02
Feb
08

The “King of Snake” Hot Pot

I know that many of you have wondered if I have encountered anything, shall we say, exotic at all the Chinese restaurants I’ve been eating at. Until Wednesday this last week, the answer would be, not really. I mean, I’ve had a lot of great food that can’t be easily had in the US, such as Hot Pot, Uyghyr cuisine, Chinese porridge, and other local fare. But most of the ingredients of these dishes are not unusual by western standards, apart maybe from the fact that lamb isn’t widely eaten, and it’s very popular here. Anyway, that all changed on Wednesday night.

Allison’s friend from her Fulbright program arrived back in town that day, and the three of us went out to a restaurant in that Qing Dynasty prince’s house that I mentioned, the one next door to my apartment building and visible from my window. This particular restaurant had something I had never seen before on any menu – Gou Rou (pronounced kind of like “Go row!”). What is Gou Rou, you ask? Literally, “dog meat.” As best as I can tell, it’s not widely consumed here – it’s more of a delicacy. There’s a reason why only one of the dozens of restaurants I’ve visited in my two weeks here had it at all, and it’s that most people do not eat it. But those who do, mostly from the countryside, seem to believe consuming Gou Rou during winter keeps you warm, and consuming Mau Rou (the “au” like “ow, that hurt!”), or “cat meat,” during summer will keep you cool. I didn’t see anyone eating it, and for our part, we only ordered fish and dumplings.

The next night, Thursday night, Allison and I returned to the same palace complex to try one of the other restaurants there, this one a hot pot restaurant. For those who don’t know, “hot pot” is more or less explained here, and I can tell you it’s great stuff – very spicy, just what you’d want in the winter time. This place, however, offers a bit of twist to hot pot, by offering… snake. I kid not. They had all kinds of snakes (dead) in the front, looking like they were preserved in formaldehyde, though I’m sure it was something more like a marinating preservative. A poster in the restaurant touted the benefits of eating snake meat, snake skin, and drinking snake blood, and we did see people there drinking little shot glasses of what looked like blood. Allison and I got a pretty conventional lamb and noodle hotpot, but we think we’d be willing to try snake meat. I mean, I’ve had frog legs and alligator, so what would be wrong with that? I draw the line with the skin and blood though. You just have to have boundaries sometimes.

The other oddity about the place was the prominent TV set up in the front, so that most customers (and waitstaff?) could watch. The show? Not a sports game, but Chinese “The Price Is Right.” I don’t know what the new Drew Carey version is like, but this was pretty much just like the old Bob Barker version, and the spinning wheel looked like it could have been the very same one used in Burbank, California. So imagine, if you can, a traditional Chinese architecture building, with dragons outside wrapped in red Christmas ribbon. You walk in, and you see a dozen or two jars of snakes. You’re seated at a table where, with the boiling pot placed in front of you, you boil your own lamb, noodles, potatoes, and other stuff in spiced oils with garlic and other whole cut spices. You glance up and see the Chinese Price is Right on an old TV, with reception that’s not so hot. You see people at one table drinking what appears to be snake blood from a shot glass. The people at the table next to you smoke, and throw their cigarette butts on the floor. A guy at that table, dressed as a metrosexual, also spits on the floor. Repeatedly. Because people do that here.

The only real advantage about this place, apart from the snake meat, is that it’s open 24 hours. Otherwise, the quality of the hotpot was lacking compared to the place Allison and I have been frequenting closer to her dorm at People’s University. I’ve taken up a habit of giving restaurants their own names where no English or easily pronounced Mandarin name exists, and I’ve dubbed this restaurant the “King of Snake” Hotpot in honor of the Underworld song of the same name.

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