Two years ago, while visiting Shanghai, I had a saying that went somewhere along the lines of, “Fruits, salad, bread and beer.” At the time, I didn’t know much about where to go or what to ask for, but I knew that most everything I experienced in China was cooked with or based around unusual (to a Westerner) meat, such as chicken feet, pig’s face and scorpions. This time, I vowed to myself to bring plenty of Clif Bars and stick with what I was certain would not be a foreign meat in some rare form.
Then Leigh Ramsdell went on Happy Cow, and we decided to do a little exploring. Happy Cow is a Web site that allows users to list, rate and review vegetarian restaurants the world over. As it happened, Shanghai had a few vegan-friendly restaurants, so we got Chinese directions from the hotel concierge and headed out.
The first place we visited, a restaurant about two miles from the hotel, looked a bit suspect. But the one English word the wait staff could speak was, “Ve-gan,” and that’s all it took. There was no English on the menus, and the waiter used his phone to translate what the pictures we pointed at on the menu were. I would point at a picture, he would type Chinese into his phone, then let me look at the English translation. The first picture I pointed at, I thought was a pretty simple mixture of tofu and vegetables. When he showed me his phone, it read “Fungus flower,” which I took to mean mushrooms.
In the end, we played it safe, pointed at two dishes and hoped for the best. The first dish, a mix of chili peppers, peanuts and mock chicken (we hoped) was really good, but the next dish threw us off. At first we thought it was a mix of mock chicken and green beans. I grabbed some green beans with my chopsticks and dug in. But the green beans were hot peppers. Hotter than most things I’m accustomed to eating. Our mouths roared with fire, but we continued picking at the dishes and determined that things were okay, even with a huge communication barrier.
The next night, we tried a new place. Called The Loving Hut, the restaurant quickly became a daily destination for us. The food was cheap and the friendly proprietor didn’t mind tossing his English skills around with us. They even had an English section on the menu, meaning we knew what we getting into now. (Sorry, we’re dumb Americans.)
My first night, I had traditional Chinese noodles and the same combination of chili peppers, peanuts and mock chicken from the other restaurant. The traditional noodle were akin to American lo-mein, but the Chinese American taste in China spared me from a week of straight fruits, vegetables and bread, and I was glad for that. The rest of the week, we feasted on fried mock pork cutlets, curried potatoes, something that tasted exactly like chow mein, various soups, flatbread and mock meats. When we would finish, the staff would politely wish us a good night and ask for us to come back.
The walk back from The Loving Hut to the hotel took about 20 minutes each night, and along the way, we would buy cheap beer while peering into the market windows of the many shops and restaurants along the road, as children from the shops played on the bustling sidewalk. Occasionally, we would stop and marvel at a “Strong Man” condom machine placed on a wall around a sharp corner in the road, but mostly, we were just glad that The Loving Hut was there to feed us.