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Negotiating For a Goose in China

I am currently writing a sequel to ‘The Witch of Wanchai’. The new story begins in 88 BC in the Han Dynasty. Emperor Wu Di of Han commissions a jade burial suit to be made of the finest jade in the world, ‘mutton fat’ jade found in the Karakash River of southwest Xinjiang near Galwan Kangri Peak. The novel follows the jade burial suit through its manufacture and the intrigue of the Han Dynasty Court, where eunuchs, concubines, and royal siblings jockey for power until the Emperor’s demise.

The story then picks up in the 1920’s when an English grave robber steals the jade suit from Emperor Wu’s tomb in Xi’An. The nefarious Englishman stops in Burma on his way back home for a tiger hunt, but when his elephant keels over after ingesting too much opium (long story there) the Englishman is thrown to the ground and is mauled to death by a wounded tiger.

In the 1980’s the jade suit ends up in an art auction in Hong Kong but then mysteriously disappears before it is sold. Decades later the search for Emperor Wu’s priceless burial suit becomes heated as a Chinese group of high-tech, international mercenaries, a Burmese-hired psychotic killer with a Maori tattoo on his face who disassembles and then re-assembles his victims, and a Japanese yakuza boss who had possession of it for a while, leave a trail of dead bodies to obtain it. The team of Hong Kong detectives, Ian, Angela, and Nigel, must find the suit and stop the carnage.

Back to roasted goose and Emperor Wu. When I write, since I am soooo addicted to food, I try to set the stage by describing the tastes of the period that I am writing about. I was sure that I could do something with roast goose in the Han Dynasty as it such a classic cuisine here in China. To my surprise my Internet research revealed that roast goose did not become popular in China until the Yuan Dynasty, considerably after the Han Dynasty. Poor Emperor Wu never experienced the crispy skin and succulent meat of a roast goose!

I, however, am able to experience this delicacy. I am always delighted to find a restaurant in my travels that serves good local food cooked in the traditional style. When I travel to Shenzhen I typically stay at a very local hotel. Nice hotel, cheap price, funky neighbourhood. The surrounding restaurants serve mostly what I classify as ghetto food. Complaining about the poor restaurant choices the other day, a colleague responded, “Hey, there is a famous local roast goose restaurant very near your hotel. You should try it.” Good goose restaurant? I am there!

A short walk from the hotel I found the goose restaurant, recognizable by the line of browned, glistening, perfectly roasted geese hanging from hooks in the window. Yum! Roast goose is a particular specialty of southern China. I walk in, savoring the smell of roasting geese, enjoying the chopping sound of cleaver on wooden cutting board as the chefs chop the geese before plating them, and I say to the host, “One person, please”. The restaurant was crowded, and I was seated at a round linoleum table with strangers. They glanced at me suspiciously, and rightfully so; a foreigner in this neighborhood, in this restaurant, what’s the world coming to?

There was going to be a hurdle to get over, however. A local restaurant with a following will not have pictures on their menu, which is a big deal for a foreigner who cannot read Chinese. Sure, I can speak Mandarin reasonably well, but a preschooler has a better chance of being able to read a Chinese menu. If a menu has pictures I can point to the photo and say, “I want that.” It works. In this case I would have to do what I always do in such a situation. I would have to make ‘The Confession’.

‘The Confession’ involves announcing to the waiter in Mandarin as he hands me a menu, “I cannot read Chinese characters.” This is similar to an introduction at a twelve-step program, “I am David, and I have a problem.” What is the worst that could happen? Laughed out of the restaurant? Forcibly ejected? Well, one time at a restaurant in Hong Kong a waitress tried to shoo me out, but that was an exception. Usually the staff is very cooperative and will explain what fare is on offer.

I delivered ‘The Confession’ in perfectly accented Mandarin to the waiter who appeared bored senseless by his job at the goose restaurant and life in general. It did not take. Sometimes when a foreigner speaks Chinese, no matter how good the pronunciation, it just doesn’t take. The brain of the recipient of your eloquence refuses to process that a foreigner is speaking Chinese. This was one of those cases. The waiter stared blankly at me as if on ketamine, and then without a word turned and got the proprietor. She instantly comprehended that the foreign barbarian before her actually was speaking Chinese, and that he was saying that he could not read Chinese characters and so could not decipher the menu. Now we’re getting someplace.

The word for goose in Chinese is e, pronounced something like ‘euhw’, a sound that occurs in zero words in the English language. It also has to be said like it is a question because it is the up-rising tone (Mandarin has four tones, and if you use the wrong tone you will not be understood). Euhw? I want Euhw? I suspect they came up with the name for ‘goose’ in China thousands of years ago by imitating the sound of a honking goose (actually, a goose honking a question). I felt foolish, what if I am pronouncing the word all wrong? Hey, Wang, check out this foreigner honking like a goose.

The word for ‘roast’ is shao, hence roast goose is shao e.

Me: I want Shao Euhw? Shao Euhw?

Her: Shao Euhw? Shao Euhw?

Me: Yes, Shao Euhw?

Her: Good, Shao Euhw?

She got it! A honking success! As I waited I looked around the restaurant and everyone was eating the same dish. This restaurant did one thing, goose, and they did it very well. So why do they even need a menu if everyone is eating the same thing???

A plate of vegetables, rice, and goose was soon set in front of me. There was a cup of sweet plum sauce for dipping. The bird had been chopped into slices still on the bone. Guangdong roast goose is seasoned with spices and cooked over high heat in a charcoal furnace, rendering the skin a dark mahogany, very crispy, and the meat is moist and juicy. Fantastic! Tough luck, Emperor Wu, this is good!