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Three Cultures, One Restaurant

by Helen Rich

Personal Perspectives

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 8 and 27

The following has become known among friends, old and new, as my 'Chinese restaurant story.' It is so unusual I am sure that there are those that doubt its veracity, but I can assure you that the following happened exactly as detailed below. I do not know that this tale has any significance, aside from entertainment unless perhaps it illustrates what can happen when three distinct cultures come together in a food service setting. How customs, perceptions, etiquette differ. How one person's food pleasure is another person's well, pet! So brace yourselves for an overseas adventure in dining.

This strange story took place in Seville, Spain circa 1986. I had invited a young male friend to dine with me and he suggested a new Chinese restaurant in the center of town. He had a passion for Peking Duck, in which he rarely indulged. He was living on taxi driver wages and I owed him big time as he had chauffeured me around his native Seville in search of my lost collie shepherd, Lucky. We did find the dog three weeks into the search. Now was the time for a celebration dinner.

Allow me to set the scene. I had just ordered a Sichuan shrimp and a vegetable dish and sat happily taking in my surroundings. The restaurant was rather empty, as it was only six o'clock in the evening. Spanish custom is to dine late--between 10 pm and 11 pm--the heaviest meal being at midday. I spotted a young Chinese couple sitting at the corner table, and a man of unknown descent enjoying a cafe con leche at the bar. The restaurant had a rustic look and the decor was decidedly Spanish, as indicated by the orange tile floor coverings and heavy, dark wooden tables. Only a few casually hung pictures with Chinese characters hinted that a Chinese meal could be had here. My back faced a white, concrete stucco wall.

As my companion and I chatted happily, I could see his eyes move to a spot on the wall directly above my head. I followed his gaze and was surprised to see a small lizard. He could not have been more than two inches long, his skin the color of a Spanish olive. He was resting not more than three feet from the tip of my nose. Delighted with this unexpected encounter with nature, I cooed in American fashion, my mouth soon forming a great big grin, my attention now fixed on the small green reptile, with his cautious movements and bulging eyes. My dinner partner was unmoved. It was not uncommon to see lizards in Andalusia, being a dry, arid land with rugged terrain and well, frankly, the Spanish just don't get real excited about such things. My dinner companion graciously allowed me my American eccentricity while he crunched on fingerfuls of fried Chinese noodles and sipped tea from his cup.

A waiter appeared with our food, hot and sizzling, filling the air with fragrant aromas. I barely noticed, however, so ensconced was I with my new wall companion. Excitedly I pointed out the small verdant creature to our attendant and that's when this story begins to take a gruesome turn.

Love him like I do, was all I was trying to say when I pointed out the small olive green spot on the wall above my head. It was obvious to me that our waiter was looking up at an uninvited guest as an intruder. I now feared what he might do, as he stood there with a furrowed brow, apparently concerned, mumbling in Chinese, something which neither my dinner partner nor I could understand. After a few tense moments, the waiter finally vanished into the kitchen.

Relieved, I took a final glimpse above my head then focused my attention on my entre and my dinner companion, both of which now seemed to be calling my name. My love affair with sauteed Chinese vegetables and fruit from the sea was short lived, however. Some minutes later, the waiter resurfaced, this time he was not carrying a plate of food but rather a thin pole about three feet in length. It appeared to be made of wood and it had a very sharp edge–it was a spear!

Hurriedly the waiter approached our table. Aiming the lance directly over my head, he eyed his prey and lunged forth. "No," I screamed! My intention was not for him to kill the creature, just to enjoy him as I had. He paid me no mind and continued forth with his mission, piercing the poor reptile through his middle. I dared not move knowing the sharp edged weapon was only arms length from my scalp. With his fresh kill now resting on the sharp end of the spear, the waiter looked at us, smiled, and with a nod of his head turned on his heels and triumphantly disappeared into the kitchen.

My companion and I stared at each other in disbelief. Even in Spain, the land of surrealistic dreams, scenes like this were best kept for the Dali’s, Bunuel’s, and these days the Almodovar’s. Adding to my shock and sense of unreality was the feeling of guilt I now harbored as I acknowledged that I was responsible for the death of the lizard. Had I not drawn attention to him, I reminded myself, he would still be alive, crawling on walls, hiding under rocks, enjoying a lizard's life. My companion soon shook off the incident and continued to savor his meal. I was hard-pressed to down another mouthful.

The waiter revisited our table later that evening. Cheerful and smiling, he cleared away our dinner plates. Would we like to order dessert, he wanted to know? We both ordered a cafe con leche and I asked for the check. He took our order obligingly and said that he was going to bring us something special, 'on the house; a great Chinese delicacy.' My friend appeared delighted. A busboy was sent to bring us our coffees while our waiter followed closely behind carrying a bottle and two small glasses. It appeared to be a bottle of liquor. As he neared I could see something floating around the inside of the narrow mouth jar. Cherries, perhaps? No, they were bigger than cherries; plums, maybe? The Chinese are known for their delicious plum wines. As he placed the glasses then the bottle on the table the floating objects now came into view-- they were lizards, six of them to be precise.

I vaguely recalled hearing that lizard liquor was a Chinese delicacy, but considering the happenings earlier in the evening, I could feel my stomach turn. I could not help but wonder if my little friend was amongst the unfortunate reptiles whose destiny it had been to become fermented and distilled. My dinner companion I am sure was wondering the same judging by the confused look on his face and the goosey shrug of his shoulders.

We nervously glanced at each other, then our glasses, as they were being filled, trying to figure out the origins of this strange elixir. As if reading our minds, our waiter laughed, clutching the bottle in his hands and said, "salud, cheers, and good health" as he turned back into the kitchen, taking his strange concoction with him.

Was it Spanish machismo or mere curiosity that prompted my dinner partner to sample the carnivorous brew? Holding the shot glass to his mouth, he took a deep breath, then swallowed the liquid in one fierce gulp. I waited for a verdict, my face scrunched up in a mix of excitement, gorge and anticipation. "Not bad," he said, and that was that. We discussed it no further.

Since then, I have learned a bit about the 'Tokay Gecko,' a five-toed reptile that can grow to about twelve inches in length. Known as Gekko gecko or gecko linnaeus and in the family Gakkonidae, these lizards are sold in Hong Kong and Taiwan in snake shops both alive and pickled in wine. I never did find anything in the culinary literature. However, the gecko is one of five hundred and twenty-two items specified in the 1995 Phamopoeia of the People’s Republic of China. They may not be popular outside of their medicinal usage, but they surely were a hit or should I say a popular stab in Spain by my Chinese waiter.

For your information, the Chinese materia medica does discuss their use dried or powdered and taken alone and/or with other medicinals. The reasons they give include to reinforce the functions of the lung and the kidney, to relieve asthma, and to promote virility. You can learn more about them there and in other Chinese medical literature and by reading the Lizards and Liquor article in this very issue written by Helen Chen.

Perhaps it is just as well that we were given two glasses, only my friend consumed some. There is also the question as to whether the chap on the wall a gejie, as the Chinese call lizards, a distant cousin, or something further afield? Though also used to replenish a person’s qi, or vital essence, must confess I’m glad I passed then and can assure you I will continue to do so any time I see one in wine, alcohol, or anything or any way else, for that matter.
Helen Rich earned a degree in Family and Consumer Sciences. Before that she worked in the Canary Islands, Spain for seven years. Now living in Flushing, New York, she delights in uncovering authentic Chinese fare as she quickly becomes a fan; she reports it a 'marvelous culture and a sumptuous cuisine.'

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