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28 September 2011 / leggypeggy

Lost and found—a fishy story

A fish dish extraordinaire. Thank you Lijiang China.

A fish dish extraordinaire. Thank you Lijiang China.

Lijiang, in the Yunnan Province of China, is a true tourist town. Originally part of the old backpacker trail, it remains popular with travellers of all ages. In fact, it seems overrun with tourists.

To cater for these hordes of visitors, the old city (which looks old but was entirely rebuilt after a severe earthquake in 1996) is packed with hundreds of restaurants and shops selling an unbelievable array of food, souvenirs, jewellery, knick knacks, clothes, shoes, artworks, Chinese medicines and even dried yak meat.

We like to stroll through these tourist traps, but when it comes to actual shopping or eating, we try to get as far away as possible. A tourist trap might look glitzy and have a menu in English, but we find the out-of-the-way places more fun, good quality and usually better value for money.

The other day we traipsed up and down the shopping walkways searching for the China Post office, which we finally found. Oh joy! It cost a mere $32 to send home a 6-kilo box filled with the winter clothes and gear (such as merino sleeping bag liners) we brought on the trip. It’s all warm weather ahead so we decided to lighten our load (we have some time without the truck so the less we need to carry, the better).

So after the post office success, we did what the guidebooks say all tourists end up doing in the old town—we got lost. After we followed various lanes and turned this way and that, we had to switch to our inner automatic pilots to plot a path out. Poor John is quite good on navigation and like most men refuses to ask directions. That doesn’t really matter in China, where probably no one would understand the questions anyway.

When we surfaced on a main street, we were pretty sure we knew where we were, and directly opposite us was a hole-in-the-wall restaurant called ‘Delicious Hot and Sour Fish’. No, we can’t read Chinese, but the sign over the shop was also written in English.

Poor John perked up and said ‘Let’s eat here before we leave Lijiang.’ I was quick to agree. We hadn’t had real fish in quite a while (tinned tuna doesn’t count) because we’ve been landlocked in Central Asia and because too many of our travelling companions aren’t keen on fish, so it’s never purchased for meals.

So 24 hours later, we set out to re-find Delicious Hot and Sour Fish. We headed straight to the maze of shopping so we could get ourselves lost again. Hey, we could have gone on the main road—the way we knew—but the adventure seemed more important and certainly more challenging.

When we popped out on the main road again, Poor John argued that we were above the restaurant and I was certain that we were below it. I’m almost never right on these occasions, but I was 100 per cent sure that we had seen the woman selling eight kinds of rice AFTER we had seen the sign for Delicious Hot and Sour Fish. So up the hill we went and I was RIGHT. I’ll just savour that small and rare directional victory for a moment.

We stood outside for a few moments before the host beckoned us in. The restaurant had five low tables with eight stools each, all kindergarten height, and we chose one near the back wall. Two tables were already full of young men playing cards.

This is one of those perplexing times—you know what you want, but how do you get the message across? In the end, Poor John went out and pointed to the Chinese characters written above Delicious Hot and Sour Fish. Too easy. The host fished a live fish out of the tank and, more or less, asked if that size was okay. Yes, yes, we agreed. We motioned that the meal was for two, and that was that. Oh, except that the host came back once to confirm that we wanted chillies included in the makings. Yes please!

As we waited, it suddenly it occurred to us that the two tables of young men were ONLY playing cards. They had beer and tea, but no food. Oh dear, we thought, is this the local pub/gambling hall? Everyone seemed to know everyone and the whole place had a very small-town feel to it. Could we have stumbled into a non-restaurant? But before long a huge bowl of food arrived at one of the card-playing tables, and dinner became their priority.

In another few minutes, the two empty tables filled (and at least eight fish were selected from the tank). A massive amount of food was delivered to the other card-playing table too. Whew! This may be the local gambling hall, but it’s known and popular and the food is important too.

Within 20 minutes our meal came. A sort of fish stew-soup, with four whole fish in a divine tomato-based hot and sour broth. It was loaded with vegetables AND loaded with flavour. Oh wow, what a meal! One of the highlight meals of our entire trip—I must make a favourites list. We will remember this meal always and I will try to recreate at least some of it at home.

We attacked our single huge bowl of deliciousness with chopsticks and small porcelain spoons, and ate for a solid 30 minutes, breathing occasionally. I didn’t fully recognise a few of the ingredients. There may have been mini sharks’ eggs, and some squid that might not have been squid but then what was it? The baby spring onions were amazing. We slurped and slopped and did what the Chinese do—left our mess of bones and such on the plastic tablecloth.

After all this pleasure, we dreaded the coming of the bill. We hadn’t fixed a price first—it all happened so fast. But the place was full of locals, so we were fairly confident that any attempt to cheat us would be exposed. So Poor John motioned how much and the answer came 40 yuan—or less than $7 for the both of us. That covered the fish stew, rice and tea.

We were totally shocked in every way. A meal that beat the socks off most meals we’ve had in the last four months, and at a price about half of what we expected. Thanks Lijiang and Delicious Hot and Sour Fish for a memorable experience.

7 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Sy S. / Sep 28 2011 1:08 pm

    Peggy and John,

    >>>Poor John is quite good on navigation and like most men refuses to ask directions. That doesn’t really matter in China, where probably no one would understand the questions anyway<<<
    I can't stop LAUGHING,,,, so bad, that my eyes watered up and it was hard to read the complete post LOL.

    Second, the fish soup sounds fantastic. good photo…. great to get an outstanding meal for little money!

    Very good post, we want more! We who read this blog are very demanding!

    Sy S.

    Like

  2. Zarinah Adam / Sep 30 2011 8:24 am

    Oh Peg, you are a gem…a sleepless night led me back to catch up with your travels and it’s now 8am and I’m feeling surprisingly fresh and ‘bright’ ;). What a wonderful journey, you’ve taken my breath away at sea level without having to move from my very cosy bed. You’ve left me with this last post hungry for more.
    Give poor John my love and a hug.
    Love, love, love you Peg!
    Zarinah xoxo

    Like

  3. Debbie Bott / Oct 5 2011 4:11 am

    Great post. Some good points you highlight in there.

    Like

  4. Nona Shinagawa Myers / Oct 5 2011 2:15 pm

    Peggy – Guizhou is known for hot and sour freshwater fish so no doubt it would be poplar where you are in Yunnang. The sour is coming from pickles and not vinegar.

    Like

  5. Vicki / Oct 15 2015 11:02 pm

    That meal sounds and looks divine.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Oct 16 2015 7:19 am

      It was wonderful and I can still envision the small restaurant with its tables of diners and card players.

      Like

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