There is no game in the world with higher stakes than Russian roulette. One revolver, one bullet, and a one-in-six chance that pulling the trigger is the last thing you’ll do before your brains are splattered all over the nearest wall in a 6 food radius.
Imagine you're sitting outside a restaurant in a dimly lit alley in China, shirtless men at the surrounding tables are chain smoking cheap cigarettes and slamming back–to-back shots of rice wine. Their dark recessed eyes remain fixed on you, wondering what-in-the-fuck you’re doing in a place like this, and if you have the guts to go through with it.
Your eyes, however, remain fixed on the revolver’s chamber as it spins like a roulette wheel at The Venetian, your palms getting clammy like you’ve just bet your retirement savings on black. The sweat on your brow may be from nervousness, or it could be from the relentless heat. Adrenaline surges through your veins as you reluctantly press the gun against your temple, raising your eyes to the sky in desperate prayer to whatever deity you believe in, hoping they look favourably upon you in what could be the last seconds of your life.
This is what its like to order food in China.
Sitting in that dimly lit alley the revolver becomes a menu. A large place mat style piece of paper, a pictograph of unknown symbols inked in red, none of which you can comprehend. You scan the menu desperately for anything that looks recognizable -like a vowel or a consonant- but your search is unsuccessful. After futilely trying to communicate with the restaurant owner using exaggerated hand movements you’re forced to accept your fate, and hesitantly point at a few items with no clue of what you are ordering. This is Dumpling Roulette.
Over the years and throughout my travels I have ordered more meals than I can recall this way, in countries from Colombia to Singapore. Having to arbitrarily select food items from a list of unrecognizable words or symbols is not for the faint of heart, or stomach. In a place like China, notorious for prizing varietal cuts, usable trim, scraps and bones - what Anthony Bourdain would refer to as “the nasty bits” - even the most adventurous of eaters would wriggle uncomfortably when their dining fate relies entirely on blind chance. Luckily, majority of the time what ends up on your table is edible, and more often than not it’s delicious. At best a dance of spicy and sweet simultaneously pierce and pirouette on your tongue introducing new flavours and ingredients to your growing culinary catalogue. However, at worst, it could be your mouth (or your ass) that ends up exploding.
The stakes in this game are high but the pay-offs are always higher. You will inevitably catch a few ‘bullets’ from time to time, but you can always push them to the side and get back to the good stuff. The dangers of Dumpling Roulette can appear in many different forms; from inedibly spicy soups and bowls of emulsified blood cake, to plates of steamed fish heads and deep fried creepy crawlies. But for every one unappetizing or cringe worthy dish, I’ve had dozens of great ones that I would have never otherwise ordered.
Recently, I played a version of this game where I met with some friends and let them pick all the dishes, leaving the fate of my evening entirely in their hands. What transpired was hands down one of the best meals I’ve had in Asia.