Dear Reader, why is it that every time I dine at a restaurant in China, I invariably find myself staring at some fish with its head still intact? The fish could be battered, fried, basted, baked, broiled, sautéed, deboned, or carved into intricate designs, but the head is always there, staring at me like a poor animal frozen in place, gazing at me as if it is in its final throes of death with its mouth open in anguished horror as whatever blunt instrument bludgeoned it struck in, or as it grasped for its one final gulp of oxygen-filled water before its gills hit the air on the cutting board. It is decorative to leave the poor fish’s head and tail intact while turning its gutted innards into some eye-pleasing creation. I know it’s not much more humane to remove the fish head, but as an American I psychologically prefer not to have my food staring back at me while I eat it. It reminds me of a time when I dined with family in China. I picked up some chicken from a bowl of chicken in some sauce I don’t remember, and I stared right into the closed eyes of a chicken head stuck between my chopsticks. I gave the piece away. Eating the head of an animal just isn’t appealing to me.
I have a game I call “count the number of fish heads on the table.” Each time I dine at an “authentic” Chinese restaurant (fast food Chinese restaurants in the states do not count), I like to count how many fish dishes come with their heads intact. The “authentic” quotient of the restaurant goes up with each head I count. So far all the restaurants I’ve been to on this trip have had one or fewer fish heads. Perhaps the best meal I’ve eaten was in Xi’an, when we ate at a Shaanxi restaurant. Shaanxi cuisine is heavily influenced by the large Muslim population living in the area. We feasted on roasted lamb and lamb dumpling stew with noodle. As a fan of Middle Eastern cuisine, I have a new-found love for western Chinese cuisine. Thankfully, none of it is served with a head intact.