Join Date: May 2009
Location: Landlocked in Southwest U.S.
a 7-minute foodie fiction by spork
“Welcome back to Hong Kong, James!” Jiang greeted me at the hotel lobby with an outstretched arm. As always, he was casually dressed in a collarless shirt. Hsieh Jiang Bo was a Senior Purchasing Manager at COFCO, China’s state-run commodities trading company, and a good guy. I’d learned from our first negotiations a few years ago over a contract for several containers of polyurethane, however, not to be fooled by his youth, his goofy salad-bowl haircut.
“The landing at the old airport made me sick,” I shook his hand, “And Beijing’s food didn’t help..”
“You’re in Hong Kong!” The rally cry of the world’s largest seaport for more than two hundred years. “Food’s all good. Let’s talk about tomorrow’s meeting.”
The taxi ride through Kowloon, toward Prince Edward Harbor, was a kaleidoscopic blur of neon. We exchanged rote updates, about our companies, about our families, both visitor me and local him not immune to the hypnotic pulse of the city. At the end of Stanley Road, we got out and Jiang led me to a restaurant. This close to the ferry terminal – “Jerry’s Seafood” – I was skeptical.
“Slam dunk, James,” he gestured as soon as we sat at a table overlooking the harbor. “Be sure to turn on your charm for a certain woman Xue, who’s from the Ministry.” A waiter arrived with drinks, a double-shot rum with iced Coke on the side and a Sling for me. Jiang had obviously called ahead with our dinner order, so I set the menu aside.
True to claim, the food was fantastic: shark fin soup, pigeon in lettuce wrap, steamed skate, foot long prawns bloated with a million pink eggs. We reviewed our talking points for final approval of the urea deal we’d been working on for the past six months. Jiang tended to hold a joker card up his sleeve until the brink of a close, and I was spinning my noodle how he might try to rattle me tomorrow morning, when our tag team of waiters both approached our table.
“You gotta try this.” One waiter stirred a pan of oil sizzling on top of a burner cart. The other waiter displayed a large jar with two small live shrimp in a shallow pool of water. “It’s very expensive, so I placed just one order, for you.”
With the exception of tap water, I rarely question food in front of me, but it was suspiciously un-Chinese to serve anything not meant to be shared. “What is it?” I asked. The pair of crustaceans was scrawny, about six inches long including their long pincers. Striated in bright pink, their spindly legs probed the walls of the jar, clearly very thick glass. The small neck of the jar was stopped by a twist lid with a center protrusion, like a pour spout.
“Volcano Shrimp,” my colleague answered, “They’re harvested by robotic submersibles from volcanic gas vents five thousand feet underwater. They’re kept alive in these pressurized jars. The shrimps mainly feed on bacteria that metabolize methane gas, so there’s a slightly gasoline finish to them, but the first taste is like nothing you’ve ever had.” He nodded to the waiter, and I turned to watch him hug the jar tightly to his chest and with the other hand turn a lever on the cap’s protruding pipe.
BANG! I jumped out of my chair at the violent explosion, and settled back down to the hiss of escaping air.
The jar was suddenly half full of seawater, and visibly rising. Two dead shrimp, their underside had split open from the decompression, and pale grey flesh ballooned out of their carapaces to the size of oblong ping-pong balls. When the water neared the jar’s full capacity, the waiter again turned the lever, and it gave a final punctuated sigh.
I turned to Jiang, and nodded like a bobble-head, “Very cool.”
With long chopsticks, the waiter opened the jar and fished out the pair of shrimp to place them on a black square platter. This was handed to the other waiter who ladled a spoonful of hot oil on each, and walked around the table to place it in front of me. I watched the flesh turn milky white in a pool of oil speckled with garlic, ginger, red chile flakes, and a clove. A long, two-pronged stainless steel fork rested on the plate.
Interesting. Taste and texture more like a sweetened raw oyster. And, yes, a bit off-putting, almost ammonia, aftertaste. Jiang, with a big grin, watched me extract the tails and pop them into my mouth. “Good, ya?”
We finished dinner with a gambei, and parted company at the restaurant’s entrance. The return taxi ride made me impatient for a good night’s rest in the InterContinental’s downy bed, curtains drawn open to one of the world’s great nighttime skylines.
I woke the following morning to a sun breaking over the island of Macau feeling bloated. Still under the bed’s cover, I relieved the pressure and felt my gut shrink back to normal size. After showering, and while shaving, I again vented a long, silent steam. I forced another one before putting my pants on. I decided to skip breakfast, and phoned in a carafe of coffee.
The taxi ride to COFCO’s Hong Kong headquarters on Centre Street was awkward. I squirmed in the back seat. An involuntary one. It was audible, and no doubt, the driver was annoyed. As I handed him double the normal tip, another uncontrolled burst sounded like an insult.
Jiang was waiting for me at the building’s entrance. Accusingly, I started, “What did you...” But he quickly cut me off, “No time, no time, everyone’s here already, I need to introduce you choi!” and dragged me by the arm to the elevators.
I desperately clenched myself in the elevator, but couldn’t hold it in. I feigned innocence, but the scent of a bok gwai lo can’t be masked. The doors opened to the 23rd floor, and as we exited the confined car, I heard the last remaining passenger, a petite woman in a light blue Miyazaki blazer, inhale deeply. Before I could restart my accusations against the man a step ahead of me, he ducked aside and a portly woman surprised me with an extended hand, “Mr. Stapleton, I presume, pleased to meet you. My name is Xue Ming Ha.” She recoiled, her back arched, her nose crinkled, and before she could retract her hand, I shook it, “My pleasure, Madame Xue.”
“Please join us for tea in the conference room.” She turned, retreated. Following, I looked at Jiang and silently mouthed, “What did you do to me!?” in what I felt looked like righteous indignation. Uncomprehending, he leaned into me and whispered, “I think she likes you.” I passed gas again.
After my opening presentation detailing my assurances against transshipment, I excused myself. Returning to my seat from my sixth apologetic pardon during the hour-long meeting, the room was in a gale of ten laughing people in dark suits, a less than reassuring sight in China. “Mr. Stapleton,” Madame Xue said with a barely suppressed guffaw, “here is a signed Purchase Order for twelve shipments deliverable in the next twelve months.” She slid the sheet across the table toward me. “We’d normally all have a celebratory lunch together, but Mr. Hsieh advises us that he has made a reservation for just the two of you at a nearby famous restaurant, so we bid you congratulatory leave.”
I stood, bowed, and farted loudly as everyone filed out of the room.