Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Odious Chinese Nachos Story

I’m not a picky eater. My father was a big advocate of “Eat what they set before you”, and my mother likes to try different recipes, mostly Southern Living Magazine’s fried salad/fried watermelon offerings. Good stuff.

When I cook, recipes are nothing but points of departure – a suggestion on how the other person once did it. If you’ve never run short on ingredients and hollowed out a Pop-Tart and used the crust in place of bread crumbs, you have no business calling yourself a cook.

But creativity has limits….

One of my China trips was supposed to last only 3 weeks (typically I’m gone for 5). Problems had erupted, solutions were rejected, and the bosses asked me to stay for another week. I failed in that week’s missions, so they asked me to stay yet another week.

After week four in the land of Mandarin Chinese, I was ready to speak some English. I can usually entertain myself with the contents of my head (one of the many, many advantages of an old-school Liberal Arts education) but I found myself bothering Texas co-workers on Skype more than necessary, and called home too many times at odd hours only to learn that the grass was still growing and that no dachshunds had died.

I started lurking in the lobby of the Xiamen Princess Hotel, hoping to catch other manufacturing exiles who could talk football, food, politics or even American Idol. After several nights of reading downstairs, advertising my availability like a Shanghai harbor whore, I saw someone going through the buffet line, a guy that looked like an American. He had on a John Deere Tractor T-shirt!

I ran over and introduced myself. (I may have offered to buy him a drink, given him my phone number, my room number, and told him how fit and manly he looked in his John Deer T-shirt.) He sensed my desperation level, and asked if I wanted to hang out with him and a buddy the next night. I’ve forgotten the guy’s name (Jason?), but he turned out to be from Memphis, Tennessee, and he and I had actually deer hunted on the same land in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. His family had a successful business manufacturing high-end dresses in a factory two hours from Xiamen.

One night later, I met Jason and his friend Jeremy (?) in the lobby. We were going to go to Xiamen, China’s first Mexican restaurant. Let me be clear: we were going to go to Xiamen, China’s first Mexican restaurant.

I’m an optimist. Having already experienced Cleveland, Mississippi’s first Chinese restaurant, Jackson, Mississippi’s first Thai restaurant, and Merigold, Mississippi’s first ever restaurant, I didn’t think things could go too wrong in Xiamen’s first Mexican restaurant.

Jeremy, who was somewhat fluent in Mandarin, explained the sign over the front door – “Xiamen’s House Of Mexico”. The place had a ragged tourist-trap sombrero hung on one wall, and a map of Texas and Mexico painted on another. (Chinese people generally don’t know the shape of Mexico, but everyone knows the shape of Texas, and perhaps the Lone Star State was included as a point of reference. You are about to eat food from the little country south of the nation of Texas. Canadian singer/songwriter Fred Eaglsmith likes to talk about how proud Texas is of its shape. We’ll put that shape on anything.) If not for the mariachi hat and the Texican wall map, the place could’ve been any other noodle shop.

Well, except for the menu….

Veteran China travelers often collect examples of bad “Chinglish”. The menus at this place were in Spanese. Or Chinish. Whatever you call it when you cross Manchu Wok with Taco Bell. After we ordered our beers, Jeremy determined that the menu item “Chips Beef Medley Layer Family” was probably nachos. You can’t go wrong with nachos.

Here’s how they went wrong with nachos:

These restauranteurs had never seen, smelled, tasted, eaten, chewed or shat Mexican food in their lives.

My theory was that everything on the menu was created from photographs, with no other guidance.

Let’s start at the bottom of the “Chips Beef Medley Layer Family”, shall we? Where god-fearing Mexicans would put some corn tortilla chips as a foundation, Xiamen’s House Of Mexico had a layer of rice chips. Not a problem. They don’t grow much corn in China. When in Rome, etc., etc., etc.

Most nachos continue upward with a layer of sliced and spiced chicken or beef. The Chips Beef Medley Layer Family nachos got by with a thin layer of shaved pork. I’ve never seen this stuff outside of Asia, but it’s pretty good. Take some pig meat and repeatedly run it across a cheese grater for a couple of years. It has a good taste with almost no texture. Dust it on the rice chips of your Chips Beef Medley Layer Family, shortly before adding your….cheese.

Asians (stereotype alert!) generally don’t like cheese or dairy. They think that cheese tastes and smells like baby vomit, which, when you come to think of it….it does. That’s why one cheese is as good as another to them. Take some leftover Limburger and Munster, or any combo that smells worse, throw them in your Crock Pot and melt it until it can be smelled throughout the Middle Kingdom, from Beijing to Hong Kong. Apply liberally to the pulverized pork, and you have the stinky middle child of your Medley Layer Family in place.

I know for a fact that the Master Chef at Xiamen’s House Of Mexico had never been exposed to salsa. Or Picante, Pico De Gallo, Ranchero, Guacamole, Chimichurri Sauce, Habaneros, or Chipotle. This guy had never even seen a bottle of Wal-Mart’s Old El Paso Picante Sauce from New Jersey. So he improvised. The upper stuff in his nacho photos was red. Tomatoes are red. He needed red stuff.  So he took a large can of Campbell’s Tomato Paste and put three thick slices of it on top of the Limburgermunster cheese. We could still see the ring marks from the Campbell’s can.

Remember my Chinese stereotype, the one where they don’t like cheese or dairy? The chef's photo of nachos probably showed a dollop of sour cream on top of the Chips Beef Medley Layer Family. Native Chinese can’t imagine eating sour cream.

What to do, what to do?

Instead of sour cream, they topped off the rice chips, the shaved pork, the Dr. Scholl’s Shoe Insert Cheese, and the slices of tomato paste with…. A big ol’ scoop of Kool Whip.

I’ve probably spent six months in China, and have had only four or five bad meals. Of the bad meals, this was the one I enjoyed the most. Jason, Jeremy and I didn’t act like The Ugly Americans. We were polite. We used the rice chips to dig out the shredded pork. We drank. We bonded. We drank some more. 

Having learned our lesson, we decided to stop experimenting with Asian/Mexican Fusion Food. We vowed to eat the next night where the Chinese eat, to experience what the locals were eating. The next night, we ate at Kentucky Fried Chicken.


Jim Hodge said...

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The Whited Sepulchre said...

And when considering the various ingredients in making nachos, a cook must always have salsa and sour cream.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, they need to communicate with their brethren in Mexicali (which has a large Asian-emigre population) and get some hints!


ΛΕΟΝΙΔΑΣ said...

Some of the best Mexican food (and adult beverage) I ever experienced during a two year peripatetic residence in that charming nation was Husong's Cantina in Enseñada, Baja California.
Go figure.

Fester said...

It amazes me that they thought they could make a go of a "Mexican" restaurant without ever having been to Mexico or even read a Mexican cookbook.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

Barack Obama has never run a business in his life, but has taken over auto companies and the entire U.S. medical system.

Which is weirder - the Xiamen Mexican restaurant, or The Idiot who's not even qualified to run a car wash taking over a significant chunk of the economy?