12 August 2011

fire food

We had been warned. A man had seen fit to actually come out of his restaurant and tell us that the food there was hot. Except that we were speaking Chinese so the word he used was 辣. He said it over and over – even after it was clear that we understood Chinese.

After convincing him we were ready for the spice, our other problem was that we had no clue what they were serving. So we played charades on the sidewalk until we had guessed the two main options. “Rabbit” was easy. After he said the word for rabbit, which we knew, I used my index and middle fingers to make rabbit ears and he nodded happily. Guessing “frog” was more of a challenge, mainly because we didn't know the word. Also because in trying to pantomime what he meant, the man kept moving his arms in a way that was more reminiscent of flapping chicken wings than hopping frog legs.

In the end we ordered the rabbit and as Shi-Wen would later say, “If this food isn‘t hot, then nothing is.” It made us sweat. A lot. In fact, before last night I didn't know it was possible to actually feel your ankles perspire.

The big metal bowl they plunked into the sunken center of our table was filled with molten hot oil, ginger, cilantro, garlic gloves and big green chilis – all swirling around pieces of hacked-up rabbit and red pepper and cucumbers. We would dredge around with our chopsticks looking for rabbit – then drag it out and slop it through the sauce bowls before using our teeth to separate the meat from the small and only vaguely recognizable bones.

Our sauces were mercifully mild, but that wasn't our doing. In fact when the staff had asked how hot they should make our sauces, we said, in Chinese, “a little” hot. The girl who was helping us, and who’d landed that role because she was most adept at understanding our Chinese, then turned to the girl who was preparing our sauces (the one who every time we spoke to her looked at us with a blank smile) and distinctly told her to make our sauces with no heat at all. And hallelujah for her because she was absolutely right.

As was the man who had come out on the sidewalk to warn us. He was 100% right about how our lips were on fire and how they nursed wispy licks of chili flame each time we ate a bite. But what he had neglected to mention was how awesome the food was. And how well it goes with peanut milk. And how it’s the reason crowds wait outside in the August heat, crouched on small plastic chairs, breaking sunflower seeds open with their teeth as they kill the time it takes to get a table.

It’s also true that small Chinese children pointed at me and my sweating ankles. And maybe that made me sweat a little more. But I would do it again.

And when I do I’m getting the frog.

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