Chop Suey Syndrome

Our restaurant critic travels to China to unravel the riddle: Why can't Dallas do Chinese?

I didn't eat any of these delicacies, but I did chew on bullfrog in a two-story Beijing restaurant. The monstrously huge things were displayed at the entrance among a row of large fish tanks filled with carp, flounder and teeming throngs of shrimp. A few of the carp lay dead or dying, their silvery cream bellies bloating and breaching the water surface. We ate crisp bok choy and broccoli with garlic, kung pao chicken, slender threads of pork with even thinner threads of onion and crisp green beans with ginger and peppers.

We ordered Peking duck, which was presented to the table before roasting by a chef in a surgical mask and latex gloves. The duck was astonishing: crisp skin strips, succulent flesh and some of the thickest, juiciest scallions I have ever seen. They're mingled with the meat and hoisin sauce in supple Peking doilies--pancakes closely resembling thin tortillas.

Yet the most provocative was that frog. The whole body is carved up into bite-sized chunks tossed with crisp bell peppers and onions in a sweetish red sauce. Riddled with bone shards, the meat is rubbery and virtually tasteless, save for the sauce. "In school, we were told to protect frogs," scolds Emily, a Chinese artist at our table, as I pinch hunks of frog. "They eat harmful insects."

Fishmongers grapple with their wares in Dawukou's open market.
Fishmongers grapple with their wares in Dawukou's open market.
The featured dessert at Niña Mexican Restaurant in Beijing is Rice Krispies treats.
The featured dessert at Niña Mexican Restaurant in Beijing is Rice Krispies treats.

Dawukou doesn't even appear on most maps, and when it does, it is referred to as Shizuishan. At the northern tip of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region hugging the province of Inner Mongolia, Dawukou has an arid climate. A blanket of haze the color of dirty custard hangs perpetually over this city of some 200,000 on account of the widespread use of coal for everything from power to kitchen stoves. Although it is primarily an agricultural region, this stretch of Ningxia is rich in coking coal deposits and littered with small to medium-sized factories that manufacture everything from paper to metal alloys.

We make our way to Dawukou from Beijing in a "hard sleeper," a Spartan railcar with open compartments of six bunks stacked three high opposite spring-loaded fold-down seats that intrude into the narrow aisles. Over the course of the 16-hour ride, we eat in the dining car on tables covered in green and white checkered tablecloths. We eat gray gristly beef in a light brown sauce littered with crisp scallions. We pluck pieces of bright green and crisp zucchini with delicious tofu cubes. We pour beer into tiny tumblers from tall, green Tsingtao bottles.

Accommodations include a toilet--a lipped depression terminating in a hole in the railcar floor with a bucket to be filled by a small faucet for flushing. It empties out directly onto the tracks, and just before the train rolls into a station the toilets are bolted shut until the train is a safe distance from the depot. The condition of the hole grows more graphic as the journey unreels.

We're whisked from the final train stop by an American English teacher to lunch at a restaurant called Family of Three Mouths in Dawukou. We order tall bottles of Xi Xia beer and are given tiny glass tumblers from which to drink it. The teacher pours a little beer in the glass, swirls it around and then dumps it into the next glass and the next, repeating it until the last glass is washed, and then the beer is dumped. "It's a Chinese custom," he says. It cleans the glasses, he adds. The value of the custom quickly becomes apparent. The floor is dotted with crushed cigarettes, crumpled napkins and twisted knots of browning vegetable debris. Clumps of garbage collect in the corners, while shallow pools of soiled water smear the floor. A huge plastic relief of Santa Claus' face hangs on the wall. "It takes them a while to de-decorate," says Anthony Kohler. We eat spinach in vinegar dusted with sesame seeds, beautiful pickled cabbage leaves, less-than-stellar pork ribs, pork with vegetables and Japanese tofu--gelatinous, spit-like stuff.

Though not as aggressively spicy as Szechuan cuisine, the food of Dawukou is closer to but more robust than the Mandarin food in Beijing. Because the Ningxia plain produces abundant wheat harvests, the primary staple is noodles. In a tiny noodle house in the city's core, diners drink the hot water "soup" left over from boiling noodles as an aperitif and chew raw garlic cloves as they scoop noodles from bowls with chopsticks. The meat staples are mutton and goat. "The mutton in Ningxia is seen as the best," says Wang Wanzhi, head of the English department at the Ningxia Institute of Science and Technology. "People say that it is because the water quality here is unique, and when the sheep eat the grass and drink the water, the digestive system can get rid of the strong smell of the mutton."

Whole sheep carcasses dangle from hooks in the open air market, carefully separated by some distance from the pig cadavers in deference to the large Muslim minority in Dawukou. Bins hold great heaps of pig's liver, lungs and intestines. Goat's heads are displayed on tables while carp and other fish flop and splash in shallow tubs fed by hoses. The pavement around the stalls streams with blood and pinkish trickles coursing around fish heads, scales and scraps of animal flesh.

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