Subtlety, thy name is not camel

WEARING a smile both smug and beatific, the waiter whispered in my ear. ``The next dish we serve distinguished guests is camel's paw,'' he announced proudly, turning his volume up to a stage whisper. He hovered, awaiting my reaction.

``You mean camel's hoof,'' I blurted out, not meaning to be ungracious - just puzzled. The dish his Chinese cohorts were setting before us contained no Bactrian clodhopper that I could see. The only meatlike ingredient visible among diagonally sliced bok choy and wood ear mushrooms was a translucent, slightly bouncy, colorless substance.

``Ahhh. Hoof!'' the waiter beamed. ``Yes, we are giving your guests camel's paw hoof. It is a greatest delicacy. Very rare for our tongues.''

A dozen of us sat in an exclusive Peking restaurant, overlooking a charming lake. It was rumored to have been a favorite dining spot for Mao's imperious wife, Jiang Qing, in her heyday. (In America it would surely have been renamed to capitalize on that notoriety. Perhaps something like The Gang of IV or The Gourmet Gang.)

Had Mme. Mao been served camel's paw? Was it perhaps a cherished dish of the Gang, the quartet of political villains that were China's equivalent of Nixon's Plumbers? Not likely. Mme. Mao and the Gang were Shanghainese, and coastal tastes were not likely to run to what sounded like a Gobi Desert dish. Several guests, government officials and intellectuals, wore a look of awe. They had overheard what the waiter meant them to overhear.

One announced to me, ``I have heard of this rare delicacy, but it has never been my pleasure to eat it. Even to see it.''

His reverence in the face of camel's paw was infectious. An unreasoning pride swept over me. Through no calculation of my own, I was bringing to these recently acquired Chinese friends what might be the treat of a lifetime.

Afloat on this sea of pride, I clamped ivory chopsticks around a small lump - hump? - of camel, lifted it toward expectant lips, and bit down.

Hard as a rock. Oops! I had bitten a chopstick. The camel must have slipped back to the plate. As the saying goes, there's many a slip 'twixt chopsticks and lip. Especially when the sticks are ivory or plastic, and the food is something like jellyfish tentacles or sea slugs. But we'll get to that in a moment. Success on the second try. Hmmmm... All guests watching expectantly. Better register a reaction. Not much flavor to discuss. Rather neutral and mysterious. But, yes, that's it:

``Very bouncy,'' I said approvingly.

Solemn nods of agreement. Not much further conversation as everyone sat around chewing this substance that rebounded between the teeth like a rubber eraser.

The perfect lifetime food supply. No replacement needed. No calories. Three squares a day from one little bite.

After much chewing and some thought, when we resumed conversation we agreed that the cherished substance was probably a kind of shock absorber embedded in the camel's hoof to make a long caravan trip jostle the beast of burden less harshly. What an evolutionary marvel: humps to cushion thirst; shocks to cushion the chassis.

Westerners who think they know Chinese food from their local Cantonese, Szechuan, Hunan, or Chop Suey outlet are almost always surprised by what turns up in the mother country. Even gurus of Chinese cuisine abroad like Joyce Chen say that the homeland lost some of its old food skills while going through the Cultural Revolution and the scornful destruction of the Four Olds - elements of traditional culture. But China has nonetheless sustained the tradition of imaginative use of whatever edibles are at hand, animal or vegetable.

In the northwestern city of Datong, for instance (up near Inner Mongolia), we visited a renowned local inn on a muddy back street. It was said to have acquired its imprimatur, in a land devoid of Michelin or Duncan Hines, from having once sheltered and fed a fleeing emperor. The most memorable dish in this once-royal hide-out: sugared roast potatoes.

Baldly announced, this dish sounded like an affront to the taste buds. The round-eyed guests didn't know whether to expect entree or dessert, whether the sugar was applied as caramelized coating or through sweetened boiling water. It turned out to be neither. The roasted tubers were simply rolled in granulated sugar. A light coating. The result: surprisingly pleasing. Not heavy or cloying after all.

One learns to beware of rectangular black objects in Szechuan dishes. In one memorable meal at the best Szechuan (now Sichuan) restaurant in Peking, my journalist host from that province managed to select nine dishes out of 14 that were heavily blowtorched with roast (blackened) Sichuan peppers. He kept dipping his chopsticks into the central serving dishes and depositing on my plate morsels heavy with patches of black. He then pretended to look over my shoulder at a framed brush painting of misty mountains, while secretly eyeing me for reaction to his culinary arson.

Trying to keep a blas'e expression, I told him I came from Texas, where Tex-Mex food was always torrid with hot peppers. Then, innocently, I added that I had heard Sichuan was the Texas of China.

``Do you have any hot pepper dishes I could sample?'' I inquired, as guilelessly as I could through scorched vocal cords.

He looked puzzled. Disappointed. Incredulous. He dipped his chopsticks back into the serving dish. Fished around for a big segment of blackened pepper. Inserted it into his mouth. Ran his tongue across it several times. Winced slightly.

Satisfied, he looked at me again. Very carefully.

Beads of perspiration on my brow gave away my game.

My host broke into a big smile. Then a high-pitched laugh. ``Texas humorous joke?'' he asked. ``Very good time joke. I like it,'' he said approvingly. ``Very joke. Texas must be Sichuan of USA.''

Moral, as Harry Truman teaches us: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the restaurant.

We finished with bland lichee fruit.

I promised to return to jellyfish tentacles and sea slugs. Merely mentioning those delicacies usually summons a look of genteel repulsion from Western dinner guests. I bring them up simply to make two points.

First, beware of overestimating your chopstick skills. Westerners usually feel confident because they have handled rough wooden sticks efficiently - and with meats and vegetables made sticky with cornstarch sauces. (Who couldn't pick up peanut butter with pinewood sticks?) What they are not prepared for is the combination of slick ivory (or plastic pseudo-ivory) chopsticks and such skittish foods as jellyfish, sea cucumber, and sea slugs. The result is like trying to grasp Teflon with Teflon. I once read about a low-tech Indian shipyard launching freighters down dry docks greased with thousands of bananas. Even that lubrication would behave like Krazy Glue compared with jellyfish slithering over ivories.

Second, these creatures that seem exotic to Westerners who haven't advanced beyond bean sprouts and carp emphasize one of the glories of Chinese cuisine. Namely, its ability, faced with famine or overpopulation, to improvise.

Food is all around us. But, as the saying goes, we don't so much eat what we like as like what we eat. Necessity has broadened Chinese likings through the millennia. And out of necessity, trial and error, and genius, China's chefs have fashioned a cuisine that, in diversity and subtlety, perhaps only the French can match.

But even Escoffier never whipped up anything with camel's paw hoof.

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