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What's food got to do with it?

By Lane Turner
Globe Staff / April 14, 2010

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HONG KONG — Don’t get me wrong. I love Chinese food. Scallion pancakes. Spicy Sichuan Ma po dofu stew. Beijing duck. Dumplings! I eat Chinese food all the time by choice. But there was a time when I didn’t have a choice. I was living in a dorm in Beijing, studying Mandarin in an intensive language immersion program at Capital Normal University. The campus was far from the diplomatic neighborhood that had a few Western food options. In 1997, just getting a cup of coffee meant a long subway ride. My schoolwork was so consuming that I just didn’t have time to go more than a block or two for food, and so for five months all I ate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner was Beijing “feng wei’’ (local flavor) cuisine.

When I travel, food is always a highlight of the trip, if not the reason for the trip itself. I’ll try anything. A favorite from China had been the drunken shrimp — live shrimp swimming in bai jiu, a white grain alcohol that can just as easily burn out your tongue as get you silly drunk. The shrimp are said to be drunk, but they still put up a fight — at least until you start pulling off their little legs and popping them whole and wriggling into your mouth. They do not taste like chicken. Neither does snake soup or stir-fried squilla, a genus of manta shrimp that looks more like an alien movie monster than it does a meal.

But after five months I had had enough. I got a craving for steamed broccoli about two months into my stay, and had been trying in vain to find some ever since. Each local restaurant I frequented was always out. “Do you have broccoli,’’ I would ask every night. And every night the waitress would answer, “Mei you.’’ (Don’t have.) Four months into the semester I asked again one night and to my overjoyed surprise, a plate of hot, fresh broccoli was placed before me. I devoured it and asked for another. “Mei you,’’ came the reply. They had run out. I wanted to scream.

I longed for familiar comfort food. It got so that just looking at rice made me angry. I wanted a burger. I wanted pizza. I wanted spaghetti. But most of all, I wanted breakfast. It’s always like that for me. I’m game for anything later in the day, but I like to start off with something I know. I want a bowl of cereal. Toast. Eggs. Pancakes. Maybe I had too many greasy diner breakfasts growing up, but I can’t fight the need for an American breakfast.

Mercifully, the semester came to a close and I got on a train out of Beijing. A couple more months of travel around the mainland exposed me to plenty of delicious and exotic dishes, but didn’t get me any closer to an American breakfast. Finally Hong Kong appeared on the horizon. After waking up in the infamous and cheap backpackers’ crash pad known as Chungking Mansion, I walked out into the morning sunshine and saw my salvation: golden arches.

I never, ever eat at McDonald’s, particularly in a country offering such dazzling choices as China does. But my desire for an Egg McMuffin was overwhelming. I ordered two. I wolfed the first one down in an instant. I might have been noisy, and people might have stared. I didn’t notice. The second one didn’t last much longer. The third I couldn’t finish. Shouldn’t have had the large orange juice. Haven’t had an Egg McMuffin since.