Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reading into the Tea Leaves

The protocols of yumcha took a moment to decipher, and at one moment a woman probably Chinese American with her Caucasian husband walked over to clarify our confused looks. At the entrance to the dining room there had been a drop station for teapots and dishes in plain view, much like a fast food tray & trash disposal area. Adjacent to that was a semi circular counter where a woman constantly prepared pots of tea. Just to the left of the stairs was a food station where a woman stood arranging trays and carts with various plates and steamer baskets of dim sum, though the choices were limited to half a dozen options. I didn’t see it, but assumed that there was a dumb waiter in addition to the man who ferried a few assorted dishes and collected the spent remainders from the abandoned tables. Several people, servers and runners hustled through the space not talking much, while local customers chattered on, occasionally calling out requests in Cantonese. Behind us was a cashier counter with several abaci, stacks of coins and a butcher block off to the side with a man, the owner/butcher, dismembering chickens between making change. He carefully washed his hands between each activity.

One of the curious oddities of this excursion was the twist on how we were perceived by locals. Unlike most places we had previously been to, this moment in O Mercado Vermelho reeked of inside the identity of Macau, not peering into the fishbowl observations and skewed performed pseudo-realities. Unlike Union Square, this was a mom’s shoppers market. Yes, I did see 2 groups of the ubiquitous Japanese youthful tourists, (who pens their guide books, they are insanely local and micro-focused); but otherwise everyone was getting food for dinner, and possibly a few things for the weeks larder. At this point it was second nature that I, we would receive a thumbs up for my dreads, customarily from post teens and wannabe hipsters. Here, it was the women fishmongers, the dried foods vendors and random laborers who were quick to clammer forward, announce their praise and initiate a collegial hug claiming fame by virtue of a shared digital snapshot; most often with my camera & not their own. A few sported perms thus claiming membership in the crazy for curls club that I must chair in their eyes. More importantly, when we engaged these people, mostly women in our truly broke Cantonese, clipped simple English and/or finally deadending Portuguese, we were proclaimed as Portuguese. I thought long about this after the third incident, and ceased using any Portuguese phrases in an attempt to see if that elicited a different judgement call. But, no; we were confirmed in our nation-status as Portuguese by all. I found this odd, since the people I had spoken to in restaurants and on the street who identified as Portuguese were clearly white, dark straight haired, blue or brown of eye and in no way tawny or colored of skin. Fascinating that difference, skin color, hair texture, dress code provoked this association. I considered looking for things like Bacalhau to see if possibly, the point was that the Portuguese also came here to find their favorite local and imported foods. That would befit the Macanese who were culture crossers, blurring the cultural and language divide in sound an flavor; but the Portuguese were pretty true to form, wanting heritage foods and wines. I never solved this enigmatic riddle, but enjoyed basking in the delight that we brought to the merchants as we watched shoppers select the most vibrant, wiggling fish, carefully observing their favorite butcher cut carefully leaving just enough meat onto the head for soup and leaving the liver and air bladder or maw attached fully inflated like a balloon, with a substantial piece of tail, bone in left for home filleting. Both ends still jumped and wriggled as they were gingerly placed in the plastic bags, then into the baskets and woven carry bags. Apparently, only the non local species were fully filleted, since they came rigor mortis. Similarly, the meat butchers, displayed oxygen rich livers and organs up front, dripping with glistening crimson blood to identify freshness and recent kills. It appeared that not one aspect of any product was wasted. Waiting for a sales, each vendor had a side project, cleaning fish, sorting beans, grading or sizing like products in anticipation of business and as a time suck. Nowhere we walked on the selling floors was there an odor, other than freshness, though a cloud of bleach perfumed the bathrooms, I guess that was an appropriate means of deterring cross contamination and maintaining hygiene standards.

38 comments:

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