Double Chinese Happiness

Rarely has one meal made so many people happy.

Last week, our tour guide pointed out a red-lanterned street known as “Ghost Street” and said that it was a famous area for spicy dishes, hot pot, and Sichuan food. We were in a minibus at the time, but my husband and I decided that we’d go back and check it out. At 3:00 the next afternoon, we did.


We were fooled by the menu posted outside one restaurant that had pictures of food labeled in English. It seemed like a good choice so we went in.

The young woman serving us came over with a very detailed order sheet; the kind you typically see in a sushi place. But this one was entirely in Chinese characters. There wasn’t a word of English anywhere on it and we had no idea what to do with it.

She stood at our table as we opened the menu and she handed us the order sheet again. We shrugged (hoping that shrugs are universal) and started pointing at pictures in the menu instead. But this seemed to confuse her more. Another young man joined her as we all flustered our way through the menu. I kept turning pages and pointing to the word “carp.” Carp in chili oil sounded good to me. But it wasn’t making sense to them. Everytime I pointed to the picture and the name of the dish I wanted, they turned to another page of the menu and pointed at it. Then handed me the cryptic Chinese order sheet again.

I shrugged and they finally gave up.

The servers (by now there were three trying to figure out what we wanted) left the table. We received our drinks and then sat back and wondered what we were about to be served. As we pondered that, one of the servers walked by with a big net and a fish flipping and flopping as he headed toward the kitchen. My carp!

It flopped out onto the floor and he scooped it back up as a small crowd of Chinese servers surrounded him. This was quite a commotion. They looked toward our table. We smiled at them. At least the fish would be fresh, even if it had momentarily escaped and hit the floor. That began the spectacle that turned into our dinner experience.
Soon, a HUGE bowl of carp in chili oil was set on our table. I realized then that they were trying to ask me what ingredients to add to our hot pot. Luckily, they figured it out for me. It was delicious, but way too big. Especially considering the other food we’d ordered along with it.

Hot pot with a whole fish thrown in: scales, head, eyes, and all.

Hot pot with a whole fish thrown in: scales, head, eyes, and all.

As we ate, every employee of that restaurant came out to ogle us. I’m sure there had been much discussion about what we wanted and maybe what they’d give us. They definitely found us amusing, which was okay with me. It certainly made them happy.

Somehow, we managed to get a takeaway container for the rest of our food. We headed back on the subway, then walked toward our hotel where a homeless woman stopped us for a handout. She pointed at our food and begged for that. We happily gave it to her and she thanked us profusely. So not only did my mystery carp dish make the restaurant staff happy, it also helped the woman who was hungry. And that was double happiness for me.

Have you ever had the unique experience of having the restaurant staff watch you eat?


24 responses to “Double Chinese Happiness

  1. My family and I once went into a random Indian restaurant, feeling adventurous. Every single person there was Indian except for us but though we might’ve attracted some stares at first, eventually people shrugged when we sat down and ate like everyone else. That hot pot does look delicious though I’m guessing it was really hot too! 😉

  2. I love it! Sometimes random ordering can work out so well – and yours looks delicious. (Sometimes it works out badly, but as long as you don’t go hungry at the end of the day it’s all good.)

    • It was delicious. The carp was tender and the broth/oil was spicy and hot. As a nice surprise, there were tons of bean sprouts in the bottom of the pot. I couldn’t have done better ordering if I’d tried. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Wangfujing Snack Street | Browsing The Atlas·

  4. Eating in China is an adventure everytime 😀 I took comfort in the fact that food was at least fresh, as in still alive, in most places. Can’t say the same of many places in India. Glad yours ended happily for everyone concerned 🙂

  5. lol, well, where to start? 😉

    1. Ordering in a “formal” (or informal, depending on the type of place) Chinese restaurant in Asia is considered to be a highly important skill, an etiquette, and a show of who you are.

    2. Most of the time, this process is done by the host of the “banquet”. There must be a display of back and forth between the host and the primary guest of pushing the menu. The game continues until the host, seemingly exasperated, takes the menu from the waiter and say, all right, I’ll (humbly) do it to the best of my ability.

    3. This is where the host has to shine. He/she needs to consider the number of guests, food allergies, ingredients in season, the restaurant’s signature, things the guests won’t eat, his budget and what’s on the menu. He would politely ask the guests if there is anything they won’t eat, even though (if it’s an important banquet) he should have already known if he did his homework before hand. The ordering will probably result in a polite conversation for 10 – 20 mins.

    4. And then the banquets starts with the cold dishes.

    I’ll spare you the rest of the details. 😛

    You ordered a “water boiled” fish. A rather popular dish in Beijing from Sichuan. You are actually spared the problem I faced because you didn’t understand the menu. I saw the dish as “water boiled”, so I thought it would be a light and airy stew dish. *blinks*

    There is an ancient reason that the Chinese insist on seeing live ingredients but that will take forever to explain.

    As for the show? I used to be a show when I order food in Chinese or Japanese restaurant in the US. All of them would gather around me and see what I had ordered and asked lots of questions (in very loud English thinking I don’t speak any). It was an interesting experience.


      • A phone reply so bear with me. lol, I am not sure if it would have been better for this meal. I ordered “water boiled beef” (a super misleading name), and thought it was a type of regular beef stew dish. Boy, was I proven wrong. After seeing the massive chillies on top of the oil, I had to confirm twice that it was really something I ordered. So, what does that prove? Even if you knew the language, you can still get in trouble no matter where you go! 😛

        Btw, the English menus were implemented right before 2008 Olympics, in a effort by the government not to be embarrassed by the engrish signs and translations. It actually made things more confusing as your situation has shown. Some of the translations are still terrible though.


      • Well, let’s see, a transliteration would be “preserved meaty mushroom”, which is a type of ingredient…, I think. Could that be sweet and sour pork with mushroom with the Cantonese pronunciation? I have no clue if I can’t see the characters.

        If you aren’t easily offended, you should see this – a hilarious and bizarre thing and only in China:

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