It’s not every day that you get to slurp light, miniature dumplings filled with soup. It’s not every day that you eat truffles, either, which made my first meal with my girlfriend in Shanghai all the more amazing. My plans to bring Sarah back to the lovely romantic hotel room with a view of the bund had been somewhat foiled by surly staff, the absence of decent wine, and the fact that I accidentally blocked the toilet as soon as we got home. Time which should have been better spent was filled with listening to the plumber and cleaning lady arguing loudly in heavily accented Chinese about whether or not there was a blockage, or if the toilet was in fact broken.
It took me a long time to recover from the shame, but once I did, we resolved to have a romantic dinner to make up for it. We headed out for a fancy little soup-dumpling restaurant, which Sarah’s guidebook had recommended. It turned out to be in the middle of a shopping mall. There was a stone courtyard outside the mall, with several restaurants (all packed) along the way to the front gate. One of them even had a fountain.
We found the restaurant easily enough, it looked out over the courtyard from the second floor, though there was a line. We were given a number, and told to come back in 20 minutes. Neither of us was dying of hunger, so we decided to see just what comprised a Shanghai mall. The mall in Hefei is gleaming, bright, and mostly taken up by a massive supermarket (Jia Le Fu). The upper floors are full of the fanciest Chinese restaurants, and the ground floor is full of fairly expensive clothing stores. The New Heaven and Earth Shopping Center in which Sarah and I found ourselves was similarly gleaming, but many times the size, but more interesting was how many of the stores were international. There were multiple sushi restaurants, and many Western name brand stores, in addition to Chinese ones. Sarah and I wandered in and out of stores, all trying desperately to be hip and fashionable, continually shocked by price-tags for six thousand yuan shirts made from torn burlap sacks and the like. I had always thought of malls as culture vacuums in the US, but in Shanghai in particular, they are bastions of the conspicuous consumption which defines the growing “middle class” (i.e. super-rich, let’s get real) of China. (Think movies like “Go, Lala, Go!”)
We returned, somewhat shellshocked, to the restaurant, which was a well lit, surgically clean series of tables separated by partitions. Through a glass wall, we could see armies of chefs (all men) making dumplings. The waitresses (all very beautiful, all women) emerged periodically from some sort of elevator, bearing steamers of dumplings.
We sat down at our table, ordered a glass of hard Chinese cider apiece and looked at the menu. I inhaled sharply. I had spent the previous several months eating 3-yuan fried-egg and meat sandwiches from roadside stands, and slurping five yuan noodles from grubby restaurants, so the price-tag of 50 yuan for five little dumplings was a bit of a shock, but then I looked at the words next to the prices: Truffle and chicken dumplings, steamed morning-glory, sticky rice-cakes. It was gonna be soooooo worth it! The last time I had eaten truffles was possibly never, and I didn’t even know morning glory was edible. We ordered both, and several steamers of chicken and vegetable soup-dumplings.
Sarah and I sat, making lovey-dovey talk and holding hands. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a fancy-looking Chinese family was staring at us, but that didn’t matter. Sarah was here, and we would be eating truffles in a few minutes. The cider was slightly tart, and sweet with lovely thickness in the texture. It was delicious, and we had to pace ourselves.
The best thing about eating with chopsticks is that you can hold hands across the table. Sarah’s eyes are beautiful light brown, with a hint of green around the edges. The morning-glory was almost buttery, and laced with thinly sliced red pepper, and the chicken-spinach dumplings were light but filling. The soup was rich and sweet, and the meat filling was chewy and delicious. I showed Sarah how to bite off the top of the wrapper and suck out the soup before eating the dumpling itself.
The last steamer arrived. We lifted the lid, and looked in, hearts pounding. Inside the massive steamer were five tiny dumplings, spaced widely apart. We each set one on a spoon, and bit the tops off, chewing the al-dente wrappers, and watching the steam rise. Then we sucked out the soup. It was heavenly. The thick liquid was rich and suffused with the earthy taste of truffles, and gently nestled into each wrapper was a hefty slice of truffle. Not a single shaving of a dried truffle. Not a single drop of truffle oil. A hefty chunk of dark, fragrant mushroom, next to the chicken filling. We took as long as we possibly could with each bite, savoring the taste and texture and warmth, gazing into each others eyes as we had simultaneous mouthgasms.
As we left the restaurant, we held hands. We had a date with my classmates at a massive gay club called “Obama,” which took forever to find. It was a cavernous, circular place, not unlike some kind of baroque cathedral with spotlights and laser lights swooping around and booming yet not overpowering oddly lyrical techno music. The golden walls had ten foot high relief imprints of naked torsos, and the outer ring of the room was full of couches, tables and gogo dancing platforms. The center of the room was sunk below street level, a giant dance floor surrounding a stage where shirtless muscled men gyrated. There were hundred upon hundreds upon hundreds of gay men, all circling around the outer arcade, with still hundreds more below packed onto the dance floor.
Sarah and I downed something alcoholic, and swam through the sea of music-washed testosterone-bodies, down into the dance floor. The room was steamy, and we both started to sweat a little. Sarah flipped her reddish blonde hair out of her eyes, and took me in her arms. She had taken off my glasses, so everything was a swaying colorful blurr, everything except her. She was glittering. She held me tight and we swayed together for hours, drinking each other in. I laid my head on her shoulder. She smelled like truffles.