But the highlight of dining out here remains the simple, unassuming menu. You know, the English ones. The ones with little pictures accompanying awesome captions that advertise such delicacies as “Exploding Squid Red Pepper.”
As long as the dish is freshly cooked, most of these items are worth a go, if for no other reason, than to simply say you’ve tried it. I mean, when will you ever have the chance back home to dine on “Fresh Crap with Stupid Bean Curd”? (It’s crab, incidentally. And I don’t know why the bean curd is stupid.)
But there is one item that sends a shudder down my spine at the mere memory. A foray into the adventures of Tianjin dining whose existence extends beyond the confines of space and time to haunt one in their dreams. It is an insidious concoction, simple in design yet devastating in effect. It is the infamous Belly Fish.
Specifically, a menu item at a restaurant where Sam and I dined one fateful eve. The picture in the menu looked like it was fried fish fillets. What else could it possibly be, anyway? Sam snapped a photo with my camera to translate later (we hadn’t acquired our smart phones yet) and then ordered it.
Our Belly Fish arrived in the form of eight finger-sized portions of fried matter jiggling on a plate. Something about it didn’t seem quite right.
“I don’t think that’s fried fish fillets,” Sam said.
I poked a piece with my fork. It wobbled a little in the middle. “I think it must be jellyfish,” I said. “You know, belly fish … jellyfish?”
And then, triumphant in having deciphered the mystery, I plucked it up and popped it into my mouth. The texture was unusual. Soft and squishy — almost like the batter was the only thing holding it all together – but I kept chewing anyway, daring Sam with my raised eyebrows to give it a go.
Not to be outdone, he harpooned the next piece. It kind of oozed over the plate a little, but then it was in the air and down the hatch. His expression informed me that he, too, found the experience to be … off-putting.
But we were determined not to shrink from culinary challenges during our first month in China. So we ate the whole plate. Well, almost. I think after downing all but two “fillets” we both admitted that we didn’t think we could stomach any more.
We paid our ticket and left the restaurant, both of us feeling increasingly queasy. When we made it back to our room, we translated the Chinese characters from our Belly Fish photo and discovered a surprising truth:
Possibly for the first time in the history of translated Chinese menus, our order was exactly what it purported to be. To wit, fish belly. Or fish guts. Or fish intestines, whichever you prefer. Belly Fish. I don’t know if it was simply psychosomatic or really a case of Ciguatera, but we both did feel pretty sick that night. And I just couldn’t get that soft, gloppy texture out of my head, or the lingering taste that no amount of tooth paste could conquer …
So, anyway, here’s the moral of the story: Don’t get cocky about those translated menu items when eating out in China. They just might come back to haunt you!