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
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.