The Secret Menu

I never knew Chinese restaurants have secret menus until a Chinese colleague took me to a restaurant that on the surface looked like all of the others I have ever been to.

sign for chinese restaurant
This menu of specials was outside of a Chinese restaurant next to the Korean grocery where I do my shopping, as it’s so much cheaper than the conventional grocery stores. The second item – Pork Intestines and Blood in Spicy Sauce – reminded me of two things:
1) A Chinese restaurant a Chinese friend took me to once in Champaign, IL when I was a post-doctoral fellow there. She said it was ‘pretty good.’ We were given the predictable huge menu full of the standard dishes. She handed that menu back and spoke to the waitress in Chinese and we were then brought a single sheet of white paper with about 8 things on it. My friend turned to me and explained that the chef is from Szechuan and this small menu was made up of authentic regional dishes, which were spicy and distinctive. She ordered for us, including several things that she explained were not on the menu but which were specialties of the area. The dishes were brought in courses. I have never had Chinese food like that Chinese food. I had never known there was a *secret* menu. The fact that pork intestine with blood and spicy sauce is on this menu tells me that the secret menu is on display. How exciting!
2) At Balinese ceremonies of a certain size, roasted pig is always on the menu. Every part of the animal is used. Communal meals are made in which a pyramid of rice is place on a square woven bamboo mat that is covered with banana leaves cut to size. ┬áThis mat is then put down on a wooden, table-like low platform on which a circle of guests sit in same-sex groups (never mixed). Around the rice are arrayed different parts of the pig, including a minimal amount of meat, and vegetables cooked in ways that you rarely see except at ceremonies because they contain ingredients like cubed pig fat mixed with steamed long beans cut in 1 inch segments, shredded fresh coconut, and a paste of turmeric, garlic, shrimp paste, and salt, and minced shallot, and chiffonade kaffir lime leaves. It’s the presence of the pork that makes them rare in other contexts as pig is ceremony food.
After everyone is seated and the food has been placed in the center of the group, one of the women takes her fist and punches a well in the rice. Then a bowl of spicy warm pig blood is poured in the well. Everyone eats together with their hands from this common platter, taking rice and small amounts of meat and vegetables onto the tips of the middle three fingers of the right hand. Once you are ready to put the food in your mouth, you push it off with your thumb while sticking out your tongue just enough to catch the food and at the same time ensure that your mouth and hand do not make contact. Using this technique, there is no ‘double dipping’ even though everyone is using her hand.
It’s the specific technique for eating with your hand that is is key, not just at ceremonies but always. No licking fingers. Food doesn’t go in your palm. It’s a bit tricky at first if you have never done it before (and people will laugh at you for your inept initial attempts) but you get used to it.
This ceremony food always made me mildly sick for a week, gurgling stomach, vague malaise. I finally gave up on it and said I wasn’t allowed to eat pork. Then I was relocated to a pavilion with the priest and other ritual specialists who also are not allowed, for religious reasons of purity, to eat pork. So we ate duck and never from a common bowl. No stomach problems ever again.
Though I appreciate the secret Chinese menu coming out of the closet, I will not be trying the special! Not because I’m not brave enough or find it disgusting. Indeed, I’m confident it’s tasty. But experience has made me wary of this dish.

Author: Laura Bellows

Designer, Anthropologist

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