I have to share with you a meal I ate last night. Some coworkers and I were invited to dine with the local government officials who work with TNC in Lijiang.

In China, government officials = fancy-ass meal.

Seated around a large table in a private banquet room, the nine of us (I was one of two foreigners, and one of two women, not counting the waitress) were treated to an elaborate, traditional Naxi feast.

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The meal began with an elaborate fuss between the head of our office and our government host over who should have the seat of honor, the one facing the door. It went to our host in the end, as it should, and he wasted no time in pouring us drinks (one cup of fruit juice, and one cup of potent, fruity alcohol) and passing around steamed buns. Each person’s place was a jumbled mosaic of dishes. Besides our two cups apiece, we also had a bowl for food, a saucer for bones and scraps, a bowl of dry spices for dipping, and another bowl full of spicy broth, also for dipping.

The centerpiece was a bubbling hotpot in the center of the table, filled with yak meat, mushrooms, vegetables, and various animal organs. Around the edge of the hotpot was a circular, cast-iron surface heated from below, on which slices of bacon and strips of meat sizzled. While we waited for the meat to cook, we ate mini shrimp, stewed turnips, tiny black potatoes, and made our first round of toasts.

Toasts in China are an important ritual. They do not happen between everybody at once. Rather, one person will stand and toast another person, and the two drain their cups. Later, another two people will do the same thing. It more or less evens out over the course of the meal, and everyone ends up consuming roughly the same amount. Chinese men are notorious for pressuring each other into extreme drunkenness at banquets, although I’m happy to say that this particular group was very relaxed about the whole thing. A couple of people in our party didn’t drink at all, and toasted with juice instead. I drank the alcohol, but I sipped it instead of downing it and nobody seemed to mind.

Eventually the meat was cooked and before I knew it, people were filling my bowl from all directions with yak meat, bacon, potato slices, and rice sausage (米肠, a local Naxi specialty of sticky black rice stuffed into a sausage casing and sliced). That’s another thing about formal Chinese dinners; if your bowl is empty, someone will fill it. Every time. If you’re feeling stuffed and don’t want to eat anymore, you’d better make sure your bowl looks full. “Clean your plate” might eliminate waste, but it doesn’t fly at a fancy Chinese dinner; if your plate is clean, it means you’re still hungry.

Among the sizzling things surrounding the central hotpot was an intriguing package wrapped in tinfoil. About halfway through the meal it was unwrapped, revealing a cow brain. It’s appearance can only be described as “brainy.” I was given a flabby white slice and I took a bite, both out of politeness and curiosity. It was smothered in garlic so it tasted good, and the texture was soft like tofu. I couldn’t get the thought of mad cow disease out of my…brain…however, so I elected not to finish it, and it joined the growing pile of bones and cartilage accumulating on my saucer.

Off to the side of the hotpot was another local specialty, one that offered a refreshing break from all the salty meat: cheese pastry. The cheese, 奶渣, is a soft, fresh cheese, similar to ricotta in texture but stinkier and more sour in taste. It is eaten across southwest China by Naxis, Tibetans, and other local ethnic groups. Here it was served sweetened and stuffed into a pastry, rather like a blintz.

As the meal drew to a close, some of the Chinese men were getting red-faced and jolly from all that toasting. After one last drink we pushed back our chairs and shook hands, leaving the table piled high with bones and brains, the bowls filled with leftover soup and the table dotted with spilled rice. It was a meal I won’t forget for a long time.

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