I was nineteen when I first visited the country, then known as the USSR, with my parents and sister in 1966. It was quite exotic for Americans to visit Moscow in those days and nothing was more exotic than eating at the Peking Restaurant at the Peking Hotel. It was an enormous dining hall with high ceilings, representing the best of Stalinesque architecture.
We perused the menu, which was written in four languages. One item stumped us: trepangs. My father suggested I consult the French version as I was the resident expert, having recently completed two years of high school French. The French menu had the same item, trepangs, although it sounded better pronounced with a French accent.
We asked our waiter, who consulted the Russian menu, and declared that the dish was called trepanskis, or some such Russian transliteration of the mysterious dish.
We did not order trepangs that evening. But for years after in our family, the word became synonymous with any profoundly unknowable concept. For example, Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman created gripping dramas full of deep trepang.
In 1980, I made my first of many reporting trips to the People’s Republic of China. In those days, workers rode to work on bicycles, all outfitted in unisex Mao jackets. Bicycles outnumbered cars on the streets by about 100-1. And government officials held elaborate, fifteen-course meals for special guests. And I was one such special guest.
For years after in our family, the word became synonymous with any profoundly unknowable concept.
“Mr. Erlich,” intoned our host, who was dressed in a Mao jacket just a bit too tight around the middle. “We have a specialty dish for tonight’s dinner, trepangs.”
My throat went dry. My hands began to shake. Could it be that after all these years, I was about to learn the secret of the trepang?
I calmed myself and with a steady voice I replied, “Ah yes, trepangs, a dish often discussed by my family.”
“I would like one or two of them,” I said cautiously.
Our host brimmed with great delight. “Most westerners aren’t fond of trepangs,” he said. “But since they are your family’s favorite, you cannot order one or two. We’ll have an extra plate.”
I nodded reluctantly, not knowing what I was getting into. I knew enough about Chinese customs not to refuse a host’s offer and feared an international incident if I found the food inedible.
This far into the story, you might be expecting some culturally inappropriate description of a disgusting food eaten by the Chinese, something like the apocryphal stories about monkey brains served from live monkeys in Hong Kong.
The trepangs arrived. They are sea slugs, marine animals with a slippery, gelatinous texture. Trepangs are also translated as sea cucumbers, a name that gives them a certain panache. Wikipedia notes, “In some cultural contexts the sea cucumber is thought to have medicinal value. . . . Most cultures in East and Southeast Asia regard sea cucumbers as a delicacy.”
And to tell you the truth, after fourteen years of mystery, they weren’t so bad. The best that can be said is that trepangs have no flavor of their own. They absorb the sauce in which they are immersed. And my Beijing hosts ordered hot, spicy trepangs. I actually enjoyed them, although I had some trouble eating the second plate.
So what did I learn from all these foreign adventures? If you want to know the name of a particular Chinese dish, ask someone who speaks Chinese.