Monday, November 06, 2006

A Year On (part 1)

Typing is far from easy at the moment as I currently have little to no feeling in my fingers. Eating with chopsticks is also a non-trivial task! I don't want this anniversary posting to be a negative one but it's a simple truth that I don't like being cold. The weather has turned from high 20s to a wind-chilled, howling gale in just a few days. It was a strange, sudden change as the Siberian front hit and immediately the outside world was thrown into chaos, as people leaned into the wind to stop from teetering over backwards and outdoor markets were turned upside down. It's still a couple of weeks until they turn the heating on and in the meantime my flat is virtually uninhabitable. I shall be spending the maximum possible time defrosting in the sauna in my gym.

Anyway, enough of the negative. It's been a year, half my time here, since I left England (after a slight false start) and strolled blindly into this adventure. It's been a great experience so far in many many ways and I figured now was the time to sum up a bit of what's been going on.

I just haven't had the time to blog as frequently as I was before, mostly due to work being very active at the moment. Currently most of the time that I'm not working I'm teaching English or having Chinese lessons. Socialising has sadly taken a bit of a back seat and I hope to be able to do something about that over the next few weeks.

I wrote a long post over the weekend about some of the things which have been going on recently which I still need to go through, so I thought that I would give daily installments with some of the highlights of life out here.

As it was one of the first things that I got excited about out here and something that still pleases me constantly, the delights of Chinese food seem like a good place to start so today I shall be enthusing about all things culinary from dou zhi to ku gua and everything in between.

I haven't really spoken about the summer food much but there's a lot to get excited about. The roads are littered for several months of the year with trucks and stalls selling a cornucopia of amazing fruit. The honey-sweet grapefruits the size of your head, the fantastic watermelons and the pomegranates from Chengdu without the bitter pith of those we get in the UK, are all daily treats. All around the city you see giant persimmons growing on the trees and they come straight to you with all their leady goodness for a small price.

The range of flavours of vegetables is also astounding with the bitter melon a favourite Hunan delicacy and from Yunnan the stinky fish grass proving to be one of the most unusual flavours but rather fine when your taste buds get over the initial shock. When you go into a supermarket the fruit and vegetable stalls are overwhelming with a carpet of amazing colours to match the smells which assault you as your walking around (the durian fruit with its smell of old socks being the prime example). The spectrum of fungi alone is incredible with perhaps 20 or 30 different shapes and colours available through most of the year.

...and onto the main course which was what I loved to talk about when I first got here and reveled in the exotica on the menu. The highlight was probably pig's brain which melts in the mouth and tastes subtly nutty, though you should be careful as porcine encephalitis is not uncommon. The giant snails in a spicy Szechuan dish which you eat wearing plastic gloves are also sumptuous. The Chongqing hotpot is a minefield of unusual flavours and textures with tripe and intestine being one of my favourite additions. Along with a lot of chili in this dish there is always a good handful of the infamous Szechuan pepper which numbs the mouth and, in combination with the chili, leaves you tingling for hours. Another dish dominated with the chili is the oil-boiled fish which, give or take the bones, is a stunning combination of simple, powerful flavours.

Some of the other unusual dishes which I won't be ordering again in a hurry are sea cucumber (a little like slimy bunsen burner tubing, though probably with less flavour), donkey, and camel's hoof (makes me think of eating a woolen tea-coaster soaked in gravy). Surprisingly beef lung isn't that bad and the ever popular chicken's feet and chili-oil duck's neck now make a regular appearance most times I sit down to watch a movie.

Eating from the street-vendors stalls is a bit hit and miss and I've had a couple of bad experiences with dodgy food disagreeing violently with me. That said, the pancakes and dumplings are usually a good bet. Down in Wangfujing the tourist haunt for the weird and wonderful left me thinking that silk-worm grubs are kind of cheesy while scorpion and star-fish are more crunch than taste. I wouldn't be surprised if such delicacies were on lists of endangered species so a) I won't be trying them again and b) I wouldn't recommend them simply because the novelty value is really all there is to offer.

I'm still to make my way through the true, old Beijing food but my one recent foray, trying dou zhi, fermented mung bean juice reminded me of stilton with fermented cabbage. Apparently this should not be sipped walking through the hutongs but drunk slowly over some fine pickled vegetables. I'm game if I find another vendor at an appropriate time.

I remain unconvinced that Beijing duck is much better here than elsewhere but I suppose while you're here at least it's cheap.

I still have a long list of things to try though a few dishes which I will definitely not be trying have been added to the list, most of which contain some combination of household pets. As an omnivore I recognise that this is a strange line to draw but I'd rather eat pig any day over dog or cat. Yunnan and Guandong cuisines seem to offer the highest number of the weird and wonderful so I shall try and get down South when I can. This quest to try different dishes isn't just some attempt at proving my gastronomic worth but is a genuine journey in sampling new and interesting flavours and textures. I became convinced within just a few days here that the constraints of good and bad food we have placed on our palates in the West are detrimental to the enjoyment that we can get out of a full spectrum of ingredients. I shall certainly try and look out for many of these things when I'm back home, and convince as many as possible that they're really missing out without them.

OK, lunch-break is over. Calculations to continue with so I shall call it a day for now. Questions on the above topics are welcome if any seem appropriate. I shall continue tomorrow on another aspect of the last year if time allows.


malcolm said...

My mouth was watering when I was reading that post. The menu of my local chinese takeaway now seems incredibly inferior to the real deal.

I've been to Thailand twice and your descriptions remind me of much I saw there. They also have chicken necks and heads, scorpion and durian amongst other things. I never tried the chicken feet or necks but I had durian on a few occasions and I really enjoyed durian ice cream.

I really loved visiting the markets and looking at the tubs of live carps and terrapins, cages of chickens and stalls chock full of weird and wonderfull vegetables and spices. I'm not so keen on negotiating for goods though. I prefer something with a fair, fixed price (rarely the case for ferang (quai loh), except where food was concerned).

I don't recal ever seen cat or dog on the menu. I don't think I could have eaten either if I had, though. Nor could I now, since I saw a documentary on the illegal trade in canine livestock in Korea.

I think I heard somewhere that the chinese don't believe in drinking cold drinks with warm meals because they think it disturbs the body. Is that true, and do you know if there's any truth to the belief?

I personally like a cold drink with a meal, but I also enjoy a warm jasmine tea after. It's meant to be a digestive. It certainly helps me digest a meal. I also read somewhere that the the quantity of antioxidants in green tea is normally significantly lowered by the addition of hot water, but there is something in jasmine blossoms which prevents this .

malcolm said...
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Jonathan Shock said...

Hi Malcolm,

Pleased to hear I've got some taste-buds tingling. I'd love to go and try some of the fantastic food in Thailand for real but while I'm here there's such a diversity of styles and flavours that I could probably try something new for the rest of the time I'm here.

In fact in the supermarkets here they gave the tanks full of live fish, turtles and crustacea just as you mention and I love to go wondering round them seeing what exotica is on offer.

What you said about the Chinese not drinking cold drinks with a meal may traditionally be true but they certainly like to have a beer with dinner when possible. In my canteen people can often be seen accompanying their beef noodles with vodka like drinks which are not for the faint-hearted.

Generally my choice is tea with the meal though which generally comes in an endless supply.

All the best,