Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Memorable Meal: Yangtze River Harmony

Sidewalk chef in Wuhan, China

Loud sucking and gulping, juicy wet slurping and sharp burping stopped me dead in my tracks and had me reconsidering my first meal aboard the passenger boat. The jarring buzz of bodily functions bounced around a steady stream of sing-song Chinese conversation. I stood in the doorway scanning the dining room, the only thing vaguely familiar were the plates of brown gelatinous Chinese food I had come to fear. Hyperaware of my status as the only foreigner aboard, and overwhelmed by uncertainty, I retreated to my cabin.

Taking inventory of the edible contents in my backpack, I knew I would not be able to avoid the dining room for the full five day trip up the Yangtze River. Before boarding the boat that would float me past scenic views of the Three Gorges, I made a last minute dash for provisions. Running through the narrow side streets of Wuhan, I hunted and gathered snacks from street vendors and sidewalk chefs. The hastily amassed bounty resulted in three packets of chili-laced peanuts, a paper bag of salty roasted chestnuts, two moon-shaped slices of cantaloupe threaded onto skewers and three roasted sweet potatoes, crispy charred skins bubbling with caramelized sugars.

This would not do. Propelled by hunger, I reluctantly shuffled back to the dining room. I searched the crowded room for an empty chair and a friendly face. From the far back corner, a man with an eager smile waved me over to his table, followed by a nod to the waiter, signaling to bring another bowl of what he was eating.

Seven businessmen in their forties sat around a wooden table with bowls of soup and shot glasses in front of them. From one large bottle my host, a physicist named Wen, poured baijiu, a triple distilled rice wine that will burn the taste buds off of any sailor’s tongue. Goofy grins stretched across their high rosy cheekbones- an indication that they had been at it since leaving port.

Between guzzling firewater and hawking goopy loogies onto the floor they were chatting and slurping soup. I couldn’t stop thinking how noisy everything was. Gastronomic pleasure was expressed through a rhythmic code of gross sounds. I studied my dinner companions’ method closely to learn the music: 1) Raise the bowl to your mouth. 2) Form lips into a sort of sucking machine. 3) Coax the hot broth and minced tofu from bowl to belly while making a loud noise that resembles a malfunctioning vacuum. Oh, I could definitely get into this.

All manners as I knew them went out the window and I dove face-first into my soup. I am not sure which I enjoyed more, the sour-spicy broth and soothing texture of the tofu, or this new way of experiencing my food. Mimicking a woman at the table next to us, I announced my happiness with one long, low, deep burp. Nobody gawked or raised a shocked eyebrow; I was part of the band.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.


  1. i love this - what fun!! and was it delicious?? great article - good luck!

  2. Love it! What a fantastic food tale! Thanks for entering our competition. (Apologies for my late arrival here, but we've had the worst internet access ever in Puglia.) Best of luck!

  3. Thanks for the comments! The meal was far from delicious. Edible, which says a lot, considering some of the plates of food i came up against in China. It was a fascinating meal, though. Wen had been in the Red Guard, and after several shots, he was very chatty about Mao, communism, China, the Red Guard, etc. He was the only other English speaker on the boat, so I think he felt safe divulging Chinese secrets ;)