Maria Altyeva is a Ruby on Rails programmer by day and a nacho cheese
aficionado by night. She lives and deep-fries Oreos in Shanghai, China.
We meet outside the lobby of a high-rise somewhere in the Northeastern corner of city.
The set-up: a date through Shanghai’s darker, unexplored side. In other words, in the city that is the testament to China’s rapid modernization, a city packed to the brim with four-star French Restaurants and quaint speakeasies, this guy’s taking me out to snack on street food. He assures me that our day will start of typically, but that it will finish adventurously. Naturally, I’m skeptical.
We have brunch – a proper sit-down meal – on the 20th floor of the high-rise, sharing an omelet and a cup of Earl Grey tea. He pretends not to judge as I upturn a bottle of ketchup unto my half of the plate. I assure him that the only times I eat ketchup are at brunch and only on omelets (both lies) and we spend the next hour discussing our shared love for supernatural horror and debating the perfect movie trilogy (me:
Then, we set out on an adventure.
Far away from Shanghai’s brightly-lit malls, this part of the city feels raw and crumbling, but somehow more indicative of the ‘real China’. We weave through the Antiques Market, packed with cramped stalls selling everything from Mao Playing Cards (not antiques) Tibetan singing bowls (maybe antiques), and old gramophones (definitely antiques). He tells me that within a matter of few weeks the market is going to be torn-down to make room for more of the brightly-lit malls, pointing to the red Xs that mark the sloping doors of virtually every stall.
Then, he asks if I’m hungry. I eagerly nod and we slip into a corner shop selling xiaolongxia – crawfish simmered and in beer, garlic, ginger, Sichuan peppers, and slathered with hot sesame oil– a snack I’ve been warned (multiple times) to stay away from, because it’s often bred in polluted rivers. Resolving to live adventurously, I don’t heed the warnings.
The high-rise and our ketchup-smeared omelets long faded from memory, we crouch on low stools. He pours us glasses of lukewarm beer as we stifle back laughter at our less-than-perfect date attire of bibs and plastic gloves. We tear the blushing-red crawfish in half and dip them voraciously into an irresponsible amount of black vinegar and butter melted with Chinese allspice. He warns me that this might get messy. Two bottles of room-temperature beer in (because after all, this is China), we order chuanr – barbecued skewers of marinated lamb bits, cow stomachs, and chicken hearts that permeate the Shanghai alleys, filling them with steam, smoke, and loud conversations long after 2am. By the time I slide the charred enoki mushrooms off the skewer and into my mouth, still tingling from the Sichuan peppers of the crawfish, we forget that the morning had begun with Earl Grey tea.
Our date continues through the Shanghai cricket market, where grown men prod crickets, egging them to fight (presumably) to the death. We pass alleyway after alleyway packed with broken refrigerators and AC units, and briefly venture into a four-story clothing market, picking up dessert to eat as we walk. The street vendor haphazardly plops a scoop of vanilla cream into the tupperware of the egg-yolk mango pudding. By that point, out conversation flows so naturally that he gives us just one spoon to share, but we fumble and find the right words to ask for a second.
Dessert in hand, we retrace our steps to the high-rise, but returning to it, my feelings since the morning have shifted. And though it may just be the polluted crawfish river water, in just a few hours, I’ve felt closer to a Shanghai I had barely touched since my arrival just three months prior, hidden behind back alleys and unmarked noodle shops.
And there wasn’t a ketchup bottle in sight.