Gōngbǎo Jīdīng The spicy stir-fry dish from the Sichuan Province in western China. A combination of chicken cubes, vegetables, peanuts, chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, 3 cups of oil, and 2 tablespoons of MSG. Known as “Kung Pow Chicken” to Westerners, it is thought the dish was created by a Qing Dynasty official who was a one-time governor of Sichuan. His title, Gōngbǎo, translates to “Palace Guardian”. Since it’s creation, the dish has gained international recognition for its salty and sweet tastes. It’s a Chinese comfort food. Each restaurant has it’s own unique tang but nonetheless, the participants all end up in the same dire place. My adventure to this place is detailed below. Hope you’re not hungry.
The last lesson. One hour and I’m about to Uslan Bolt my way down that hallway. My whole day has been rushed. Wake up, bike to my morning kindergarten, finish and bike to the gym, bike home, walk up 4 flights of stairs, eat lunch, bike to my meeting and back home again for an hour before biking to the last 3 hours of evening lessons. Between these adds up to a lot of riding, stairs, and up and down lessons.
“Tonight, I am going to mob some Gōngbǎo!” I say to myself during my last lesson. It pops into my mind while teaching how to count from 10-20. As the thought of the dish slips into my mind my mouth instantly waters. For a moment, I contemplate why certain foods can do that better than others. My mouth never waters at the thought of carrots.
“No, not neeeoooomine, it’s “niiiii-ne (9)”.” I correct Jenny.
“NIIIIII-NE!!!!” Jenny shouts.
“Very good!” I tell her.
My mind can do two things, teach and think about a completely irrelevant topic. So, again I continue my previous thoughts. Perhaps all of the MSG in it is what gets me. The creamy texture of the orange sauce, crunch of peanuts, and taste of flavor packed onions is soft and easy to devour. That satisfying silkiness and the salt must be why my mouth waters. It already knows it’s about to be dehydrated.
And the clock struck 8:00PM. I bust out of work, unlock my bike, and make haste to the Mum and Pops’ restaurant. I crank down on the pedals and weave through fruit vendor trucks parked on every corner. I dodge outdoor table commotion and waiters on the BBQ strip. I speed through my final turn to the neon lit mini strip of broken down restaurants. Many of them are packed with patrons and others empty with the owners sitting at tables playing cards. Outside my joint hangs a LED light flashing Chinese characters, which reads as “Open.” The windows are mucky and from the outside it’s difficult to see in. I open the front door and hear the familiar loud screech because it’s off hinges. I prop the door back up behind me to close it and the top hinge completely snaps off the left door. It hits the ground with a bang. No one notices or cares. I prop it up to a stable stance. These two giant glass doors are a gust of wind away from falling down. I point this out to the waitress passing. She shrugs and ushers me to a table. Never minding that kids motor across the floor in mini plastic cars crashing into shit.
The interior is decorated with plastic tables, dirty silverware, and suit covered Mao paintings. There is a 15-inch box TV in the top corner streaming fuzzy news. It’s tuned up to a deafening volume. I can’t make out the words over drunken conversation of the regulars. The kitchen is hidden in the back with only a little hole the food comes sliding out of. This is for the better; I don’t think I’d like to see the state of that kitchen anyway.
The waitress is a round, middle-aged women, she is polite, but the husband who works there is much less patient. Usually chain smoking cigarettes, he doesn’t find my slow paced Chinese quite as cute as the woman does. I’ve been to this restaurant multiple times; they have some of the best food in Huilongguan (my area of Beijing).
Thankfully, the waitress walks towards me to take my order. She is wearing a dirty apron and hair did up in a mess. She recognizes me, smiles, and puts down the menu. I feel comforted. Her eyes are soft and you can sense she is a loving mother. Being alone in China can be tense. When a person talks loudly at you in a foreign tongue you only remotely understand it’s intimidating. You try but get nowhere with your charades and feel useless. I’m happy she is taking my order tonight. She knows the five or so dishes I habitually order from. I order my Gōngbǎo with a side of rice. She asks if I want the Gōngbǎo over the rice or in a separate bowl. I say separate, and ask for a cold beer. There are no cold beers right now, only warm. Alright, alright, bring me a warm one I regress. The order is placed and my beer is brought over moments later. She pops the top and let’s the cap fall onto the ground. I lean back in my plastic chair but it cuts my back. I fear if I put too much weight back again it’ll snap anyway. I sit up straight, align my shoulders, and gulp down my first sip of fizzy, lukewarm, Yanjin. At only ~3.5% it’s water beer. They put the ”~” because each beer contains a different amount of alcohol. Sometimes they could be 6% or perhaps 2%. Beer isn’t a Chinese forte. The beer tastes like piss and without a doubt the worst beer I‘ve ever drunk. I have a little laugh about how shitty it is then take another swig. Moments later I begin feeling uplifted. Maybe this is a 6%’er or possibly it’s the knowledge that my stomach will soon me full. I shuffle myself on the chair to take a gaze around. People watching in China is always amusing from a foreigner’s eye.
The restaurant is about the size of a typical living room. Just four dirty walls, which appear more gray than white. Across the restaurant two Chinese men probably in their early 30’s sit in tank tops with a few drained bottles of Yanjin and five or six empty plates of food on their table. They are preparing to leave. I hear a roar from the table behind me and my attention drifts. Turning, I see five 50-something year old men. The table is filled with empty bottles and a cloud of smoke lingers above. The ashtrays are overflowing so the men throw fresh cig butts onto the floor still burning. They are drunk and talking about where to go next. Before being noticed, I quickly turn back around as to not be seen. I’m not scared they will be mean, rather the opposite. If noticed chances are I will be invited over to share their food and drinks. Normally, these little invitations turn out to be a hilarious time where you can learn about the real culture of a country. Tonight though, I just want to eat and go home. A full tummy and good nights rest awaits.
Smells and sounds from the kitchen fill the already noisy room. I hear a loud clinging sound and look up to catch a glimpse into the kitchen through the normally closed door. I see the chief. He’s standing back from the stovetop. He is shirtless, lit cig in his mouth, beer in one hand, and flaming pan of greasy food in the other. “Daaammmnnn”, I say out loud. The door shuts and my entertainment closed. I try to make out the reporter’s words coming from the TV but fail. I continue to watch but not really listen. My eyes keep a keen watch on the hole in the wall where my glorious dish of Gōngbǎo will come sliding out of.
Half a beer later and my dish rips through the hole with ferocity. OH YEAH! I sit up from my lounged position and unwrap my chopsticks to prepare myself. The lovely waitress carries the dish over and sees my hungry eyes. She tells me, “Enjoy and don’t burn your mouth.” Hardly making eye contact I tell her thanks. The dish is massive. A heaping mountain of Gōngbǎo and nice bowl of rice on the side. It’s beautiful and I hold off eating an extra moment to snap a picture on my phone.
I begin to eat. And I eat, and eat, and eat. I make a sizeable dent in the dish before feeling topped off. I’ve eaten about half before I shout “Waiter!” in Chinese to ask for a to-go box. My Gōngbǎo is plopped in a plastic box. I decide to wait a few moments to let my stomach settle before biking home.
My stomach is warm and I feel content. I exchange texts with a few friends while picking here and there at my leftovers. I continue this habitually while finishing my beer. I don’t notice until some time later that I have managed to nearly finish my to-go box. There is about a quarter left. It isn’t enough to use for left overs so I continue and terminate the reminder. I’m well full up now. I gather my stuff, pay my bill, and leave.
Biking home is difficult. I don’t quite realize how much food I just ate. I get back to my flat and carry my bike up the stairs. I have to stop half way and belch. I shutter a little…it was a nasty one. I’m inside now and grab a big glass of water before plopping down in front of my computer. As I sit my stomach grumbles. It’s trying to digest the cup of grease I ate. The grumbles begin to turn into cramps. I have to get out of my chair and lay flat on my bed. My stomach feels like there is a soccer ball inside. I lift up my shirt and see that my lower tummy certainly looks bloated. I rub it a little and feel my body trying to digest the Gōngbǎo. I belch again and this one isn’t like the last. It is sour and uncomfortable.
(*Stop reading here if you have a weak stomach)
I think something is up with my stomach. I go to the bathroom and sit. I ration with myself that there is no way a plate of food can be digested in an hour.
I’m so very wrong.
I’m sitting on the toilet and have to hunch over from pains in my stomach. I whimper and my stomach tightens then loosens. But then magically my stomach relaxes. Okay…I think I’m all right, just a few cramps and nothing else. I get up without ever letting anything go. I go back to my room and sit. I’m fine I tell myself. The food is just digesting. After all I did eat a massive meal. I applaud my iron stomach.
As these thoughts pass the cramps return and damn they are back with vengeance. Jumping up from my chair I make haste for the toilet. There is hardly enough time to drop my drawers before a volcanic explosion erupts from my butthole. There are groans, pain, and smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced. I’m sweating profusely. I shout at myself, “WHY OH WHY DID YOU DO THIS. YOU IDIDOT! I SWEAR I AM NEVER RETURNING TO THAT GODFORSAKEN PLACE.” This cycle of blasts and pains lasts about 10 minutes in which I courtesy flush 4 times. At some point I contemplate the hospital. I opened the faucet to my bowels and the flow is never ending.
Finally, I feel all right enough to leave the bathroom. I look in the mirror as I wash my hands. My face is pale and sweaty. I splash water on myself to try to relax. I am able to lie on my bed for 5 minutes before round two begins. Round two is not the free flow as round one was. Round two is consists of just sitting. I’ve lost all control now and let my body do whatever the hell it wants. For the next hour a series of sweating, swearing, cramps, and flushing occurs.
At the end of the hour my body realizes it has nothing left in it. I stand up with weak legs, get my towel, and take a shower. Yes, I desperately need a shower after that. I feel exhausted, my stomach still throbs, and I can hardly walk. The night ends and I fall into a hard sleep.
The next morning I feel okay. My stomach is sore but isn’t cramping now. I skip breakfast and coffee for obvious reasons. I check my phone and have a picture message. The message saves and I go into my photos to check it out. It’s a photo of snowy deck. I flip back in my photos and see the plate of Gōngbǎo I took last night. Immediately I gag and hold my stomach so not to throw up.
“Are you sure you want to delete this photo?”
I haven’t eaten Gōngbǎo since.