We had the best table in the whole restaurant overlooking the Yangtze River. There were 12 of us seated at a round table entertained by soothing Chinese music played live in the corner of the room and served by numerous waitresses ready to fill your glass after every sip. The cruise company director, a smart and well educated Chinese person who spoke English with a very strong American accent, sitting on my right, politely asked me if I would like to try turtle as it was a speciality in that area. During my travels around China the most important rule you have to learn is never to refuse food offered by the Chinese. If you do – it’s a grave offence.
I travelled extensively in all side of China and I am well aware that number 23 from the local Chinese takeaway in London is not going to be the same as in China. I had numerous close encounters with chicken heads, mistakenly thinking of white potatoes until an eye popped out from the water. I have seen chicken legs nicely decorated on huge plates and soft snake meat easily taken for fish. But I never eat any of them.
When I was offered a turtle the first picture in my mind was soup, which I imagined eating with pieces of the meat left at the bottom of bowl. No one would release that I didn’t actually eat turtle meat. Perfect cunning plan! I eagerly said “Yes”.
We went through starters – dry and spicy strips of beef, very salty, peanuts, spicy Sichuan cucumber, dumplings which I like in any part of China, bean skin, cool shrimp without shrimp – it’s a rice milk mixed with red sugar water followed by wine. Lots of wine.
Somewhere between the starters and the main course the turtles arrived on two huge oval plates – I didn’t notice their arrival as by this time I was merry after lots of red wine. Only after I was given plastic gloves, the same kind I use to dye my roots, did I realise there was a commotion at the table caused by over excited Chinese. My cunning plan evaporated!
How do you eat a whole turtle with the shell on? Especially when they look as if they’re alive. The one in front of me looked ready to walk off the plate. Her deep dark eyes were staring sadly at me saying “Save me”. Frozen at the unexpected sight of the whole animal in front of me I touched it slowly with my finger to make sure it was dead. It didn’t move.
Copying what everyone else was doing I got the hairdresser gloves on, pushed the turtle head further from me and gulped the whole glass of wine in one go. In the meantime my Chinese hosts were happy to pull off the top shell uncovering the tiny body of the turtle. There was no meat there.
“The shell is very good for your health!” He said with half the husk in his mouth.
“You need to suck it.”
The waitress filled my glass, sensing my nervousness. One of the high ranking party members, the usual decoration at this kind of meetings, was tucking noisily into the little legs, pulling them part and sucking them ferociously. The bare bones were left on the side plate making the table a little graveyard.
The sounds of constant sucking, the heat, the wine, the jet leg – combined together made me pass out in the middle of the meal. The last thing I remember was the sound of the smashed bowl. The next thing I saw after that was the celling of my hotel room.
My boss kept saying that I had too much Chinese wine. I totally agreed with her!
I never tried turtle.
What was your worst meal?