the hot peppers: almost all of them. I think I saw smoke puffing up from the bowl after all that heat added.
Then she picked up the scallions and paused, looking concerned, as if she realized that she'd give us enough peppers to set our pile of napkins ablaze just from their proximity; but no, it wasn't that.
"You OK with scallions?"
Oh, how kind; burn us from the inside with fire peppers, but show remorse that we might get a bit gassy with too much onions. Like we'd be able to even taste them anyway.
"Yes, very much. Thank you."
To this, she added a dash (one or two pieces) of scallions and then added what looked like ginger powder to the sauce.
Setting this aside, she grabbed the outside-most set of chopsticks and added some mushrooms, 'leafy vegetable' and some of the platter meat (by the way, this meat was raw) to our stew pot, which was by this time boiling. After ten seconds or so, she took out the mushrooms, dipped them in the fire sauce, placed them on my plate, and did the same to the beef, now medium rare in state. And finally the 'leafy, now wilted vegetable'. Simple. Then she indicated that with our second set of chopsticks, we should eat.
Turning, she left.
With a sigh of relief, Em and I picked up or chopsticks and begun to eat, and then very quickly put them back down again.
If you've ever been to the circus, no doubt you've seen those guys who take the flaming torch and place it in their mouths: you know, the fire eaters. I'll let you in on a secret, they don't eat the fire, they just pretend to. For good reason. Fire is bad. Emily and I just ate fire. Fire is bad.
The sweat began to pour down our faces and the water at our table quickly disappeared. One bite down, countless more to go. Gosh, it's a good thing we didn't have too many scallions in the sauce.
We'd made it through about 1/3 of the food and our waitress (thankfully) returned to our table to refill our waters. Before she could set my glass down, I snatched it from her hand and drank it, indicating she could fill it again. As she finished with the water, I pointed to the noodles and made a questioning gesture.
'Those are last" she said, and went back to the herd.
We continued eating. As a side note, I have to let you know one of the lesser known side effects of eating a lot of hot food. You begin to enter this semi-euphoric state, similar to having a bit too much drink, in which you begin to feel light headed and a bit imbalanced. I only mention this because it was also affecting my coordination as well. Half of the food I picked back out of the pot, got dropped onto my plate before I could get it into my mouth.
Evidently much time and effort was put into the creation of these particular plates at the restaurant, because the angles were such that any food spilled caused the sauce to splatter at exactly the right angle to unerringly hit one's shirt every time.
By the end of the night, both Emily and I looked like gunshot victims, except we smelled suspisciously of soy and peppers....
We were full - full of food and full of Shabu Shabu. But as we looked down, Emily and I realized that we'd barely dented the mass of meat and mushroom before us. Now...we were full, but one thing we were not was wasteful. So on we went.
Two bites later and we couldn't take it any longer. Plates were pushed away and napkins piled on top; the worldwide symbol of achieving fullness of near combustable proportions.
Fortunately, our waitress recognized it and promptly took our plates away; or should I say, she took Emily's plate. Mine she left. To this day I still don't know why.
As we waited for the check, Emily and I joked about the near disaster we'd had and how we were happy that it was all over with.
Then our waitress came back with a new plate and set it in front of Emily, the universal sign that one is not done eating. Emily looked deflated, at least as much as someone who's at critical mass, gastrointestinally speaking, can be, and began to slowly put food onto her plate. Her ploy was simple: put a little bit of food on the plate and then push the plate back... like it had once been a full plate and now was nearly empty.
Instantly I recognized the flaw in her plan though. Reaching across the table with one chopstick, I moved the meat and mushrooms around a bit and mashed them together. Now it looked realistically like she'd put up a valliant effort. Our waitress fell for it, hook line and sinker.
This time all of the plates were cleared away and Em and I pushed our chairs back and thankfully awaited the check. Sadly, there was yet one more hurdle to overcome; and in our state, jumping hurdles might prove physically impossible.
Yes, dessert -- which I never recalled ordering -- was served, but fortunately it was only some fruit, so we managed to tackle it with slight moaning and groaning, which may or may not have been overheard.
After we finally paid our bill and waddled across the lobby of the hotel, Emily and I faced yet one last tough decision: stairs or elevator back to our 10th floor room? Both held perils of equally dire consequences: we might overload the elevator with our newly created mass and cause a sudden plunge, ending in our certain demise. But if we tried to tackle the stairs we'd surely have a pair of heart attacks long before we'd climbed all 1o flights. So we decided to risk the elevator, and as you can tell from this blog, we made it.
Though the elevator did shake a bit on the long way up.