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拉面 La Mian World

the quest for the perfect noodle

Chuansha is an urban development zone, or something that probably used to be a small town not so long ago, close to the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. In 1999 my Chuansha consisted of one main street that featured one hotel, a shopping mall, a western style supermarket and a lot of ugly one or two-story concrete buildings with shops, restaurants and whatever else.

I happened to stay at exactly that one hotel in the main street for fourteen days in a row. It was a typical local business hotel. The lobby area looked reasonably fancy decked out in marble. Once you entered the elevators the façade began to fade since it urgently needed some cleaning. The rooms special treat was its wonderful carpet spotted with uncountable cigarette burn marks. For some reason the ashtray must have gone missing whenever somebody was smoking in the room. Not that I wanted to stay in a smoking room. There was simply no choice. So I settled in for my first night of sleep in this wonderful home away from home.

The sound of the Huangpu river suddenly disturbed my light sleep. Only after a while I realised that the Huangpu river was actually not close to my hotel at all. Half asleep I followed the sound and found my bathroom quickly filling up with water bubbling out from a leak in the water pipe for the toilet flush. I called reception. Unfortunately mastering the English language was not part of the receptionist’s portfolio nor was Mandarin part of mine. Quickly I dressed and took the dirty elevator down to the lobby and explained myself face to face with a lot of interesting gestures involved to the receptionist. Finally we could agree that she would send someone to the room. A hotel engineer made a site inspection, understood my situation and reported back to the reception. Communication got much easier now with a clear picture of the problem and I was given another room. They must have quickly changed the carpet from my old room into the new one as it had exactly the same cigarette burn marks.

My greatest daily challenge was dinner. Not that there was nowhere to eat in town. Plenty of options where available indeed. Basically, I first needed to find a decent looking place, then I needed to figure out what kind of food they actually serve, then I would also need to order without making everyone already staring at the crazy foreigner not burst out laughing and, finally, I needed to manage to eat while ignoring all the stares at the crazy foreigner  eating. This is particularly puzzling if this crazy foreigner is you .

Finding a place in the first place was not so difficult. Just go for the crowd. Where the crowd eats it must be good. Once I entered a nice looking crowded place, settled down among my staring onlookers and was immediately approached by a friendly man from the next table. He spoke exactly five words of English but became my interpreter with the waiter. I had a list of my favorite dishes written in Chinese characters to show to the waiter. This was always good for great amusement for everyone and could be passed around the restaurant for people to marvel about the outright smartness of this foreigner. I ordered Gong Bao Ji Ding, some fried vegetables and plain rice. Suddenly some lengthy discussion between the waiter and my interpreter arose. However, after a while they got everything sorted out whatever there was to sort out and my order made its way to the kitchen.

I relaxed and looked around. To my amazement I realised that everyone and every table was having the same food set-up: A large clay bowl filled with steaming soup and some chicken feet sticking out of the soup. My interpreter explained to me that this was a sticking-out-chicken-feet-soup-restaurant. What he was discussing before with the waiter was, if they would be able to prepare my desired dishes. They figured out that they could make an exception for me as guest of honour and cook up some Gong Bao chicken, no problem.

Although this makes for an entertaining story it is a bit exhausting as an everyday experience. Since this was already my third trip to China I figured I am already quite China-smart. To make things a bit easier I should just go for fast food.

First stop barbecued lamb skewer from the bike mounted Uigur-grill. Only some minor bargaining about how much to pay for ten skewers. On the next day we are already friends.

Second stop la mian shop. Just order some noodle soup and things are sorted. Well, that did not prove to be that easy. It was like going to one of this Subway Sandwich franchises. You tell the friendly counter staff that you would fancy a turkey sandwich and you will be faced with a myriad of questions about the type of bread, the shape of the turkey, the toppings, sauces and spices you desire, about the name of your grandmother and god knows what. Without taking a two days long ‘how to order at Subway’ tutorial before, you won’t even understand what they are talking about. Same in the la mian shop. Things are slightly more complicated with limited language skills.

After my many attempts to articulate beef noodle soup in Mandarin failed badly I settled for simpler communication: Pointing at the other guests dishes. Excellent! The soup is served, I survived another day and enjoyed great food!

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