On a recent trip to Beijing, I was intrigued with a vegetarian dish of what appeared to be noodles, but which were made with vegetables mixed with flour. Called Liang Bei Fen Pi, it was composed of pale green noodles lightly steamed and topped with an intensely spicy sauce of coarsely pounded red chillies fried in oil. I was floored: here was a vegetarian dish within the ambit of Chinese cuisine, but as far as I could tell, it had never been served in India.
Since getting back, I have harangued all the Chinese chefs of my acquaintance, demanding to know why I cannot order Fen Pi here. To a man, their answer is because Indians do not eat cold starters in Chinese restaurants, and Fen Pi is never served warm. That brings us back to square one.
Of course the food in China is different from what we eat here, in the name of Chinese food. No restaurateur here would serve us congealed duck’s blood, but cubes of it, sprinkled with a tangy spice powder akin to chaat masala are lip-smacking. So are Cold Pickled Rabbit’s Head, Turtle Soup, Ducks’ Feet, Stinky Tofu (the stuff you get in Beijing pongs more than the apology dished up in Shanghai) and Drunken Prawns. The last named is brought to the table in a plate sprinkled over with chopped garlic and ginger. The prawns are live and wriggling. The waitress pours a stiff tot of Chinese wine on them and partly covers them with a plate. The prawns gorge themselves on the wine and become drunk, then sink into a stupor and stop moving their tails. That’s when you pluck off the shells and pop them into your mouth. Nobody warned me that consuming three of them is akin to having a wee dram yourself – Chinese wine is not for the lily-livered.
On balance, it is the service of food in a Chinese restaurant that makes the difference. For one, no meal whatsoever in a restaurant in China is complete without a cold starter or three. Hot starters are not necessarily all deep-fried as they are here. Then, diners expect to have work to do; in fact, they enjoy it. My hostess and I went through plates and plates of tiny prawns or crabs where you have to pick off the shells or crunch through them to the meat. Visiting a hot-pot restaurant is akin to manual labour: you choose the ingredients, then steam them optimally, before mixing them in the sauce of your choice. Beef intestine takes longer to cook than water spinach, for instance, so you have to remain alert.
In China, it is a given that the sole job of the waiter is to ferry dishes from the kitchen to your table. Nobody will serve you tidbits of food from the dish: you do that yourself. Oh, and don’t try ordering Cantonese dishes in a Sichuan restaurant, or Shanghainese food in a Beijing one.
Captions: Missing Indian food in China? Go to an Uighur restaurant: the braised dishes have approximately the same spices that we use, and the lamb tikkas are virtually the same as ours.