Subject: Cert - Day 1 dinner

Going to dinner – June 30, I am already loosing track of the days of the week now that classes have begun. Also the fact that Hangzhou is 14 hours ahead of Denver time means it is tomorrow in China when you get my emails.

This was the end of the first day of the Certification Seminar. We went to a restaurant specializing in seafood.

As you walk in the door they have on display all of the fresh seafood, had this been an ‘up-scale’ restaurant all of the seafood would have been in tanks – still alive and you would have pointed to the food you wanted to eat and they would catch it for you.  At the restaurant we went to it was fresh, within 120 minutes of the ocean or river. With ‘fresh’ fish arriving hourly.

Fresh ingredients are a hallmark of Chinese food – at every level, in every restaurant. I don’t know about street vendors (I have also been advised to be cautious about streat food vendors in China).

Food cost is subsidized in China.  I can remember visiting Moscow in 1990, when it was still the USSR, and eating a 5 course meal for $2 per person.  Although I would say the quality of food in the USSR then, was not good (actually, it was horrible), the quality of the food in China has been excellent.

If you look at the photo of the menu, the price of each dish is along the bottom (for example, 18 or 20 yuan). The yuan is worth 0.147 US dollars, so a 20-yuan dish, which will easily feed 2 or 3 people, costs $2.94. A large steamed crab (6 to 7” across) for $2.94! So a seven-dish meal, which is common, is $20.58. Tipping is optional and rare (meaning - not recommended).

I had originally though they were ordering all those dishes because I was there, then, as I began looking around the restaurants in which we were dining, I saw that every table had 5 to 7, or more dishes.  Even the tables with 1 or 2 people!

Also, nobody takes the leftovers home.  No doggy bags because many people do not have any place to store or cook the food.

Green tea is often served, upon request. It is a specialty of Zhejiang Province (Hangzhou is the Capital). There are at least 20 different kinds available in the City. The very best, grown only in a small district of the City costs more than gold – per ounce.  Of course an ounce of tea would be enough to last several months, still, $2000 an ounce is rather expensive tea.

Beer is the next most common beverage in the ‘everyday’ restaurant.  Chinese beer is different: it is very light, does not produce much of a head, and is 1 to 2% alcohol.  That’s right – 1 to 2%; it is lighter in alcohol than the lightest American beer.  People order an entire case (12 bottles), per person for dinner!  It often comes in a 576 ml bottle.  I have no idea why such an unusual bottle size – my guess is that this matches an older Chinese measurement when converted to the metric system. I will have to ask. A case of beer may be as cheap as $2.00US (roughly, 14 yuan).

Restaurants are not very large, the largest I have been in, so far, would seat 50 people, maybe 60; many only seat 20 to 30. However as we travel around the city I can see 5, 6, or more, restaurants on every block, in every direction. There are, literally, tens of thousands of restaurants in the city.

Most people do not cook, many are working in Hangzhou and are ‘visiting workers’ who must ether become a resident of the city or go back home after a specific time frame.  So, many, but not all, often go out to eat for every meal, every day.

Service is very fast and very efficient, the food often beating the customer to their table. Dinner is served from 4 to 10 or 11 at night, every night (although it is a ‘late dinner’ after 8 or 9 pm in most restaurants).  A small restaurant will often serve 200+ people a day, every day.

They would not let me take photographs in the restaurant – so I will describe the meal and refer back to the photos of the main ingredients.

Our meal consisted of the following dishes: (1) three styles of steamed oysters – one with garlic sauce, one with pepper sauce and one with spicy sauce; (2) steamed white fish in a salt and fish stock sauce (the sauce was simulating sea water); (3) mussels in a steamed egg custard, (4) stir-fried ‘spitting’ fish, (5) stir-fried white fish (they looked like country fries), (6) stir-fried roe sack (with roe inside); (7) steamed octopus and (8) wheat noodles with seafood.

This was a very light meal, with many steamed dishes.  Nowhere near as heavy, rich or spicy as the two dinners preceding it.  A nice shift.

The spitting fish, that was stir-fried (dish #4, above), is shown in the menu items #1, it is in the top row of fish in the picture, the third from the left: the long, thin fish with the extended and pointed mouth.  They spit water at insects to make them fall in the water so they can eat them.

The white fish that was also stir-fried (dish #5, above) is immediately to the right of the ‘spitting’ fish.

The head  of the ‘spitting’ fish is entirely cartilage, so when the dish arrives at the table the insides of the head are not present (probably used in a sauce) but the cartilage is still attached.  The fish is cut in half, one half having the head, the other the tail.  The proper way to eat them is to pick up the head half, with you chopsticks, by the back of the piece. Turn the head to face you and bite it off – spit it out on a plate, or the table, and then proceed to eat the rest of the fish (optional – eat bones and all) while you hold it in your chopsticks.  To eat the back half you can eat everything as well, including the tail.  If you don’t want to eat the bones, you use a classic Chinese soupspoon to scrape the meat off the bones so you can pick it up the small bits of fish with your chopsticks. 

Learning Chinese dining etiquette is interesting – many dishes have a specific technique you are suppose to use to eat them.  Knowing all of the techniques is a sign of a ‘well-rounded’ and ‘intelligent’ diner.

The roe sack is shown in Menu items #2, it is located in the picture (if you start counting at the upper right-hand corner of the picture) 3 over and 3 down.  The yellow-orange objects in the pan directly below the empty pan.

The complete roe sacks were cut into pieces and stir-fried.  They tasted like a vegetable, like squash, breaded with corn meal and stir-fried.  I was quite surprised.

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