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One of the challenges and sometimes delights of traveling abroad is finding the perfect place to eat. For our new travel series, Winging It, NPR international correspondent Philip Reeves has this story of a restaurant with a special place in his heart.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Cities sitting nervously on the edge of wars have a tendency to change very quickly. One such is the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad. It has none of the chaotic exuberance of most South Asian cities. Islamabad is a modern capital, purpose-built in the '60s, designed around a grid.
On my first trip here, I felt it resembled a rather pleasant university campus. Then the bombings and assassinations started. The razor wire and blast barriers went up and things started to move around.
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REEVES: For a long time, during visits here, I used to eat in an obscure Chinese restaurant. I liked the place because it had attitude. The tables were bare. Clients were few. We ate beneath whirring fans and bright neon lights. The Chinese proprietor made no effort to please anyone beyond serving outrageously tasty food.
I was in there the night militants drove a truck full of explosives into Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, and burned it down. The blast blew out the glass in some of my restaurant's windows. I grabbed my microphone, and headed for the door. The cook carried on defiantly tossing fish and fowl into his wok. Then, one day, my restaurant vanished. I turned up hungrily one night. The big iron gates were closed, and so, I thought, was another avenue of pleasure in this concrete town.
The threat of militant attacks means the Chinese, like most foreigners in Pakistan, sometimes have to tread a little carefully. I supposed my restaurant closed for security reasons, but I made calls. I drove around, hunting for it, hoping it had moved nearby. Months later, I found a Chinese restaurant I thought might be mine. But I was met by blank stares and served boney chicken that looked as if it had been stomped on with a hob-nailed boot.
Then quite by chance I've found my restaurant again. I spotted it suddenly, out of a car window. There it was, in a new building. Its stark exterior and painfully bright neon lights inside told me that I was home. I walked in and there were the same smiling Chinese staff and the same defiant cook. There, too, was a document that I view with the reverence normally accorded to a book of fine verse. It is bound in leather.
The word menu is written on the front in gold Cyrillic letters, which suggests it came here from somewhere in the former Soviet Union. I'm told the dishes the menu describes are very familiar to aficionados of authentic Chinese cuisine. To my uneducated ear, they're simply music.
There's the whimsical: Chicken Feet with Wild Peppers; The mystifying Aluminum Paper Chicken, and the maverick Tomatoes With Sugar - I ordered that once. It turned out to be chopped uncooked tomatoes buried under a mountain of white sugar.
I'm no fan of those in foreign parts who deride the spelling mistakes of non-English speakers - it's a cheap shot. But only the hardest of hearts would fail to relish reading the words: Rice One Bowel. My favorite menu item, for sheer oddity, is described as follows: Rod Chili Mixed Edible Fungus. This food resembles small dark ears made of rubber. They're quite delicious.
Philip Reeves, NPR New, Islamabad.
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