A Pakistani Gourmand in China
By N.A. Bhatti
April 4, 1999
Chinese food appears to be the most popular of all foreign foods available in Pakistan. Come any occasion for celebration in any of the country’s capitals, federal or provincial, the demand rings out: “Phir Cheeni khana ho jae!” (So let’s have Chinese food!”) After a month’s torture of daal-chaawal or aaloo-bengan with roti, you can appreciate the feelings of the Israelites who had to tolerate 40 years of mun-salwa in the Sinai desert and cried out in agony to Jehovah for onions and lentils, herbs and vegetables … but you know the story.
So off you go with the family to a Chinese restaurant identifiable by its name that invariably smacks of Old Cathay: The Golden Dragon, Eastern Peace, Moonlight Happiness and so on.
They might make a show of catering for genuine Chinese food [but] by and large the so-called Chinese restaurants in the country do not and cannot come up to pukka Chinese standards. Merely adding Monosodium-Glutamate – popularly known as Chinese salt – or soya sauce to a dish of Pakistani ingredients hashed together by a “Chinese cook” from Swat, Gilgit or Hunza in an apron and drooping Mongol mustache does not make the real thing.
The restaurant may be decorated with traditional red and golden dragons, they may lay out “ivory” chopsticks – actually plastic, as ivory is internationally banned – the menus may be printed in Chinese and English, you may be greeted with a pleasant “Nee How” (“How are you?”), but the fact remains that, with rare exception, you dn’t get 100% genuine Chinese food. It was, therefore, but natural, that as soon as Mr. G. landed in Beijing several years ago, he greeted the Pakistani Protocol Officer who had come to the airport to receive the three-man technical delegation to China with,”Wa alaikum salaam! What kind of food will they give us here, Chinese or English?”
“It’s up to you, Sir,” I replied. “How was the trip from Karachi, Sir?”
“Array, leave these niceties and tell me is it really hot and spicy?”
“Which food have you in mind, Sir?”
“Chinese, of course! I am surprised at your intelligence!”
“But, Sir, I think . . . “
“No buts and no thinking, Mr. B! I have been eating so-called Chinese food in Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Allah knows where else, for 20 years. But I never had the chance of eating genuine Chinese food. Now that I am in China, which damn idiot is going to miss this God-sent opportunity?”
“You are probably right, Sir, but I think . . . “
“There you go again with your buts and thinking! So now tell me who are the greatest spice eaters in China?”
“The Hunanese and Szechuanese, Sir.”
“Ah, Chairman Mao Tse-tung’s province, Hunan, is that the one?”
The Chinese Foreign Office man returned after completing all formalities and we departed for the hotel. After settling down I made a suggestion to Mr. G., the chaskaora delegation leader who had made my life miserable for me.
“Throughout the tour, you’ll be attending one formal meal daily with some Party or government official. Chinese hospitality is lavish – 20 items or so on the menus – so I suggest that as soon as you are informed of the day’s programme, you may make necessary adjustments accordingly.”
“Adjustments! What adjustments?”
“I mean, Sir, if there is a banquet at night, you might have a light lunch, or if an official lunch is laid on, you might go easy on the breakfast, say a glass of orange juice.”
Mr. G. almost exploded. Service discipline prevented me from manhandling Mr. G. but his behaviour sent my blood pressure soaring.
“Sorry, Sir, I’ll not raise this matter again.”
The next morning after a debriefing in the Pakistan Embassy, we departed on an official tour of north-east, central and south China: the Pakistani delegation, an Official of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and myself. Throughout our three week jaunt in China, Mr. G. did more than full justice to spicy Chinese food three times a day, come hell or high water. He floated in a gourmet’s paradise, munching and crunching, slurping and burping his way through the Celestial Kingdom. He devoured Chinese breakfast, Chinese lunches and Chinese dinners as if each meal was going to be his last this side of eternity. Or rather, as if there wasn’t going to be a hereafter.
In spite of my hint to him the first day, he would launch a blitzkrieg on every dish that appeared on the table. Occasionally he would put up a show of modesty by a sham protest to our hosts that he was absolutely full but inwardly he drooled with delight when his hosts ladled a third helping on to his plate.
With a loud burp, he would leap into the arena once more and launch a ferocious attack on the goodies with such gusto as had never been witnessed in gastronomic history. Chinese food was after all Chinese food.
Dead tired after three weeks of travelling by air, train, ferry and coach, we parted company at the then Sino-British border, the delegation to carry on to Karachi via Hong Kong and I to return to Beijing. Mr. G. promised to dispatch his tour report as soon as he reached Karachi.
A week passed, two, three, four, but we received no news of Mr. G. We contacted our man in Hong Kong. Back came his response within a couple of days. It transpired that spicy Hunanese and Szechuanese dishes had done the trick and Mr. G. had landed in Hong Kong’s Queen Mary Hospital where he had received several blood transfusions for a badly leaking exhaust pipe. Khao Cheenie khana! Aur khao!
I suggest that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should, while briefing delegations to China, include a warning that while genuine Cheeni khana is extremely popular in Pakistan, they shouldn’t go overboard with Hunanese and Szechuanese cuisine and end up with a gastronomical disaster as demonstrated by Mr. G. years ago.