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Shanghai Finance University, Campus Western Style Café (Lunch)
1. Meat surface
2. Baby food and more food
3. Monolithic noodles
4. Cigarette bacon
5. Beef saliva
He tells Dan Dan that there are twelve foreigners on campus; all the manager had to do was ask. She tells Chris that the manager would never risk losing face by asking a foreigner to help him to translate, so he used a translator, picking out the options he liked the sound of. This is the result. When the manager sees Chris laughing, he loses face anyway. Chris orders the noodles, which are not the size of a house, and the cigarette bacon, which has nothing to do with cigarettes. She gives him a warm smile, a few degrees higher than you’d give to a friend. He gives one back, same temperature. Until today they only knew each other as fellow teachers in adjoining classrooms (he, English, she, Finance). She went beyond Nihao to chat with him between classes and now here they are. She seems relaxed, at ease in his company. He studies her face: the whitened skin, the red lipstick, the mascara thickened eyelashes. She says, You are very handsome. The words drift past his ear. In China, all foreigners are told they are “handsome” at some point, and some of them actually take it seriously. You have amazing skin, he tells her. She shrugs, I’m sure most of us do.
He wonders where this is leading, if anywhere.
Restaurant Gran Mer, Nanjing Road East, Shanghai (Dinner)
2. Pate foie gras
3. Steak Diane
5. Pomme de terre Dauphinoise
6. Sauteed mushrooms
Dan Dan picks up the knife and fork, examines them, then replaces them on the table. She reaches for her bag and takes out a small wrapper, pulls out a pair of chopsticks, and snaps them apart. Chris thinks: Now this, I’ve got to see. When the steaks arrive, she leans forward and, using a deft pincer movement, raises hers to eye level and takes a bite out of it. It immediately slips out of her grasp and flops back on the plate. She repeats the process until the steak is all gone. She is oblivious to the stares of the other diners, and he has to admit that he admires this. But does she actually like the food? She points at the ratatouille. It’s a little sour, she says. It is the first time he has heard any food described as sour. Later, as they are leaving, she says, I am surprised you like to eat snails.
Yes, but do you like me? he wants to say.
Starbucks, Hailun Road, Shanghai
2. Blueberry muffin
3. A slice of quiche
Today Dan Dan has been helping him to buy clothes at the Mall. This is Shanghai, “International city,” where most people speak either Shanghainese or Mandarin and few speak, or wish to speak, English. Since he has not decided how long he wants to stay in China, he has made no effort to learn Mandarin. So here they are. She looks young and sporty in jeans and T-shirt, hair pulled up in a high ponytail. 3.00 p.m. He needs a caffeine fix and a cake. He spies something in the display case and is overcome with a sense of mischief: quiche. He has never met a Chinese person who likes quiche. Will Dan Dan be the exception? he wonders. She eyes it suspiciously, then cuts off a segment with her fork. She chews it for a moment, like a child chews on a lemon, then gulps it back. The fork clatters on to the plate. This is baby food, she says. No, it’s not, he says. It’s delicious. Yes, she says. Delicious, if you’re a baby. He gets her a blueberry muffin and polishes off the rest of the quiche himself. It occurs to him that it does have the texture of baby food. He never thought this till she pointed it out. The conviction with which she stated this impresses him.
She looks like she’s having second thoughts, if indeed she ever had first thoughts.
The Lotus Leaf (Dinner, no English menu)
Chris has been in China long enough to know that nothing he eats here bears any resemblance to the Chinese food he knows from home. This is because most of the Chinese food back home derives from Hong Kong and has been adjusted to suit Western tastes (so he is told). The waitress brings three dishes accompanied by two bowls of rice. One dish contains oval-shaped things that resemble a kind of bean; the second is some kind of finely chopped meat with peanuts; the third looks meaty and coloured dark with soy sauce. He just wished he knew what it all was. He tells Dan Dan she looks very Chinese in her powder blue qipao. I thought we could have a real Chinese evening, she says, and tells him he looks very Western in his blouson and polo shirt. He picks up a piece of meat with his chopsticks and chomps down on it, almost breaking a crown in the process. Be careful with the bone, she says. Yeah, right. The meat, what little there is, seems quite savoury. Dan Dan observes him, a slight smile at the corners of her mouth. He tries the next dish, the one with peanuts. A slight porky taste, not as interesting as the previous dish. What the hell am I eating? he asks. She sniggers. I’ll tell you when you’ve finished. The third dish is the most mysterious. The nut-like objects are friable, turning to powder in his mouth, but not untasty. Dan Dan finally throws down her napkin. OK, are you ready?
1. Deep-fried Cicada
2. Pig’s Ear with Peanuts
3. Chopped Duck’s neck
He thinks: Dan Dan is definitely making a point here. Well, I can do that, too.
Alimentari, Anfu Road, Shanghai
1. An assortment of cheeses and cured meats.
Chris decants the expensive Pugliese red wine into her glass and watches her take a tentative sip. Delicious, she says. The waiter places a large wooden board on the table. It is covered in small slices of Parma ham, tiny pieces of pecorino and provolone. As it is a warm evening, Chris is wearing shorts and a polo shirt, a V-neck sweater over his shoulders to protect him from the chill later. Dan Dan is also wearing shorts. Her long legs are perfectly shaped, something he has noticed about many Asian women. You could get a job as a leg model in my country, he says. You’d make a fortune. Really? she says. She stretches out a leg and examines it as though it belonged to someone else. They’re just legs, she says. Then she looks at my legs. You look nice in your shorts, she says. Except you’re hairy like a monkey. She forks up a slice of ham and chews on it. He half expects her to start blowing bubbles with it. How do they cook this? she says. It’s not cooked, he tells her. It’s cured, stored in a special room at a certain temperature for weeks, till it’s ready. Yuck, she says, spitting it into a napkin. Try the cheese, he says. This time she winces at the taste. It’s like eating wax, she says. He decides he has had enough. That tofu you got me the other night? It was like eating a sofa. And that pig’s ear? We give them to dogs. Yeah? she says, building up steam. That French wine we had at the Sichuan restaurant? It was fake, Chinese wine with a French label. And what about that KFC you took me to? he says. It was not like any KFC I’ve ever had. KFC means Kentucky Fried Chicken. If you add Chinese sauces and spices, how can it still be KFC? Both of them stop eating. They have reached a certain point. She takes up a napkin and wipes her mouth. This isn’t going to work, is it? he says. No, she says, reaching for her bag. She gets up from the table and calls Bye over her shoulder as she walks off, heels clicking on the wooden floor.
At the university it is back to a polite Nihao and a distant look that makes him feel invisible. All that food, and it has come to this. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. In his campus apartment, he determinedly cooks Western dishes, devouring with gusto his full English breakfast, his chocolate hobnobs from the Western store, his French bread from Paris Baguette. Yet he can’t help feeling there is something missing in his life. All he has to look forward to is an evening in with pirated DVDs. Privately, he does not enjoy eating alone. The expensive Camembert feels like molten wax in his mouth.
One night he decides to make pasta with squid. First, he makes a salsa piccante with tomatoes, wine, and chilli. He has just put it on to simmer when the doorbell goes. Expecting it is the caretaker come to replace the water bottle, he is only half surprised when he opens the door to see Dan Dan. I miss you, she says. Me too, he says. He holds open the door to let her enter. She sniffs the air. What are you cooking? she says. Just knocking together a little pasta. Hungry? She nods. Can I watch you? I’ve never had a man cook for me. She follows him into the small kitchen. He shows her the sauce and lists the ingredients. He takes the squid he picked up from the People’s Market and slaps it down on the cutting board. He makes a cut just below the eye and removes the flexible bone that always reminds him of a comb. He skilfully slices the tentacles. He tips the whole lot into a frying pan of hot oil with garlic. I see, she says, you fry the squid separately, then add it to the sauce? Correct, he says. She leaves the kitchen briefly, then returns with a small bottle she must have had in her handbag.
Try adding a bit of this, she says. She uncaps the bottle and tips a little yellow liquid into the frying pan, making it sizzle. It’s called liaojiu, she says. It takes away the fishy smell but adds to the flavour of meat and fish. A vague boozy aroma fills the kitchen. By this time the pasta is cooked. While it is draining in the sink he adds the squid to the sauce. Wait, she says, leaving the kitchen briefly again. This time she returns with a small jar containing something dark and thick. She unscrews the jar, plunges a spoon into the mysterious mixture, and adds it to the sauce. Spicy black bean sauce, she says. Goes perfectly with squid.
Later, in bed, Dan Dan plumps up the pillow and sits. I was thinking, she says. What? he says, wondering what he has done wrong. How about chou doufu with grated parmesan? Ah, he says, relieved. Sounds interesting. How about pizza with duck and oyster sauce? Yummy, she says. They go on like this till the early hours, considering possibilities, pondering ingredients and procedures. By the morning they feel they have known each other all their lives.
PASTA WITH SALSA PICCANTE, SQUID AND BLACK BEAN SAUCE
Finely chopped red pepper (capsicum) finely chopped
Large onion finely chopped
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
2 cloves of garlic
I small fiery red pepper
I glass of white wine
I teaspoon of spicy black bean sauce
Add ingredients to a pan. Bring to the boil and reduce heat to a simmer for 25 minutes. After 15 minutes, place a large pan of water on to the hob and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, wash and prepare the squid as described above. Fry in oil and a little garlic. When it is almost cooked, add a dash of liaojiu. When the sauce is ready, add the squid. Drain the pasta and return it to the pan. Pour over the sauce and stir it well.
Fall in love with it.