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Mógu Mania: Chinese Culinary Adventures

Leigh Bush shares her humorous food and travel stories from China.

shaxi, china

Photo: dadoll (flickr)

Our journey starts with a train ticket to Xiaguan, followed by a public bus ride to Dali, another bus ride to Jinchuan, and finally a mountainous little jaunt to a small historic town called Shaxi.

I’m looking down into a translucent-blue bag of my own vomit. How has it come to this? Mógu? It can’t be.

Hot Child In The City

It all starts when I make the decision to escape the inferno that is Shanghai in mid-August. Now all of you Indiana folks have at least some idea of what this means. It means my fat-wrinkles have managed a visual topographic territory of their own, expanding their sinewy sweat blots into Rorschach patterns across the front and back of every shirt I own.

The Chinese, however, are mysteriously endowed with pores that refuse to emit either moisture or stench. This makes riding the subway particularly humiliating, as I am the only individual whose body emits incriminating odors that pair stunningly with my hairy tattooed arms. Just great.

This is a large part of what propels me to leave Dante’s sixth circle for the balmier surroundings of southwest China. So, I buy a flight to Kunming, because it’s the only flight immediately available on the internet.

Hosteling And Making Friends

Upon my arrival I do what every good single hosteler does – I meet some random people over several bottles of BeerLao and we drunkenly make plans to travel somewhere together.

As can be expected, only two of us show up the following early morning to begin the journey. It starts with a train ticket to Xiaguan, followed by a public bus ride to Dali, another bus ride to Jinchuan, and finally a mountainous little jaunt to a small historic town called Shaxi.

When we arrive I have no idea what day of the week it is, and, come to think of it, I haven’t for over a month – benefits of being a grad student I suppose. My new friend and I recruit an Irishman and a botanical artist from our hostel and set out for a meal.

Settling on some Muslim Chinese fare, a term I can’t explain except for the Arabic letters written on the wall, we lower ourselves to the tiny tables.

Something Fishy

I’m excited to try anything from this new locale so I point to a bowl of small shiny fish with a dubious look on my face. The woman turns and excitedly dumps the entire bowl onto a plate and then places it on our table – so much for an amuse bouche.

fish plate

Photo: Leigh Bush

I'm excited to try anything from this new locale so I point to a bowl of small shiny fish with a dubious look on my face.

As it turns out, these guppies aren’t the freshest catch of the day. They’ve probably been sitting on that counter, desiccated then fried, since I arrived in China last week.

Still, my tablemates indulge me (and our ravenous bellies) by awkwardly crunching away at their bitter carcasses for a while before giving up and sipping our tea while we impatiently pine after our forthcoming meal.

We welcome our dinner with open arms and empty stomachs. Fishy beginnings aside, it’s delicious, an array of sautéed eggplant, some green leafy stuff, tofu, and some white crunchy stuff.

And oil, lots and lots of oil.

It’s strange how some of the Chinese food I’ve had in China so far seems to mimic American Chinese in just one way – it’s oily. Is this a bad thing? Not yet: we’ll just have to see what two more weeks of it does to my bowels and reassess.

So, after a long day of travel through the western mountains, I feel sated and content. We pay up, discovering that the fish was by far the most expensive of our dishes. Go figure.

Curious Findings

We pace down the cobblestone streets towards the converted horse stable that is now a small and quaint hostel. I spot the man who, a mere two hours earlier, had been sweeping up the day’s hair clippings (oh how the Chinese love their haircuts). But now the storefront is transformed. Men and women crouch around the old beam balance scale, inspecting something under the dim light.

What is it that has their concentration? I approach to see that the precious item is contained within the woven baskets that women carry on their backs throughout town. The contents are being fondled like sensitive contraband whose consistence is of importance. Could it be drugs? I take a step closer, more curious than ever…

To be continued…

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Leigh Bush

Leigh (Chavez) Bush is a half-breed of New Jersey and Colorado, she has tasted her way across the country and around the world several times over and deems American pastries under-appreciated. Leigh is in the IU Food Studies program and would like to use her Ph.D. to bring people closer to their food by way of understanding human's social and emotional mind. She also enjoys the occasional bag of Doritos.

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