By Victorino Matus
An American executive who traveled regularly to China said it was the dinners he dreaded the most. “I literally used to count down the remainder of the trip by the number of meals remaining,” he confided. “That’s two meals down, only three meals to go before we can leave.” Hard to imagine if you love Chinese food.
Then he elaborated. While the crispy duck was easily identifiable and “fantastic,” there were other dishes, including a kind of fish that he said resembled a “monster frozen in mid-attack.” Nothing was labeled and, he noted, it was generally frowned upon to ask. (The possibilities here are endless. In an episode of Bizarre Foods filmed in China, host Andrew Zimmern sampled grilled cicadas, seahorse, grasshoppers, donkey, and donkey skin.)
But according to the executive, who served as general counsel for a U.S.-China joint venture and asked to remain nameless, the real issue was alcohol:
“We were each given a hand-painted, thimble-sized china cup holding maotai [a clear liquor distilled from sorghum]. One of our Chinese counterparts would walk up to my seat with a translator. I would stand up and listen to a speech about what a great guy I was and how our joint venture was going to kick the asses of our competitors. Then we’d throw back the maotai in one gulp. Part of the ritual was that after you drank your shot, you’d tip the empty glass toward your counterpart to show that you’d emptied the glass. This was going on simultaneously in several spots around the room. Drunken chaos.”
“The first course was sheep’s brain wrapped in cucumber and ‘soup of five internal organs.’” Then came the marmot.
At some point, the businessman recalled, one of the Chinese hosts “reached over with his sweaty hands, broke open my friend’s crab, pulled it apart, and started sticking pieces in my friend’s mouth.” There were also lazy susans filled with cigarettes. And a karaoke competition.
Sure, the body can handle one night of debauchery. But three or four nights in a row? What’s a traveling executive to do?
Jeff Gedmin, the former president and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, is very familiar with these perils. Traveling through Asia, he’s not only been a guest at such feasts, but also a guest of honor. In Central Asia, this meant being treated to a horse’s head served on a platter. “You are invited to partake in the best, which is taking your hand and peeling the roasted flesh off the head, especially around the eye, which is particularly tender,” Gedmin said. “Visually it is really quite compelling.”
And yet Gedmin, who is currently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and senior adviser to Blue Star Strategies, managed to actually avoid eating the equine. “I would make sure that I have a glass all the time in my left hand, and with my right hand, my technique was to keep moving and keep shaking hands, like continuously. So never say no, always say yes, keep moving, one hand with a glass, and one hand shaking. And no matter what happens, you see someone else in the room you have to greet. ‘Oh, hi! You’re here!’ It’s like a dance.”
“I became Italian,” joked Gedmin. “I was gesturing with my other hand, slapping people on the back, shaking hands, putting my arm around people. But I never said no. I just thought, keep moving, be warm, practice open body language.”
As for that drink in his hand, Gedmin advises consuming a ratio of six glasses of water for every shot. But, he warned, “Make sure you get the bubbly water and when you turn the cap you hear it kind of release. Then you’re not getting some sort of counterfeit water.”
It’s a timeless dilemma. General Vernon Walters, who served as U.S. military attaché in Paris in the early 1970s, related to Henry Kissinger a dinner he had at the Chinese ambassador’s residence:
“Large quantities of [food] were heaped on my plate at regular intervals. All of this was washed down with a perfumed red wine and a colorless liquid [maotai] that must have been related to octane gas… Each sip of the colorless liquid gave me the impression that the lining of my throat had been removed but then, unfortunately, the fishiness of the shrimp proved that this was not the case. I was very cautious with the strong beverage, raising it many times to my lips but drinking very little, both to avoid getting drunk and to save my alimentary tract.”
Traveling through Asia, he’s not only been a guest at such feasts, but also a guest of honor. In Central Asia, this meant being treated to a horse’s head served on a platter.
A Taiwanese friend who has much experience in hosting Westerners (and also asked to remain nameless) conceded, “We encourage you to drink as much alcohol as possible.” But even he said there are businessmen who go too far. Their reasoning, he explained, was that extreme inebriation can serve as a bond for the two sides. “Hey, I’ve seen you so drunk!”
As for the food, “We definitely will host an enormous feast for our friends and guests. It’s very important for us to show our hospitality by a great meal.” But nothing too exotic is served, my friend insisted. “Some of our [American] friends will find hilarious the black bone chicken soup, which is a very normal and nutritious typical cuisine in Taiwan. Some will try to taste the stinky tofu or pig-blood cake at the night markets.”
At least it’s not marmot. Accompanying Arizona Senator John McCain on a trip to Mongolia, Randy Scheunemann was served this furry-tailed rodent along with organ meat appetizers. “I don’t eat organ meats,” said Scheunemann, a foreign policy expert and currently president of Orion Strategies. “The first course was sheep’s brain wrapped in cucumber and ‘soup of five internal organs.’” Then came the marmot. But Scheunemann did not want to offend their host, the president of Mongolia. His strategy: “I just drank vodka, focused on toasting, and moved the food around a lot on my plate.”
In The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, legendary chef Jacques Pépin recalls a trip to China, in which he and a few others stopped in a restaurant at the base of a mountain. The main dish was bass. The chef “grabbed a four-pounder from the tank and within seconds had scaled it alive, gutted it, cut slits into the skin, rolled the fish in egg white and cornstarch, and wrapped the head in a water-soaked cold towel.” The bass was deep-fried except for the head. When it was brought to Pépin and his friends, the Chinese chef removed the towel. “Uncooked and cold, [the head] was still moving, the mouth opening and closing gruesomely. The presentation was not received in the spirit in which it was presented. Members of our group started screaming.”
Pépin’s solution: “I cut off the head of the fish and placed it on the side, so that people could enjoy the fish, which was quite good,” he writes. “Most of my fellow travelers, however, had lost their appetites.”
I asked Pépin if there was a delicate way to turn down such offerings without offending one’s hosts or causing a diplomatic incident. His advice: “Compliment the food taste and presentation profusely, while at the same time apologizing for your small appetite.”
Victorino Matus is deputy editor of the Washington Free Beacon.