Do you know what they call Chinese food in China? Food. Yup, that’s right, in some parts of the world it is just food. Delicious food, by the way. I was always skeptical about Chinese restaurants and Chinese food in the USA, mostly because any Chinese food I have ever eaten in the States is a far cry from what I grew to love in China. There is so much variety in Chinese food, so many distinct cuisines under the giant umbrella we just classify as Chinese food. Most of which American’s have never heard of. Americanized chow mein, beef and broccoli, and orange chicken were not items I ate in China. Last night, however, I discovered there is good food (of the Chinese variety) in the Portland, OR metropolitan area.
I have about six days left in Oregon before I head out on my new adventure (to Nashville, TN – check out my new blog) and I had been trying to figure out where to stay for my last few nights in town. My dad mentioned that he had some friends from Southern Oregon who had a condo in Beaverton and they would be willing to let me stay. Awesome. Turns out it is an older couple, my dad sings in the Rogue Valley Chorale with the woman who is American and her husband is Chinese. They were going to be in town over the weekend, as was my dad, so it was arranged that we would all meet up at their place on Sunday and we would all go out to Chinese food!
I have to say, not only am I incredibly thankful for their generosity in letting me use the condo for a week. But they were also a lot of fun to get to know. Gene is a 77 year old man from China, who came to the US sometime after college. Now, for those of you who know ANYTHING about Chinese history, stop and think about what this man lived through growing up in China in the 1930′s-1950′s. He has some stories to tell, to say the least. He also is one of the most energetic, talkative and lively 77 year olds I have ever met. He was quite a riot. When we first came in and sat down, he tossed me a newspaper in Chinese and said, “Let’s test her Chinese!”
Anyways… this was supposed to be about food. They took us to this place called Taste of Sichuan (Sichuan is only my favorite of Chinese cuisines). I had never heard of it and when we pulled up I knew it was new because the building housed a Marie Calendars when I moved away in 2011. We go inside to a crowd of people waiting to be seated, and luckily they tell us it will only be about 15 minutes. I sit down in front of the board with some of their specials written on it and see 小笼包 xiaolongbao or steamed dumplings. My first thought is “YUMMY!” My second thought is “$7.95!?!? I would never pay that much for xiaolongbao!”
We are seated, ordered the xiaolongbao right away as a starter and looked at the menu. Oh there are so many delightful things it is hard to chose! But no pictures? In China, your menu is normally a fat book filled with 15-50 pages of pictures of every single dish. Of course, when you can’t speak Chinese this is helpful to see what looks good. But also, the Chinglish translations (although entertaining) leave a lot to be desired. (Like the time I ordered delicious pork spareribs that were described as octopus in English… hmmm.) Fortunately, in the States the English was more accurate. However, I did have to ask Gene about some of the characters because I knew the Chinese names for dishes and not the English names.
I opted out of the Tsingdao beer when I learned they had good microbrews to offer as well, so I went Oregonian and ordered a Widmer hef. Funny thing, I was a little put off about it at the time, but after awhile I realized in China it wouldn’t have been a big deal. You see, in many non-western establishments in China it is a safe bet to ask for a COLD beer, as they often serve it in bottles at room temperature. This wasn’t really on my mind when the waitress came out handed me a beer and a glass of ice. She said, “I brought you ice because we ran out of cold bottles of the beer.” Indeed my bottle of hefeweizen was room temperature. In my moment of cultural insensitivity, I was obviously not thrilled with the prospect of pouring my beer over ice and she offered me a different one – Ninkasi IPA to go with my Chinese food.
After choosing items from the menu, with lots of discussion and debate. I think I shocked the waiter when I did all the ordering for the table – in Chinese. Okay, so it was broken Chinese and Gene had to help me out with a couple of them, but I did it. 茄子，回锅肉，宫保鸡丁(eggplant in hot garlic sauce, twice cooked pork, Kung Pao chicken) and one more.
Four tell-tale signs that we were in America: there were forks on the table and we had to ask for chopsticks. The rice came out with the dishes (not last). Most of the dishes came out at the same time. And we got a fortune cookie at the end of the meal. Newsflash America: you don’t get fortune cookies in China. My fortune was pretty good though: You will have a fine capacity for the enjoyment of life. They know me so well.
Oh…it was delicious. A bit spicy, as good Sichuan food should be. But they were all the tastes and smells I have been living without for the past two months being back in the States. For dessert (which none of us really had room for) we had 芝麻汤圆 or sesame sticky rice balls.
Good food, good company and conversations about China with a little Chinese thrown in… it made me want to go back. But for now, I might just have to make do with leftovers.