Friday, November 22, 2013

My Dinner With Excellent

Excellent Zhan invited me to dinner at his favorite restaurant in Shenzen. It was my second day in China, I was there on pearl business and keen to try some authentic cuisine, so of course I agreed to go. I also got a kick out of dining with a guy who had a name like a Klingon warrior.
Although I’d heard lots of horror stories about Chinese dishes involving strange animals and internal organs, I thought I could probably handle anything they served me. I’d eaten grasshoppers, bat and snake so it was unlikely the Chinese could challenge me much more.  I hadn’t actually liked eating bugs but if the situation calls for being polite, I’ll chew up almost anything. And if it happens to taste good, I don’t really care if it’s something I’m not used to eating (I do however draw the line with rare or endangered animals). I would soon find out that I just wasn’t thinking creatively enough.
Excellent was a stocky pit-bull of a man with a greying, tall flat-top haircut that stiffly gave the finger to gravity. He didn’t speak a word of English, nor I Mandarin, so our conversations were parlayed through Candy, his young, delicate translator. Also along for the ride – or actually giving us the ride – was Excellent’s chatty driver Amy who admitted to me (in better English than Candy’s) that she had had her driver’s license exactly one week. Excellent’s nervous-looking wife squeezed in the back seat with us, turned her head to look out the window, and didn’t say a word to me the whole evening.
We reached the restaurant safely and got out  in front of a large red door with a giant bronze gong-shaped knocker. The man guarding the entrance knew Excellent and they fretted their hellos.  Once inside we were led past a busy dining area to a private room with red walls and a rectangular dark wooden table. Here we sat. Once he had ordered, Excellent looked at me and began delivering a short welcome speech in my honor.
“Excellent say this he favorite restaurant,” said Candy. “He say happy he share with you food from he home in northern country. He happy you here and hope we can do many good business. You like spicy?”
I assured her I liked spicy food, which I do.
Soon the first dishes arrived with the wait staff that brought the platters around to each of us. Every time something new came, our small crowd chattered and whooped in admiration. Apparently we were getting all the best stuff. And it really was fantastic. I don’t remember most of it specifically except it was predominantly in red-orange sauce and had 1000 times the flavor of any other Chinese food I’d ever eaten. There was a huge variety and everything was exceptionally good.
Then it arrived. From afar, the knuckle-sized bits of what I assumed was some kind of meat didn’t look very interesting, but when everyone else in the room realized what it was there was a surprised silence then near applause. What ever this was it was the piece de resistance.
The server offered me some of the mystery dish and I cautiously took two for my plate. They looked like small rubbery tubes, tightened through the middle and filled with some sort of soft, mustard brown goo. Unlike everything else we’d eaten this night, it did not look appetizing.
“What is this,” I asked Candy who was sitting next to me.
Candy thought for a moment.
“No know how to say English,” she said.
By this time everyone was looking at me, waiting for me to try this special dish and so I had to. I lifted the first one into my mouth with my chopsticks.
It tasted just like it looked. The outside was a chewy, rubbery sleeve which squirted out the slightly gritty, rotten banana-textured insides. The overall flavor was bitter with a tinge of old-garbage odor. I chewed and chewed and swallowed until I had cleared my mouth out enough to politely smile.
“Very delicious,” I said. Everyone around me was elated.
I looked at the remaining morsel on my plate.
“Candy, can you give me at least an idea of what this is?” I asked.
“Hmmm,” she said pensively. “It’s. . . inside of pig. Like leeva but not leeva.”
She added a slow “no” shake of the head to emphasize that this was definitely not liver.
So, I thought, thinking logically with what I new about mammalian anatomy, I am eating buttholes. Perhaps they weren’t buttholes, maybe they were gall bladders or bile ducts, but whatever they were they were still full of gall, bile or poo and tasted accordingly. I took the second one with my chopsticks and tried to look enthusiastic as I popped it in my mouth while my hosts watched me, proud of how they spoiled their foreign guests.
As I chewed, trying not to get too hung up on the texture of the pig-generated substance inside the calamari-like part, the serving plate came my way again. There were still a few pieces left.
“Take them all,” said Candy, generously.
I took one more.
“I don’t want to be too greedy,” I said. Candy translated this and it met with nods of approval. The plate was brought to Excellent and his wife who hungrily ate the last of the precious sphincters.
I didn’t feel sick per se but I really didn’t want to eat a third putrid, mysterious pig part.
Looking around I wondered if I could possibly slip the last anus into my purse. There wasn’t much sauce so it wouldn’t make too much of mess. I slid it to the edge of my plate and vigilantly watched my dinner companions. It would have been pretty easy except for Candy sitting next to me in my blind spot. When I saw her turn her head away from me, I went to shove the meat over the side of my plate with a chopstick but it was too late, Excellent looked over at me with a well fed but business-like expression. I picked up the last organ and, trying not to dwell too much on the now all familiar taste and texture, chewed it, chewed some more then swallowed it.
At this point I almost expected my host to stand up while a Chinese reality TV host to popped out from behind a curtain to tell me that the buttholes had been a really hysterical practical joke, but no. I think we may have had a digestive beverage, I don’t remember what. And then I was taken back to my hotel. I never got sick from eating pig butts but I brushed my teeth really well that night.
Fast forward several years to when I write this blog post. While looking for images I have discovered that pig anuses are actually quite popular in Asian cuisine.  From the few photographs I could find however, I now think I may have been served pig fallopian tubes. No matter. In early 2013 there was a scandal, soon discovered to be a hoax, that a product called imitation calamari was made of pig anuses. From the descriptions of the rubbery nature of pig rectums, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to me.  I came across all sorts of fun facts -- such as that a deboned inverted pig’s rectum, sold at Asian markets averages two feet long and two inches wide. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this now but for me at least this puts a sort of closure on my story.
In conclusion I’m afraid the tale is not much more than this: I ate something really gross with a guy with a funny name and I still don’t know what it was.

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