The first day I arrived in Hang Zhou I was just getting over my flu. My friends, an assortment of Chinese and Koreans, suggested I go with them for a walk around West Lake. My appetite had returned that morning. They'd all seen me eat a hearty breakfast. It was late autumn and a light mist hung above the lake, accompanied by a fine rain and low clouds. We walked along the shore and watched fish breaking the water's surface with arched backs. It was a picturesque and somewhat haunting day. We could see the shadows of other people out for a stroll ahead of us, and just behind. Everyone's mood was subdued. Since I'd eaten a large breakfast I decided to skip lunch. My friends advised me that this was a bad idea. I needed to eat to regain my strength and they insisted I have a good dinner, promising to take me to a restaurant by the lake, where I could sample some of the specialties of Hang Zhou.
After a nap and an evening walk along a causeway extending two miles along the lake, we set off for the restaurant. Willows bent in the wind in the pale light. The restaurant had a wonderful view over the lake. West Lake is actually a lagoon, one of the most peaceful (if you can ignore all the tourists) and relaxing spots in Zhejiang Province, and perhaps all of China. My stomach still didn't feel quite right. A girl named Xiao Qing, a friend of a friend of mine from Beijing, suggested soup with 'qingwa' inside, which was supposed to be good for the digestion. 'Qingwa' was a word I knew, but when she said it I mistakenly heard 'qing' and 'wa' as two separate words. They're not. She told me it was good food and a popular dish in the south. I decided to give it a try.
'Qingwa' means frog. When my frog soup arrived I was still in the dark. The chopped up frogs weren't readily apparent. My friends had told the waiter to add extra broth. After dipping my spoon and turning up two legs, I knew what I had. Now I'm not averse to trying something new, but with my upset stomach I just wasn't in the mood. I played with the frog pieces, spinning the legs around the broth, black and white skin trailing behind the tiny bones. I had no intention of eating the soup, but when I looked up, I saw everyone watching me. It was simple. All I had to do was explain that I didn't feel well, and although the food smelled very nice, it just wasn't my thing. People usually understand when the situation is properly explained. But before I could open my mouth, Jin, a Chinese friend of Korean descent, told me that frog soup with hairy gourd was one of his favorite dishes and I couldn't go wrong. I'd be feeling better after the first bite.
If you've never tasted frog soup, it really isn't that bad. The broth, flavored with ginger and salt, goes down nicely, and the meat can be very tender. The problem comes with the bones. There's not a lot of meat for the amount of bones these little amphibians yield. So with a smile on my face, I slurped down the broth (Chinese style) and started hacking away at my frog.