I recently traveled to Nanjing, one of those laser-paced, ultra-developed, hyper-modernized, second-tier Chinese cosmopolises nobody ever goes to. Its population is roughly equivalent to that of New York City, but nothing there is set up for North Americans or Europeans. It gets so few Western visitors that people kept coming up and asking if they could take a picture with me—just because I'm white.
One of the experiences we seek from travel in an increasingly globalized world is to end up elsewhere, in a land where nothing makes any sense to us; where we become, in fact, foreigners. To feel out of place while traveling is to "feel the sharp savor of the real," as Janet Malcolm once wrote.
Savoring all that reality tends to make people hungry. Fortunately, a reliable way to get over culture shock is to connect with another society through its cuisine. When you see what people eat, you learn how they live. Sharing local food in a faraway country can give you an incipient sense of belonging.
With that in mind, I spent some time before my trip researching Nanjing street food. There was scant information online in English, but I found some interesting-looking places, including two salted duck stalls and a cafeteria for "rice devotees" that specializes in glutinous rice balls. What I didn't realize was how hard it would be to track those restaurants down.
When I first arrived in the city, I hailed a taxi and handed the driver a printout of the hotel's address in Mandarin Chinese. He didn't seem to understand where the hotel was, or even what the paper referred to, nor did he comprehend anything I said. Nor could I answer any of his questions, so I kept on shrugging and pointing at the paper with a variety of facial expressions. He looked something up on his smart phone and showed me a map. Everything was spelled out in Chinese characters. I gestured, again, toward the address I'd given him. He shook his head, but at a certain point, he finally decided to start driving.
The music in the cab was a maudlin, extended-length, synthesizer-saxophone version of "I Want to Know What Love Is." Listening to it and pondering the complexity of what should have been a straightforward interaction, I worried that being in Nanjing would mean feeling as lost as Foreigner was when the band members wrote that god-awful song. Hopefully the fixer my publisher had set me up with would simplify things for the rest of the trip.
The guide turned out to be an angry, wiry, 50-something man who began our time together by extolling the virtues of state censorship. "Too much freedom not good for people," he said. "Agree?" He spoke a loud, heavily broken English and led me through Nanjing while making garbled, lost-in-translation pronouncements I soon gave up attempting to decode. At one point, in the midst of a lengthy monologue recounting the history of the city, he uttered a sentence about "exploding toilets in the sky."
I had no context for the line, nor, given the countless indecipherable things he'd already said, did I bother trying to establish what he meant by it—but the sky above Nanjing did, in fact, look as though some toilets had exploded up there, due to the grey-brown smog found over all China's urban centers today. Not once for the duration of my trip did I see a clear sky.
The smog's aural counterpoint is a citywide cacophony of rock-crushers, bulldozers, jackhammers, dump trucks, and front-end loaders. All that loudness is the soundtrack to the incessant building going on here as Nanjing, like the rest of this economic behemoth of a country, hurtles toward the future. At times, the whole city feels like a construction site. "We're manufacturing for the world, so we have a dirty city," as my guide put it.
He brought us to eat at a faux-old corporate chain restaurant—like a Chinese version of Cracker Barrel. When one of the dishes we'd ordered didn't come out fast enough, he stood up and started yelling at our waitress. "Hey, man, there's no need to berate her," I interjected. The guide looked completely puzzled. "This is the custom here," he explained, as our driver sat there nonchalantly watching a game show on his cellphone.
The next morning, I had a new guide: a pleasant woman in her mid-40s. (The angry wiry guy called in sick because he was hungover.) To start the day, I suggested we go check out the glutinous rice spot I'd read about. It turned out to be a dingy lunch counter, precisely the sort of joint I love. "Are you sure you really want to eat here?" my new guide asked. "Only Chinese people like this sort of food. We eat this very often in Nanjing—but you probably won't like it."
I'm curious about real things, I informed her, not touristy things. "Oh," she said, looking at me like she didn't believe me. "This food is not good for your stomach maybe."
At the end of our desultory time together, determined to eat more local food—and confident that I could now make my way around unassisted—I headed over to a nearby street food district called Shiziqiao, asking the hotel's concierge to explain my destination to the taxi driver.
When I arrived, none of the restaurants were located where the internet said they'd be. The address I'd written down for the 160-year-old Ma Xiang Xing Halal Restaurant (inventors of a classic Jiangsu dish called "sweet and sour Mandarin squirrel fish") brought me not to a restaurant, but to a hotel with no restaurant inside. I approached the reception desk to ask for directions to Ma Xiang Xing.
"Twenty minutes that way," the guy behind the counter said, pointing to the left.
"Twenty minutes! That's pretty far. Are you sure?"
"Twenty minutes isn't far," he replied, nodding and shaking his head at the same time.
"So … is it close, then?"
"No. It is open 24 hours," he said.
"I see, but is it near to here?" I bent my knees and pointed both hands at the ground in an attempt to convey the meaning.
"Maybe only ten minutes," he said, pointing again in the direction I would have to walk. "No, probably 20 minutes."
Leaving the hotel, I walked about half a minute and then came upon the restaurant. Perhaps he meant 20 meters?
Unfortunately, the restaurant wasn't open 24 hours a day—in fact, it closed at 9 PM. And it was presently 8:45 PM. I could see that it was full, but the hostess at the door simply shook her head at me.
None of the other places I'd written down were where they were supposed to be. They'd either moved, gone out of business, or renamed themselves. (China changes so fast that much online info in English is constantly outdated). Noticing long lines in front of two hawker stalls, I approached the vendors to see what they were preparing. I couldn't identify the food at all. One of them seemed to be filling dough patties with mystery meat; the other was grilling what looked like duck necks.
I decided to ask some people in the duck-neck line what, exactly, they were ordering. I tried six different times. None of them spoke any English. They started looking at me like I was a homeless person.
Unwilling to fail at something so elemental, I decided to ask one last person, at the end of the line. He paused for a moment, then hollered something in Chinese at the top of his lungs. The whole street turned around to look at me. Had I offended him? Was he schizophrenic? I felt profoundly mortified. Everyone was staring at me. One of the key tenets of Confucianism concerns the importance of observing propriety—I clearly wasn't doing a very good job at that.
Moments later, a 20-something Chinese woman came running over. "Can I help you?" she gushed. "I am an English major. My name is Nancy!"
She stood on her tiptoes and clasped her hands together beneath her chin while looking eagerly at both me and the man who'd shouted into the night. She was almost comically bubbly. It dawned on me that the man had yelled out to see if someone spoke English, the way you'd cry out for a doctor in the event of a public injury. I explained the situation to Nancy, and asked her what people were lining up for.
"Oh, the food we are ordering here? It's fetal pig," she responded, bouncily.
Fetal pig? I contemplated it. Nope—never heard of that before. Do they open up pregnant sows and pluck little unborn piglets from the womb? Yikes. Grilled embryo felt a tad risqué even for an open-minded eater like me. But wait—it couldn't be. I looked at her; then I looked toward the sign on the wall, which showed those duck neck-like fetuses sizzling away. "Fetal pig?" I checked, just to make sure.
"Yes, very delicious."
I must have seemed dubious.
"Have you never eaten pig fetus?" she asked me, perplexed.
"No," I said, trying to conceal my weirded-outedness. "I've never even heard of pig fetus as food before, actually."
"Wow, it's so good. Would you like to try? I can ask my boyfriend to get you one, he is at the front of the line."
She seemed so genuinely enthusiastic about it, and everything felt so out-there, that I just ended up nodding. I'm not at all interested in eating odd animal bits like scorpion pincer or tiger penis, but I am the sort of omnivore who is willing to try any non-endangered food that another culture happens to love—even if that means pig fetus, apparently. When Nancy came bounding back, a few minutes later, she brought her boyfriend with her, as well as little brown baggies of fetal pig for each of us.
Nervously opening my bag, I was relieved to realize they contained pig's feet—not pig's fetus. She had been pronouncing the plural form of the word "feet" as "fetus," and the word "feet of" as "fetal," hence the confusion.
The BBQ pork trotters were pretty tasty. They had very little meat, but their gelatinous fattiness was gloriously counterpointed by the grill-blistered, smoke-infused, cumin-dusted skin. As we ate, I asked her what people were ordering in the second line. "Something like Chinese pizzas," she said, "filled with meat."
"What sort of meat?" I asked.
She typed a few words into her translator on her phone, and then showed me the screen. It read "ASS MEAT."
Oh god, I thought.
"Ass meat so good," she said, smiling broadly.
I supposed that, having tried pig feet-us, , I ought to at least give donkey meat pizzas a shot. Nancy and her boyfriend didn't want any, so I resolved to return later and attempt ordering one on my own. In the meantime, we continued talking and strolled down the street. At one point, we passed a restaurant with giant placards depicting crayfish in the front window. The sign above the door read COUNTRY DISHS HOMELY DISHS FOLK CREATION ISHS [sic].
"Is it good here?" I asked.
"Good?" She looked perturbed. I hung on her every syllable, unsure what to do. "Well … if you want to taste totally real flavor of Nanjing," she said, tentatively, "then I recommend you eat here." She smiled and indicated that I should go in. "You will be able to order easily," her boyfriend assured me. "You will look at the menu and point at what you like." I thanked them for their help, then said goodbye and entered the restaurant.
To place my order, I pointed at the section on the menu that showed a bowl of crayfish and the number 24 beside it. Two dozen crayfish —seemed about right. The waitress, predictably, didn't understand what I wanted at all. I pointed forcefully at the photograph of crayfish on the menu. She looked forlorn. The manager came over. I pointed at the photo again. No luck there either. How could they not understand? After a few minutes, a customer from another table who spoke a little English came over to help.
"I'd like to order this," I said, pointing at the image. The man said a quick line in Mandarin; the manager responded with something along the lines of, "OHHHHHH, I get it." The whole episode was about as confusing as taking a cab had been on my first night.
The crayfish were delicious: spicy, fresh, slightly sweet. I washed them down with a bottle of Jinling beer, with its majestically Chinglish slogan, "Nanjing for half a century, moments. Still freshly sincerely from Nanjing."
Before heading back to the hotel, I had to try that ass meat pizza. The guy behind the counter didn't speak English, obviously, so I tried to simply point at one of the calzone-type discs. He directed my attention toward a menu written in Chinese characters. I wasn't even going to attempt an explanation of my inability to read hanzi logograms—let alone start braying like a donkey to convey the type of meat. "You choose," I suggested. The woman behind me in line gave a shrill laugh. "Yu-chus," she parroted. I wondered what "yu-chus" meant in Mandarin. Probably something embarrassing.
The food-stall employee didn't understand what I was asking for. "You"—I pointed both hands at him—"decide," I said, moving my hands toward the oven. He looked behind himself. "No, you!" I tried again. A melodramatic combination of me gesticulating and putting the onus on him via a sequence of unreplicable body language maneuvers led to him reaching into the bottom of the oven and pulling out one of the buns. He looked at me questioningly. "Yes!" I nodded, over-enthusiastically.
He then made the gesture of a cross that you'd make at a vampire—that's evidently how you use your hands to say "ten" in Nanjing. When I made my "two-open-hands-palms-facing-out" gesture to clarify that the amount was in fact ten yuan, he recoiled as though I had insulted him. Perhaps the North American version of ten is equivalent to making a vampire-cross in China? Either way, I handed over the money and a few moments later walked away with my very own Eeyore pizza pocket. It tasted not so much like ass meat as spicy Uyghur beef with scallions, diced celery, and chili peppers.
Even more satisfying was savoring the fact that I'd figured out, however shakily, some secrets to ordering street food in mainland China: Be prepared for adventure. Stay humble. Forget the way you eat back home. Embrace the unfamiliar. Feel that sharp savor of the real. You will likely end up looking foolish at some point, but be ready to succeed. Anything can happen here in the richest country in the world.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in February 2015.