Saturday, August 27, 2011

Pao Mo in my Kou

I was recently thinking about a dish that I had in Xi'An, China, back in 2002. One of the beautiful things about culinary travel experiences is the unique nature of regional food. Being split into several provinces and split ever further into smaller locales, China offers a wide variety of meals not found elsewhere. One day, while in Xi'An, on a missions trip, our team gathered together and dined at a fancy local Xi'An restaurant. Xi'An is in the Shaanxi province and is, for all intents and purposes, a university town, with a great big wall surrounding the entire city. I took the below photo, atop the  wall overlooking the city of Xi'An, and framed the shot with a Chinese-style window that was my portal to this incredible view.

Having chosen to eat a vegan diet at this time of my life, I was always weary of what kind of dietary challenge I would encounter during each meal in China. I found it nearly impossible to explain what a vegan diet consisted of, so I told my Chinese friends and hosts that I was a vegetarian. Thankfully, that kept me from getting into precarious situations, in which I would be required to eat red meat, chicken, or pork, but I wasn't out of the woods yet...

I had resigned myself to eating fish for this trip, since most Chinese people associate fish with a vegetarian diet. Attempting to explain that my version of a vegetarian diet did not include fish was a daunting task, given that a number of Chinese people are buddhist or have friends that practice buddhism and the buddhist version of a vegetarian diet usually includes fish. As a result, I had become a pescetarian, but only while dining in China. The irony is that, in the present day, I eat a pescatarian diet.
Although I had decided to lower the bar and eat fish in China, I did not look forward to eating it. The fish in China usually came out on a big platter and included the head and tail, with the eye seemingly staring right into your own eyes. Of all the places to eat fish, this was not my first choice. However, amidst the crazy versions of fish that China had to offer, there was also a shining star of a dish that I still think of today.
At the aforementioned fancy restaurant, in Xi'An, we gathered to share an afternoon meal together. None of us knew what we were going to be eating, how the food was prepared, or even what kind of dish it would be. There we are, sitting at a large table, about to find out what what we are eating. A server comes over and places a few perfectly-round discs of bread on small plate for each of us. The discs look a lot like a large coin, about two inches in diameter. Not knowing if we should eat them or if they are for decoration, we all sit, staring at these discs of bread.

As we look at each other with bewildered looks on our faces, the server returns with very large, beautifully-decorated porcelain bowls. She then takes one of the bread discs from someone's plate and begins crumbling it up into one of the bowls, as if to demonstrate its purpose. So, we all look at each other and start doing the same with the bowls that have been placed before us, having no idea why we are crumbling the discs and placing the smaller pieces in the bowl. The server leaves the table and everyone begins speculating about why we are breaking bread into bowls. I mean, I have no problem with the idea of breaking bread together, but other than communion at church or during meals, I had never had a reason to literally break bread and do so over and over again.
After everyone has finished crumbling their discs of bread into their respective bowls, the server returns and is accompanied by a man in a chef's coat. The chef begins taking our bowls, one by one, and filling them with some kind of liquid. He then places the bowls back on the table and bids us "zai jian"*.
Looking into our bowls, we discover a brothy soup, kind of like a chicken noodle soup. In the broth, we see ramen-esque noodles, vegetables, and shrimp. So, I'm thinking, "oh great, shrimp!". I let the soup rest for a bit, while everyone was beginning their foray into whatever this dish is. I notice that the bread begins to break down, absorb the soup, and transform into a soft, gooey texture.
Tentatively, I dip my porcelain spoon into the bowl and scoop up a spoonful of the broth, skillfully trying to avoid the shrimp. The broth is refreshingly delicious. I then proceed to work with my chopsticks and the porcelain spoon to pull out broth, noodles, and vegetables, in an attempt to converge them into a single bite; not an easy task. After several tries, I finally get a nice mouthful of everything-minus the shrimp-and my mouth sings with delight.
Mustering up the courage, I decide to try the shrimp, along with all of the other ingredients and it's like a little bit of heaven. My fear turned into joy! The shrimp, having marinated and cooked in the tasty broth, just absorbed those rich flavors and still maintained its own oceanic zest.
And the coup de grace is the bizarre discs of bread. Having soaked up the broth and expanded like any glutinous grain, the bread was literally transformed into a dumpling-like texture. I would compare it to "matzah", the jewish dumpling or ball that is also eaten in a soup. The soft bread just literally melted in my mouth and complemented the other flavors, captured in the bowl, quite well.

At the time, I didn't know very much Mandarin Chinese, so when I asked my Chinese friends what that dish was called, they told me it was "Pao Mo"*.

Despite my poor Chinese language skills, at the time, I have remembered the name of that dish, to this day. Pao Mo* really was a memorable meal and I still salivate at the thought of it.  

Although, I had to compromise my conviction to maintain a vegan diet in China, this was one time that I didn't mind being a pescetarian.

Here's a toast to the talented chefs in Xi'An China, the great people on our missions team that I got to experience this with, and the wonderful dish that is Pao Mo. Ganbei*!

*Chinese Translations
Kou = mouth
zai jian = goodbye
Ganbei = bottoms up (a.k.a. cheers)