Food mysteries in China so far, and our attempts to decode them

1. Every table has a bubbling red spicy oily sauce in the center. People dip food into the center. Before we could order stuff, the waiter kept pointing to “choose your own sauce” on the menu and pointing us over to the next room, where, sure enough, there were a bunch of sauce ingredients. Then you add a tiny 3oz can of oil and you have a sauce. I guess you dip into the bubbling red stuff, then your own sauce, then eat it? But either way it is all damn hot, so much so that: 1. we had to order whatever we could find to drink, which turned out to be orange juice, and 2. I kinda had one of these capsaicin-induced out of body experiences. Afterward we were given a not-quite-sweet tapioca jello-ey thing.
Conclusion: Chongqing-style hot pot?

2. A Tibetan delicious cornbread thing, so good that we ordered it twice to take home and had it for breakfast the next day too. Kind of orange.
Conclusion: Qing ke bing - “highland barley cake.”

3. A tea that looks like those things that sit on top of a cricket wicket. Tastes like graham crackers. This one we figured out: buckwheat tea.

4. This other thing, next to the steamed buns filled with red beans that were amazing, which looked like a steamed bun but with a different shape. About the size of a softball. Turns out it’s just bread, which is pretty disappointing when you have to eat a softball’s worth of it.

5. Very thin slices of green pepper and meat, so thin you might call them threads. So I got this app called Pleco where you can draw in Chinese characters and it will tell you that, yep, that’s qing jiao rou si, definitely “green pepper meat threads.”

6. Lots of mapo tofu. This wasn’t much of a mystery. What’s sort of mysterious is how often we both look at a picture menu, see what looks best, and welp it’s mapo tofu again.

7. Another hot pot, this one more like a chicken broth? Came with slices of potato, lotus root, and cabbage, and was totally great and surprisingly filling. Oh, and then they brought out a whole fish, which was great but guys we could have made it with just the hot pot, but y’know, not complaining

8. Okay, this frickin' candy. It’s black, it looks like chocolate, it’s got the consistency of a compressed dried fruit, it tastes like licorice and mint and betel nut and orange and about twelve other weird flavors, and I kind of love it but then can’t stand it. Oh, and it’s got a rind. As if it were a fruit? Maybe it’s a fruit? Help me out here.

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