My Twice-Cooked Pork Epiphany

Travel Stories: Living in Shanghai, Julia Ross wasn't too hot on Chinese food. Then she moved to Taiwan and stepped into Shao Shao Ke.

04.23.09 | 10:20 AM ET

Photo by avlxyz via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

When I landed in Shanghai in 2002, it was as if I’d been branded with a scarlet letter: I was a Sinophile who didn’t care much for Chinese food. Give me shawarma or tamales or pad thai any day, but General Tso’s chicken? It was never at the top of my list.

Aware of China’s singular obsession with eating, I girded for battle as soon as I disembarked. I knew I’d have to demur when plates of chicken feet came my way, but didn’t anticipate the subject of food, seemingly inexhaustible among Chinese acquaintances, would haunt my days.

I taught for six months on Shanghai’s dusty edge, and while the city’s louche charms worked their magic on me, much of what I was served in local kitchens left me cold. A three-hour banquet early in the semester was typical: Plate after plate of eel, jellyfish, pig’s intestine, pig’s hooves, pig’s snout (any pig part, really), lotus root, and sea cucumber—all bathed in a thick, sweet oil—presented an obstacle course from which I couldn’t escape.

My chopsticks hovered tenuously over unidentifiable creatures pulled from the Huangpu River, then settled on the few items I could meet halfway: Mandarin fish in a tangy tomato sauce; cold, salty sliced chicken; and prawns in the shell. “Ai-ya!” my Chinese colleagues giggled. “Foreigners eat funny things.”

Within weeks I had adopted a blinkers-on approach to communal meals. I filled my plate early with the few dishes I had road-tested, heaped on the rice and vegetables, and gazed firmly downward as the ravening began, bones, beaks and shells flying in every direction.

Chinese friends so wanted me to try it all, but eventually conceded that Western tastes were so ingrained in me as to be immutable. True to stereotype, I found myself consuming ever larger quantities of Greek yogurt, lentil soup and salami—expat comfort foods procured at the far end of Nanjing Road, an hour’s bus ride away, but oh so worth it. I could always fill up on a batch of soup dumplings, but also craved a taste of home and finally stopped apologizing for it.

The two-foot-long snake at the end-of-term banquet was the final blow; I would happily leave Shanghai food to the Shanghainese. Six months, and the city failed to convince me I could embrace one of the world’s most celebrated cuisines. It took another move—to Taiwan, four years later—to realize there was more to the story, that Shanghai was a culinary sleight-of-hand, a tiny crack in the door of China’s vast larder.

In the early weeks, Taipei didn’t bode well. A familiar trepidation crept over me as I wandered the night markets near my flat, eyeing bins of pig parts and slabs of stinky tofu, wondering, as I did in Shanghai, how I’d make it through the year. But as I ranged further, I began to see evidence of the island’s culinary legacy, hailing from 1949 when two million Chinese mainlanders fled the Communist takeover. Out of that terrible upheaval came a migration of dishes from China’s full breadth—sweet, salty, spicy sour, from Shandong to Jiangsu. 

There were new options here, and they actually looked appetizing: Sichuanese twice-cooked pork, Guangdong-style steamed fish, Fujianese stir-fried shrimp and peanuts. I adjusted my attitude and decided to start anew. Maybe I could find a provincial cuisine to call my own.

I took as my pilot through the city’s culinary depths one of its native sons, Clarence, a bespectacled writer who invited me to join his once-a-month Saturday lunch group. Wherever we met—often simple, family-run places with eight or ten tables—the meals were a revelation, each dish more delicious than the last. I made my way through “three cups” chicken, doused with rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce; oyster and pickled radish omelets; bowls of “cool” noodles slathered in peanut sauce; grilled squid and sweet sausage, their smoky tang a reminder of backyard barbeques at home.

As the plates passed from hand to hand, Clarence and I fell into lengthy discussions of history and culture. He told me sometimes-chilling stories about Chiang Kai-shek’s iron grip on Taiwan in the ‘70s and what it was like to grow up in an era when U.S. troops blanketed the island. His lasting affection for Americans was sealed one afternoon on his way home from grade school, when he and a few friends stopped at a candy store to play a pinball machine decommissioned from a U.S. military base.

“The lights, the bells, the whistles,” he recalled. “We all thought ... if that’s what America’s about, I want to go!”

It was Clarence who introduced me to my favorite Taipei restaurant, Shao Shao Ke, a graffiti-covered grotto that specializes in savory dishes from China’s western Shaanxi province: lamb skewers dusted with cumin, vinegary grated potatoes, scallion-stuffed chicken breast, and fried yak cheese dipped in powdered sugar. Delicious, and a perfect east-meets-west compromise for someone who had come to the Chinese table grudgingly.

A week before I left Taipei, Clarence and his friends laughed at my wobbly Chinese characters as I inscribed my Chinese name—Luo Li Zhu—on Shao Shao Ke’s walls. Relief and gratitude washed over me; what was once a barrier had become a salve. All those Saturdays were about more than slurping noodles, of course. We had stripped Chinese food to its most essential purpose, and our friendship endures.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

6 Comments for My Twice-Cooked Pork Epiphany

Jennifer 04.23.09 | 12:07 PM ET

Thank you for openly admitting and pointing out to others that some foods just aren’t good even if consumed in their region of origin and even by locals!  I don’t care where you’re from, chicken feet CANNOT be good!  People may consume something simply because they grew up eating it and are used to the idea/taste, however, I can’t imagine that there are many people in this world, regardless of where they are from, that really, truely enjoy chicken feet and some of the other things that you mentioned!  Especially if there are other options!  Maybe those dishes were devised out of need alone, which is understandable, but let’s not pretend that there are many people who would choose a stew made with chicken feet over a stew made with plain, old chicken meat!  Being open minded about new foods is great, but only to a certain point!  Of course that’s only a matter of opinion!

Sophia Dembling 04.23.09 | 12:08 PM ET

I love it in general and this in particular: “...and gazed firmly downward as the ravening began, bones, beaks and shells flying in every direction.” Wonderfully written.

Julia Ross 04.23.09 | 12:48 PM ET

Jennifer- actually, the Chinese teachers I worked with absolutely *loved* chicken’s feet. The concept of “mouth feel” is important in Chinese cuisine, and the Chinese in general like rubbery textures much more than Westerners.

Sophia- thanks- if you’re ever invited to eat in a Chinese home, I think you’ll find that desciption pretty accurate!

Sophia Dembling 04.23.09 | 12:55 PM ET

((the Chinese in general like rubbery textures much more than Westerners.))

Hence the fondness for gluten?

I ate a lot of jellyfish during my brief trip to Taiwan. It wasn’t bad, actually.

Liz K. 04.23.09 | 1:08 PM ET

I can understand if the Szechuan food was a little too much for you - not everyone likes the greasy taste. (I luv Szechuan food for its spiciness, and when it’s made at home, often the grease can be tempered. Well, a little).

But what has me slobbering before lunchtime is your recounting of all the dishes you experienced in Taipei. Now if I could just find a Taiwanese restaurant near my work—at home in San Francisco there are sit-down and counter-service restaurants specializing in Taiwanese food. Oh and there’s also Islamic Chinese food @ Old Mandarin Islamic (that lamb with cumin triggered some salivation). I guess I’m going to have to hit those places up this weekend. :-)

Terry Ward 04.23.09 | 1:45 PM ET

Speaking of rubbery textures, my boldest Beijing culinary moment came recently, when I managed, with great difficulty, to ingest several duck webs (yes, foot webbing), which I drowned in as much spicy mustard sauce as possible. Jellyfish, on the other hand, was very tasty and reminded me of seaweed salad, texture-wise. I was amazed by the diversity of Chinese food! Nice story, Julia.

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