Throngs of Western and Chinese travelers pushed shoulder to shoulder down the narrow cobblestone streets. Shoe-menders roamed the same streets pointing in mock horror at the travelers' feet. Their faces were theatrically twisted into expressions like the tourists' shoes had murdered their parents by virtue of their shoddiness, and the only way to right the wrong was to stitch up the offending parts.
Tourists caused traffic jams watching street performers strum guitars, throat-sing, and do stand-up comedy. They crouched at the sides of paths to finger the edges of fine silks and the soles of hand-stitched shoes. They gathered in cafés to sip hippie-friendly vegan mushroom soup and, at best, eat strange fusion dishes like yak lasagna or or fried spiced goat cheese burgers. At worst, they shrank away from any foreign influence whatsoever and had spaghetti with thin, watery marinara, or spammy ham and eggs on toast.
There were 'authentic' Chinese restaurants, but these, too, were catered to the tourist throngs. With high hopes, I tried a few of the row of Bai restaurants that stood sandwiched in between puzzle shops, jewelry counters, and travel agencies.
The first one served me a 'Bai Special Grilled Fish' on a metal platter that was burning hot in the chest, freezing cold in the tail, and soggy in the skin, lying in a pool of oniony, peppery soy sauce. Its head was bitter, and some meat was too tough to chew while the rest mushed off the bone all water-laden like turkey stuffing. When we inquired after this travesty, the waitress snapped that this was how they made it.
Street vendors sold me rubbery, room-temperature quail egg skewers and burned, asphalt-textured fried cheese. A smiling guy at a table outside a bookstore sold homemade custard that flopped around on my tongue like a dying guppy and tasted like glue. Mango juice was made from syrup instead of fruit.
Of course, this all occurred at prices a good 2-3 times higher than the rest of China.
I was fed up and I was hungry, so I threw my policy of only eating local when traveling right out the window.
When I'm traveling in Asia, a bagel with lox and cream cheese is always at the top of my homesick cravings list. I can't explain why. It has something to do, certainly, with much of Asia's reticence about cheese, but at this particular time I was in Yunnan, home of fried goat cheese. Also, China doesn't shy away from yogurt. So I'm not sure why I craved this so intensely, but I did.
"It's going to cost 100 kuai," I joked with Julian, not actually entirely sure I was joking.
At the bakery, timid, limited-English-speaking staff watched us as we perused the menu. Sure enough, "bagel with cream cheese spread and smoked salmon" was written at the very bottom, nearly edged out by splashy chocolate mousse cakes and resplendent blueberry pies, next to the high but not totally insane price of 48 kuai.
"Bagel... ah... méiyǒu..." a staff member stammered. He was right to be nervous. I was on the edge of leaping across the counter and shaking the bagels right out of him.
A crisis was averted by ordering the lox and cream cheese on potato walnut bread. While we waited for it to come out, we chatted with a couple of Californians snacking on blue cheese and bratwursts about the weather. It was surreal.
I failed to take a picture of my quarry, because the second it was in my hands, it was between my teeth. Here is a picture of it, three-quarters-eaten, next to the vegetable bāozi Julian insisted on having instead.
It may not have been the best idea to bite into the sandwich without looking, because it is apparently German-expat-in-China tradition to line one side of bread with whole lime slices, peel, seeds and all. The first taste was therefore a combination of heavenly sighs and utter confusion, my tongue savoring the creamy spread at the same time as my teeth were crunching lime seeds.
Once the limes were removed (and retained for palate-cleansing between bites), the sandwich, while not quite akin enough to, say, delicatessen bagel creations to be in the same family, was certainly familiar enough to be utterly comforting.
Soft, pillowy potato walnut bread, with its mild flavor punctuated by pockets of nuttiness, was almost a better base for the smoky fish than bagels. The traditionalist in me (note: not a large part) hates to say it, but it's true. They even used red onions and capers, the latter so alien in China that I have no idea where they possibly could have sourced them.
This fist-sized sandwich alone saved Dali from being a purely resentful slot in my culinary memory.
I suppose that's worth the shame of admitting I succumbed to my American-food cravings and paid $6 for Western breakfast in China.