Gymnastics in the tummy and great noodles for $1

From Baltimore To Beijing

Beijing 2008

August 22, 2008|By Rick Maese and Kevin Van Valkenburg

The Sun's Olympic correspondents, Rick Maese and Kevin Van Valkenburg, are blogging to each other at baltimoresun.com/olympicsblog . An excerpt:

Kevin, friends, et al.,

If we can momentarily feed an unfair stereotype: We scribes of the sports pages are particularly good in a couple of areas - watching sports and eating food.

Charged with covering Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals, we've had little time for culinary adventure. Much of our dining has come in between assignments and interviews in the first-floor cafeteria of the Main Press Center. As Kevin would attest, McDonald's is one of the most popular options - for American and foreign journalists. During the past two weeks here, there are a couple of meals that stand out.

We arrived for a Phelps-related appearance this week an hour early, certain that our cabdriver would get lost, as every other one had. Oddly, he didn't, so we had an hour to kill and wandered into a restaurant called Fat Mother for lunch. It was a hot pot restaurant, and there was a hole in the middle of our table with a burner beneath it.

Once we ordered our soup, a pot was placed in the hole and it wasn't long before the soup inside started boiling. We'd innocently ordered a chili soup, thinking we could tackle the fiery challenge. With red peppers floating, the soup looked very much like a thin lava. We'd soon learn that it tasted this way, as well.

The Fat Mother staff brought trays of food to our table - mushrooms, spinach, beef, prawns, potato noodles, ham. Using chopsticks, we dumped or dunked our food items in the soup, allowing it to cook sufficiently before pulling it out, cooling it off with a peanut dipping sauce and partaking. It was relatively easy to eat - mostly because after just a bit hit your mouth, your tongue went instantly numb. ... The heat never seemed to cool.

We went through a pair of Cokes apiece, and I had a pile of about a half-dozen crumpled napkins that had tended to my running nose. The eyes and antennae scared Kevin from even biting into a prawn, but he didn't want to hurt Fat Mother's feelings, so he dunked half the slimy critters into the bottom of the soup. We had a sense of accomplishment from dipping into the volcano and bragged to many people throughout the day. Unfortunately, only three or four hours passed before my stomach began to rumble. It felt like a troop of 12-year-old Chinese gymnasts were performing deep inside me. Needless to say, Fat Mother left a lasting impression.

We've had a couple of meals here that cost in the $25 to $50 range. But my best meal cost about $1. Visiting Sechuan province, devastated by an earthquake four months ago, we stopped and ordered a bowl of noodles from a storefront restaurant. We ate on a picnic table set up on the sidewalk. The noodles were in a spicy broth - tolerable but noticeable - and also had parsley and a fried egg. The flavor was thick and soothing, hitting your nose long before the chopsticks reached your mouth. ... For this trip, it was the cheapest meal, the biggest serving and a taste I'll dream about back home.

Rick Maese

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