A Pedacito of My First Meal In China
My brother took me to one of my first meals in China. His wife is Chinese, and he had already been living in Harbin for a year before I arrived, so he definitely knew the terrain. Ironically, my first meal in China was Sushi.
China has an interesting approach to some of its restaurants. Of course, there are the traditional noodle and hot pot restaurants everywhere on the streets, but there are also secret restaurants. Unlike in America where such places would immediately be shut down, Chinese citizens sometimes create entire restaurants in an apartment. To find these restaurants you need to know someone who has been there before. There is no advertising for these places.
Poking my head through the curtain I found an extremely clean and upscale restaurant inside of a converted one-bedroom apartment. The first thing I noticed was that there was no detectable scent in the air, which is something I hadn’t experienced yet in this city. A slender Taiwanese woman took us to the table closest to the kitchen and asked in perfect English what we would like to drink and if we were expecting any other guests. Everything in the room had been deliberately and carefully designed to create a genuine and sophisticated environment.
My brother ordered us a bottle of sake while we waited for his wife to arrive. The kitchen was open, only a single wall-sized pane of glass separated the exceptionally quick chef from diners. Most restaurants here keep the kitchen hidden away from any possible concerned diners or inspectors. What the owner/chef is doing is technically illegal and definitely dangerous. He has commercial deep fryers in a residential building with no fire suppression but he won't get shut down any time soon. I realized that I have no ability to form expectations moving forward.
When my brother’s wife showed up we ordered nine or ten plates. Ramen, sushi, fish chins, eel, tempura shrimp, salad, a strange slaw type dish made of shredded apple and artificial crab meat that was somehow delicious, and several more. The use of artificial crab was intentional and each dish was made with extremely high-quality ingredients.
Our chef made great use of cucumber. The cucumber here is significantly more flavorful than what I am used to and he packed a good amount of it into a salmon skin sushi roll that was nothing less than perfect
Being served such stunning food inside of an apartment was very interesting and completely unexpected. In the US I would expect to pay over $400 for the meal, in Harbin we got it for $70.
Though this first meal wasn’t traditionally Chinese, it still gave me a hint of what Chinese eating is like. Chinese meals are all about sharing. You never order a single dish for yourself. Instead, the table orders many dishes, and everyone shares. It was always so much fun to eat with friends there because I got to taste every possible type of food.
Sometimes this could be a little difficult. I often ate dishes that I had no idea what they were. Occasionally, I found myself eating bugs. It was all part of the experience, I guess.
After that first meal, I often found myself eating in these apartment restaurants. Some were cleaner than others. Some were tastier than others. But the intimate settings always made it feel like I was eating traditional home cooking. In a way, I suppose that I was.
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