In some of the more Westernized Asian restaurants, a single chef and/or his team will prepare your food right in front of you. Often they will fling food and swing blades in the air and make Kung Fu sounds while your shrimp does a swan dive into its oily grave. Others will chop suey your meat and veggies with all the pomp and circumstance of the Cirque du Soleil. Generally all of this is overpriced shit for yuppie scum who value the illusion of personal servitude.
Enter: A Berlin-Charlottenburg Restaurant with Chinese Hot Pot, or the Ikea of the Asian restaurant world. You see, they make you assemble and cook your food yourself. Genius. They bring you a gas powered pot divided into two swampy-looking sections of bubbling soup. Then they bring you piles of raw meat: fish, shrimp, beef, chicken, pork, mystery meat and more mystery meat. You are then expected to chuck it into the boiling brine and fish it out with a wire scoop. Don’t get me wrong, I like new cultural experiences, brave new cuisine choices and anything that is not fast food. That said, I am the single pickiest eater I have ever met. I hate almost everything that people consider normal, so when I saw the mound of meat next to the two sections of bubbling stew—one white, one brownish red—I had to fight the inner redneck in me which wanted to shout ‘FUCK THIS SWAMP WATER!!! BRING ME SOME FRIED YAK DICK!!!’
So I went with the old standard hot and sour chicken (sadly, they were fresh out of the fried yak dick), which was very similar to the breaded and fried chicken mix with veggies and sauce that you would get in any Chinese restaurant in America. I’m a culinary chicken, yes, but I got to watch my dining comrades who had ordered the Asian Ikea Meal trying to figure out what the hell to do with the little elbow wrench and the slabs of particle board. I watched them poke at the mystery meats, dunk, boil, scoop and eventually eat them. I was comfortably ensconced in my safety net of Plate #22 with rice and a beer, watching with amusement as everyone else was reading the instructions with their meal. In this case the instructions took the form of the friendly waitress, who was warning people to cook the food at least 5 minutes or else you would—according to her pantomime—make a strange face and rub your torso from the chest down to the pelvis.
One of the Czechs at the table was commenting on the authenticity of the meal, saying to the waitress that he had visited Shanghai, Shaolin and Shoop Shoop (Do Wop). After receiving the approval of our waitress, he pointed out to me that the menu was so authentic that they even had one menu item scrawled in pen in Chinese characters at the bottom of the bill of fare.
“Um, do you think,” I ventured a question, “that the dish written only in Chinese is Sweet and Sour DOG?”