Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Taste of "Home"

Today, we stumbled upon our first authentic Chinese restaurant.  We'd set out exploring in search of a nice new spot for Sunday lunch, and were walking down a narrow street north of our train station.  To our delight, we found a restaurant with photos of Chinese dishes posted outside its entrance.  More importantly, these Chinese dishes were available for a REASONABLE price.  We'd pooh-pooh'ed most Chinese restaurants up till now because...well...Tokyo rivals as the #1 Most Expensive Place to Live, and we never paid a tab of $60 or more for a meal in China.  Who wanted to pay Japanese prices for Chinese food?  This restaurant seemed to charge much more affordable prices...the food looked pretty good in the photos...and we were hungry.

We entered this small restaurant that contained at most, 10 tables.  The food server greeted us in Japanese and showed us to a table in the back, next to the pass-through window from the rear kitchen.  We wondered how to order the does one translate "Sweet and Sour Pork" into Japanese, anyway?   Heather wanted to know, would they serve her enough rice?  Jenna wondered, would they serve us egg drop soup, and if so, would it measure up to the memory of her favorite Chinese soup?

Stew and I began to inquire of the food server, in our halting, tentative Japanese.  The server answered in some detail, using vocabulary that we are probably still months away from learning.  Sigh.  Stew then asked him in Mandarin, "Do you speak Chinese?"  He replied that yes, he did, and yes, he was from the Chinese mainland.

SCORE.  Stew switched over to Mandarin Chinese, and we began talking about what we wanted to order.  We looked at the pictures on the wall, the helpful "pointy talky" menu that many Japanese restaurants offer to their customers, especially helpful for foreigners like us who can't speak the language well enough yet.  We ordered a few different set meals from the pointy-talky menu, pointing to the picture and asking in Chinese, "Is this the kind of eggplant that is served with chopped pork and brown sauce?"  After becoming reasonably confident that we'd receive the kind of food that we thought the pictures portrayed, we placed our order.

The food server was quite busy with a number of customers, but we talked with him from time to time.  We found out that he had lived in Japan for 6 years, was from northeast China (arguably the source of China's best cuisine), and had once traveled to China's fabled tourist mecca Guilin/Yangshuo, a mere 2 hours from where we lived during our 8 years there.

Customers that were sitting nearby, watched and listened as we talked back and forth with the food server.  We began combining Japanese and Chinese together, asking "Mr. Zhao" (Chinese), "Can I have more water?" (Japanese) and "Our youngest daughter would like a can of the coconut milk" (Chinese) followed by "Thank you very much" (Japanese.)   The 2 cooks in the back began to notice that some white-skinned foreigners were speaking Chinese, talking Chinese cuisine with the food server, and so we began talking directly with the cooks, asking their names, their hometowns, and other informal, friendly Chinese banter.

At this point I became a bit worried; perhaps we were acting a little too animated for the Japanese customers.  After all, they often eat in reverent silence; they switch their cell phones to "silent mode" on buses and trains, and so on.  We found ourselves forgetting Japanese protocol and lapsing into Chinese customs -- chatting informally with the cook staff instead of leaving them alone to prepare our food in peace and serve us.

As we ate our meal, we began quizzing the food server on whether or not his restaurant served this favorite of ours, or that one.  Then he pulled out the Chinese menu and handed it to us.  This was different from the Japanese pointy-talky menu on the wall.  It was a traditional album-type menu, containing a myriad of Chinese dishes inside.   Suddenly we broke out in excitement, "Look!  They've got the cucumbers we like!  Oooo!  The salad made with bean curd skin!"  We ordered 2 more dishes, even though we'd already been served full meal sets, complete with salad, soup and a fruit dessert.

We left the restaurant absolutely stuffed to the gills.  It felt as though you'd returned to your Mama's house and been fed the "comfort food" that you'd been missing for years.  We told them that we'd be back, and NEXT TIME we would order off of the Chinese menu.  Maybe they've even got the "Iron Goddess" Tie Guanyin green tea that we used to drink in China.  Maybe they make dumplings by boiling them, versus pan-frying them in the Japanese tradition.

We just need to make sure that we stick to Japanese rules of politeness and courtesy...and meanwhile, seat ourselves near the kitchen in the back so we can build this budding friendship between us and the cooks!

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