My wife, Tania, and I were recently invited to Beijing to do a story on the Chinese government’s interest in making skateboarding part of their Olympic program. An interesting story to be sure, but I was most excited about sampling some fucked-up Chinese food.
As we expected, we didn’t have to look far. Directly across the street from our hotel was a large, two-story supermarket. The name of it was in Chinese, but because of the four-arrow logo Tania dubbed it THE UPDOWNLEFTRIGHT SUPER MEGA STORE. It was the first place we went after we checked into our hotel. We were jetlagged and confused—we just wanted a few bottles of water and some simple provisions for the room—so we weren’t expecting the sensory overload we got upon entering the UPDOWNLEFTRIGHT SUPER MEGA STORE.
On the linoleum floor near the entrance and beside the baskets was a large Tupperware container filled with water and little turtles. Live turtles. They were about the size of a book of matches.
The meat department was another marvel. It’s totally open; nothing is packaged. I have no problem with this—I think the American practice of shrink-wrapping everything is wasteful and does nothing more than provide a false sense of sanitary safety. Of the wide array of choices, we decided we’d theoretically want to buy a black skin duck and some pig eyeballs, but where would we cook it? So we moved on to the packaged goods.
Just about anything you’d ever want comes in a package in China (except for meat)… and a lot of things you don’t want come in packages in China as well. We wandered around marveling at stuff like “Chicken Ham Sausage!” and the “Hamburger choiceness raw material taste tempting!” and eventually gathered up a few items to make a small meal back in our room: a four-pack of thousand-year-old duck eggs as the appetizer; for the main course, a hamburger in a bag accompanied by a side of blueberry Pringles. We paired our meal with a delightful bottle of rice wine.
The thousand-year-old duck eggs came first, and they were easily the worst part of the meal. Funny, there was an expiration date on the package. Apparently, someone in the year 1009 (during the Lý Dynasty) decided the eggs we bought would go bad on Wednesday, June 13, 2009? Well, they were right about them being bad on June 13, because they were bad on June 10 when we cracked into one.
It was like cracking open a stone, although I’m not sure why anyone tries to get inside one in the first place because the second the insides were outside, our hotel room was filled with the most noxious, sulphuric not-really-egg smell. It smelled like ass. And horse piss. Legend has it that the eggs were once prepared by soaking them in horse urine. I don’t doubt it.
But if I wasn’t about to put the damn thing in my mouth, I’d say the egg actually looked kind of cool. Once unshelled, the shiny inside was a translucent dark green, almost black. And floating within the congealed egg “whites” were golden snowflakes, which are supposedly formed by some sort of chemical reaction that occurs when duck embryos meet horse pee. It would have looked cool as a paintjob on a car or motorcycle, but on food black and green is decidedly not a color combo preference.
We sliced into it and the creamy black yolk oozed out onto the table. “Ewwww!” we yelled. It looked like vampire blood. The smell, the color, the texture…it was all so gross that if I thought about it a second longer, I was never going to eat it. So I took a big ole bite. Ugh. I have to admit that it wasn’t that bad—it just tasted like a very, very strong, hard boiled egg—but the smell, and the color, and the horse cock that I imagined was urinating into my mouth made me gag. I got some of it down but most of it went into the trashcan.
My eyes were watering and I needed something to wash out the taste. The only thing on hand was the rice wine. At least I think it was rice wine. There was no vague, exclamatory text on the bottle. All I know is that it cost just over one yuan, which is about 14 US cents. Chinese MD 20/20!
I ripped the top off and took a swig. Whoa. The shit was like lighter fluid. Maybe it was? I’ll never know. It was strong. I coughed, I gagged, my eyes teared up even more, and snot shot out of my nose. My insides were on fire. But I have to admit that it did pair perfectly with the bold flavors of the thousand-year-old egg. The wine’s acidity captured the winds off the polluted Yangtze River and infused the wine with the cool tones of battery acid and old fish bait rotting in the sun at the end of a pier. A perfect compliment to the previous farty flavor.
The rest of the meal was just as weird but not as difficult to get down. The hamburger in the bag was more or less harmless, except for the fact that it was a hamburger in a bag. I’m not even sure what it really was. It definitely wasn’t beef. It might have been chicken? Lawn clippings and dead leaves? It didn’t really taste like anything, which was a welcome change from all the prior sensory overstimulation. One flavor shone through though: the “mayo,” which tasted like vanilla cake frosting.
While there were a number of flavors not usually associated with chips to choose from in the UPDOWNLEFTRIGHT SUPER MEGA STORE—shrimp, ox, tomato, panda—we decided that blueberry was the most retarded. Although they promised to be “Natural and Cool” (and I actually believed that they would), they turned out to be fake and disgusting. I expected them to taste like over-salted potato chips with a hint of blueberry flavoring but they turned out to be completely the opposite: a mouthful of chemical blueberry candy dust without even a hint of deep-fried potato. It was horrible. So naturally I turned to my old friend the 14-cent rice wine and took another slug. And that was it. My body had had enough of the UPDOWNLEFTRIGHT SUPER MEGA STORE, and I was promptly directed to the toilet where I barfed up, down, left, and right.