Suzhou, China: Every Friday I’d pay the equivalent of thirty cents and ride the bus to Shi Quan Jie. This was a street in the old district, where the walls where whitewashed, and the roofs had sweeping slopes, upturned eaves, and ceramic tiles. Few of the buildings reached over three stories high. Large birch trees lined the two lane road, flanked on either side by bubble tea stands, black market DVD shops, and boutiques showcasing China’s puzzling take on high fashion.
On my way to find a wok, I stopped at a Chinese Muslim restaurant where everyone, including the child waiters, wore tight knitted caps. The menu was in Chinese, with English translations beneath it.
Some dishes sounded peaceful: “The hashed meat meditates.”
Some sounded dangerous: “The palace explodes the diced chicken rice.”
And others were downright spooky: “Digs up the beef red.”
The sun was shining. I walked to the take-out shack attached to the restaurant. The griller was just standing around with a blue filter cigarette in his lips when I arrived. I told him how many curried lamb kebabs I wanted in Mandarin. “Sanga.” I then held up three fingers.
He screwed up his face at me. Then he held up his hand, outstretched his fingers and said “Wooga.” Five.
Was this his way of telling me that I was too skinny? Perhaps, but something told me this offer was non-negotiable. I waited for my five kebabs at an outside table. The legs might have been rat-gnawed. It stood on an open area of hardened clay between the sidewalk and a canal.
For the first two minutes, the kebab griller tapped the skewered sticks of meat above the coals. Then he stepped away from the embers to catcall a girl clicking down the sidewalk in high heels. It wasn’t subtle, whatever he said, but she turned up her nose and kept walking. Real cool. He leered at her and then turned to me, thumbing in her direction as if to say Women, go figure.
The griller brought over my kebabs and a flatbread in a plastic sleeve that read “crusty pancake.” He went back to the grill station, picked up an old copper kettle and came back to sit across from me. I’d watched his assistant – the boy baking crusty pancakes – use that same kettle to brew a cup of tea just moments earlier. Steam was still rising from the spout.
I tore off a piece of crusty pancake, and when I looked up, the griller was sucking on the spout. He was really gulping it down, and, just when I thought steam might billow out his ears, he set down the kettle and belched.
After lunch, I pulled out my notebook to make a few notes, referring to him not as “the kebab griller” but as “Kebab Allah.”
Kebab Allah burned his sleeve on a coal.
Kebab Allah threatened his assistant with a bamboo skewer again.
I’m not saying the man walked on water; however, in its own special way, watching him work did have a purifying effect on me. And he made a pretty mean kebab.