“I can still remember my first time. It wasn’t that bad.”
I quirked an eyebrow at Tom and pulled on my socks, trying hard not to think about what I was getting into. He slipped his shoes on by the door as a knock banged off of the hollow painted sheet metal. Tom swung it open and we greeted our friend, Seven. His eager grin made me return a weak smile back. We would be eating a delicacy after all. 火鍋, Hot Pot. I pulled on my shoes and I flicked off the light behind me.
I didn’t think about the fancy restaurant around the corner as we made the short walk there. Down the ramp, through the gate, wave to the guard, left along the street, laugh at a joke Tom told, turn the corner and we were bathed in the neon lights of hot pot. The warm colors and bright lights held the well-dressed women and men there on special occasion or business. Parishioners in an umber-walled cathedral on pews of dark wood held service next door to the noodle place and a convenience shop on one side and a car repair shop on the other. We climbed the stairs to the entrance and were led instantly to a dark wood table. The hostess left us with a list I was glad I could not read.
My two companions talked between themselves, affirming with a nod or dismissing with a gesture as they reviewed the order. Occasionally, they would ask me if I wanted lotus root, mushrooms, or cow muscle.
“Not that one. The other would be better.”
“I don’t really like those. They’re too chewy.”
I thought I heard something about stomach. I stopped listening as they narrowed the choices and finally made marks on the sheet. Tom chuckled and Seven flashed another grin. I had only recently met Seven, so I couldn’t say what he would feed me, but after knowing Tom for as many years as I had, I knew was in for an experience. Little did he know that the part of my mind with limits had been compartmentalized. I was now Mr. Go-with-the-Flow-Joe, in China there seemed to be little other choice.
A waiter came by and lit the fire under the sunken metal bowl in our table. I recognized pieces of dried red chilies and Sichuan peppers floating atop the dark red liquid. I don’t remember what the conversation covered—I admit, my mind was somewhere else, my eyes everywhere but the pot heating.
From the corner of my eye, I caught two people approaching. Fear pinged for a moment like the ringing of a small bell allowed to slowly fade out. The fear was forgotten by the time they had set up. Both waiters had several dishes balanced and one rolled a set of trays to the table side to place them for viewing. That was part of the elegance of the night, I realized. You get to admire the choice cuts before you cook them yourself.
I scanned the cart and saw two lonely trays of vegetables and mushrooms among the platters of ribbon-like intestines and sliced eels, balled dark urchins of duck stomach and the rubber Velcro of the cow stomach. Such variety, I thought.
Seven upturned the plates of vegetables and we sat while they stewed. I followed suit as my companions filled shallow bowls with oils, cilantro, and spices. They explained that this was not just for flavor but also to cool the food.
The anxiety which had been bubbling inside me like the cauldron on the table boiled over and a wave of sickness washed over me for a moment, quickly forced below the surface like I was drowning it. It was easy enough to pretend this was just an Indiana Jones movie, but I tried not to. “These are civilized people, so don’t go lumping them into a movie stereotype,” I told myself. Despite that statement, it was hard not to think of certain scenes in The Temple of Doom.
My chopsticks slid into the pot and I fished for whatever my untrained hand could grab. I felt something and managed to bring out a piece of eel. It fell shortly thereafter. By fell, I should say it slipped and flew almost a foot toward Tom. I grinned sheepishly.
The dangers of chopstick clumsiness is one thing you aren’t warned about when you go somewhere new. Sometimes it determines what meals an initiate can eat and which ones are inaccessible. One’s habits might be formed for years based solely on one night of cutlery impotence.
My skills were showing as I lost another lotus root. The root, crunchy yet bland on its own, was transformed in the pot into a thermal and chemical heat. Where it had been bland, it was now bitter and fiery. It took some getting used to, but once I had, it was delicious. It didn’t matter whether the chemicals made my mouth feel like an old baseball mitt. I picked up the eel which I had lost on the table and had been cooling on my plate ever since.
A Chihuahua with glittered nails and pink-dyed, crimped hair sat on a bench a table over. It must have been her special night on the town too. Her eyes followed my chopsticks as they clumsily brought the piece of eel to my mouth. The heat of the broth had peeled the skin away at the edges from the muscular ridges underneath. It crunched as I brought my teeth slowly into it. Someone told a joke next to us and raucous laughter rang through the already noisy room.
It didn’t matter (for the most part) whether it was eel, organs, muscle, or vegetables. Once the feel of the slick, finger-long eel was down my hatch, the taste remained the same as the lotus root had. I quickly noticed that all of the food I pulled from the brew tasted like the one before which would taste like the one after. One of the major things I took from the night was texture of it all.
The dishes could have been chosen for medicinal benefits or rarity, but I preferred to imagine they had been selected for their textures. The roots, mushrooms, intestines, eel were delicious enough on their own, but in the broth, every taste was homogenized. All that was left was the slimy feel of the muscle, the crunch of the skin, the chewiness of the intestines, and the tough stringiness of the mushrooms.
The food was good. Life was good.
“How do you like it in China?” they asked.
Between mouthfuls, I said, “It’s nothing like I had imagined.”