Searching for flavor in the Olympic bubble. All the while experiencing the cuisine of the host city is one of the joys of the Games.

THE ROBOT BARTENDER WAS an ominous sign. It came to life on one of the first days of the Olympic Games, right around happy hour, and unceremoniously started slinging fruity drinks with its long, swaying arm.

There were robots everywhere, in fact : Across the room, they stacked burgers and stacked them neatly in wax paper; around the corner, they simmered dumplings; others skittered overhead, lowering plates of food from the ceiling.

Here was evidence, as if more was needed, that this was not a normal Olympics, that the pandemic in yet another way might steal the human heart of a global sports gathering : that one of the joys of the Games in normal times - deep dives into local culture and cuisine - could prove hard to achieve.

Yes, other topics were more pressing : performance-enhancing drugs, geopolitics, actual sports. But within the tall fences of the so-called bubble, where all participants of the Games were separated round-the-clock from the city outside, food, and where to find the best of it, sat on the tip of everyone's tongue.

And so it became a pleasant surprise, as the Olympics went on that despite all the limitations, curious athletes, officials, volunteers and journalists were able to find moments of culinary diversion, however small.

GU, who was born and raised in the United States but competed for China, announced her arrival at the Beijing Games by posting a photo of dumplings. 

'' Finished them all, '' she wrote - which garnered thousands of likes on Weibo, the Chinese social media app.

After she won her first medal, she said she would celebrate with Ghirardelli chocolates, an obvious nod to San Francisco, her hometown. And while competing on the slope, she was photographed eating jiucal hezi, a Chinese pocket pie, and a roast pork bun, sending social media into hysterics each time.

Similarly, Jenise Spiteri, a snowboarder who competes for Malta, became a favorite of Chinese fans, despite finishing 21st in the women's snowboard halfpipe competition after being filmed in the middle of competition munching on a red bean bun she had pulled from a breakfast buffet and stored in her jacket pocket.

''Bun eating snowboarder incarnation of Olympic spirit,'' read a headline in the state-run Shanghai Daily newspaper.

Food from the athletes villages and venue dining halls tend not to inspire gushing reviews, no matter when or where the Games are happening. In Beijing, the robot-made dishes were precisely cooked -broccoli always crisp, wonton skins always bouncy - but mostly always uninspiring 

And in the mountains of Zhang-jiakou, where snowboard events take place, word spread of a Chinese restaurant tucked away on the fifth floor of a resort.

Soon, enough hungry Olympians like the snowboarder Shaun Ehite were eating there that a wall of  fame formed near the door, with notes from happy customers. 

''So good Chinese food,'' read one from the snowboarder Ayumu Hirano of Japan, who won a gold medal at these Games. '' Thank You so much! '' [The note disappeared at one point then reappeared the next day, laminated.]

Most of my days were a blur of hit-or-miss cafeteria food, snacks stuffed into bags for long bus rides. One haven emerged in the form of a nondescript convention center hotel around the corner from the main press center. By the second week it was hard to get a table.

My first time there, the sight of little plumes of steam emerging from hot pots sitting on several tables gave me a jolt of adrenaline - and that was before the head rush of the Sichuan broth. I asked the waitress if I had ordered too much. Yes, she said with a laugh, and walked away.

We made another quick visit, before fanning out to various late-night competitions, for a colleague's impromptu birthday celebration. We ordered a whole roast dick, one of the quintessential foods of Beijing, which a cook wearing a mask carved by our table with an enormous blade.

I reached for a pancake, but a Chinese colleague suggested that I first find the purest sliver of fat I could, then dip it into the plate of white sugar in front of me.

 It welter sweetly inside my cheek. The robots thank God, slunk further into the recesses of my mind.

The World Students Society thanks author Andrew Keh.


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