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Travel Gone Awry: Not-So-Hot Pot

A little too fresh?

It was a dark and stormy night. The rain was coming down in sheets, giving the windshield wipers a run for their money. And in a rented sedan, four very hungry Americans were searching for a Chinese restaurant.

Vancouver is known for its authentic Chinese cuisine, thanks to its large immigrant population. Our hotel had given us a recommendation, but when we arrived at the restaurant, it was closed. In those days before cell phones or GPS, there was little we could do but cruise the streets, squinting through the rain to spot the telltale signs of a Chinese restaurant.

Finally, after what felt like an interminable age, we saw one. Large, brightly lit, in the center of a strip mall. It didn’t actually look that promising, but did I mention we were hungry?

But maybe it was more promising than it first appeared. It’s said that the best way to tell if a restaurant is “authentic” is whether it’s filled with locals or tourists. And when we walked in, we immediately realized this was a local joint: we were the only non-Asians in the vast, nearly-full room. This was just the kind of place true travelers are supposed to experience.

We also immediately realized that this was not typical Chinese dining. In the center of each table was a cooktop, and as soon as we sat down, the server plunked down a large pot of stock and turned up the burners. This, it turned out, was a “hot pot” place – the Chinese version of fondue, where you cook everything in boiling stock.

Our waitress spoke only a little English, but she helped us order a selection of vegetables and meats. I asked for shrimp, because I always get shrimp at Chinese restaurants. Plate by plate, our raw meat and veggies arrived. We started to get the hang of how long to cook each item in the stock. We may have even started to enjoy ourselves. I can’t really remember. Because that’s when the shrimp arrived.

The waitress set the platter of shrimp down in front of me. By this point, I was expecting the food to come to the table raw. But these shrimp weren’t just raw. They were whole, for starters. And each full-bodied shrimp was individually skewered on a long stick, from antenna to tail. That would’ve been bad enough, but then I noticed…wait…were the antennae moving?

Those friggin’ shrimp were alive.

My mom, sitting across from me, saw the blood drain out of my face as I stared at the large platter of squirming, skewered shrimp. With her instinctive “mom” reflexes, she quickly and deftly dumped the entire platter of shrimp into the hot pot. Their antennae fluttered furiously for a few moments more, and then they started to turn pink.

Eventually I worked myself up to eat some of the shrimp tails. The heads we left in a heap on the platter. When the waitress came to clear the plates, she gestured at the heads. “Not done!” she said. And indeed, as we looked around, we saw from the other diners that the correct way to eat shrimp was to suck out the head. No, we protested weakly. The shrimp were done, and so were we.

We trudged back out into the rain and darkness, enlightened in the ways of Chinese hot pot, and still slightly hungry.

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