December 27, 2008

Floating Things in Steaming Flavored Water

One of the tricky things about eating in a foreign place is the menu translation. You might be perfectly accustomed to a meal described one way in one language, and when it gets translated, it gets a bit garbled.

This was certainly the case for me in Paris, where I was loath to get an English menu instead of a French one -- not because of snobbishness, but for better understanding. With an English menu, it was hard to tell what I was supposed to eat because the translations were often nonsensical.

Saturday night we went for Sichuan hot pot, and it was the same thing. But this time, at the mercy of an English menu, and I suspect that no matter how long I lived in Hong Kong, I always would be. Hot pot is sort of like Chinese fondue. You get a big pot of broth on your table, and as it cooks (usually over a fire or burner) you add stuff. There is a large menu of things you can add.

We'd seen hot pot restaurants around. In fact, there was a very popular one across from our Tin Hau apartment. It was a hole-in-the-wall, with maybe three tables inside and about 20 tables outside -- all of which seated at least four people and more like eight. They encroached so far into the alleyway, that the apartment building put in a row of potted plants to keep them from crowding the front door. It doesn't look like fancy food -- you see bubbling pots of who-knows-what and lots of big beers and people having a good time. It looks like a lot of fun. And, I think if we had a bigger group it would be even better.

But we had just the two of us. We were tempted by some of the exotic-sounding items, but went, instead, with sliced American beef, mushroom dumplings, pork dumplings, baby bok choy and soba noodles. We opted for a fragrant clear mushroom broth (probably chicken-based) instead of some of the spicier choices. You also can choose Yin-Yang, which is half spicy and half not.

Some of the things we passed on, transcribed verbatim:
Dumpling materialed with fish skin
The front portion of plungh
Pork dumpling with stuff
Pilling ink fish
Sliced green carp breast
Flavored meat pill with mushroom

Usually, when you have a funny translation, you can guess. I think with Chinese items (as well as some French -- rognon anyone?) it's kind of brave. What is plungh, do you think? Ink fish may very well be squid or cuttlefish, but then it would be translated as cuttlefish. And who knew carp had breasts? This is rather like the fish lips we keep seeing on the menu (not to mention the pig chin).

That wasn't the only thing we didn't quite grasp. Each of us had a bowl of spices in front of us: coriander, peanuts, chili, chopped garlic. I figured you were supposed to put it into the soup. We had three kinds of mushrooms in ours already but sampling it indicated it was a bit mild.

One of the waiters rushed over when he saw me dump the bowl into the soup. He seemed almost horrified. Clearly I had done something wrong. It turns out you're supposed to spoon the soup into the flavors and not the other way around, which he demonstrated for us. And then you use the flavored soup in front of you for dipping.

We wish he would have offered more advice, in fact. Like, put the bok choy in earlier and order only one portion of dumplings instead of two -- at least for just two people. Portion sizes in Hong Kong are usually very small, so we had no idea how much to order. Four things, or five things including two vegetables, would have been sufficient.

In any case, our meal was delicious and I think we cooked everything long enough to avoid E. coli or salmonella. The one thing that baffled us to the end? When we were seated there were two bowls of snacks. This is not uncommon; often it's boiled peanuts or somesuch thing. These were peanuts sauteed in spices and someting pickled. It had the consistency of chopped, dried apples and was both sweet and savory.

We asked one woman what it was. She said something to us in Chinese, we nodded politely, and she brought back a take-away container! We asked another woman what it was, she circled it on the bill -- (you get charged for everything here, even if you didn't order it -- sort of like the bread and tablecloth charges in Italy) -- went to ask someone, presumably, and then passed it off to someone else. When the man came back with the bill, we asked him again what it was, and he just repeated whatever was printed -- in Chinese -- on the bill.

We left satisfied with the meal, but none the wiser.

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