A piece of mine in the Financial Times this weekend…
Archive for June, 2009
Imagine my surprise to find that hairy crabs, that legendary Chinese delicacy of the autumn, eulogised by the seventeenth century Chinese playwright (and erotic novelist) Li Yu, are appearing in vast numbers in the Thames in London! Just look at this article in today’s Independent newspaper.
I love the idea of being able to steam them, and eat them with Chinkiang vinegar, ginger and Shaoxing wine, at home in London.
If you haven’t tasted hairy crab, and wonder what all the fuss is about, here is what Li Yu had to say about them:
‘While my heart lusts after them and my mouth enjoys their delectable taste (and in my whole life there has not been a single day when I have forgotten them), I can’t even begin to describe or make clear why I love them, why I adore their sweet taste, and why I can never forget them… Dear crab, dear crab, you and I, are we to be lifelong companions?’
There is a chapter featuring hairy crabs in my Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper book. And if anyone is interested in Li Yu’s outrageous and hilarious erotic novel, The Carnal Prayer Mat, follow this link.
A new report says that many shark species are facing extinction, mainly because of overfishing. It’s not just the Chinese love of shark’s fin soup that is to blame: they are also killed as ‘bycatch’ when caught accidentally in nets intended for tuna and swordfish. But the fin trade is an important factor.
Only last week I watched Rupert Murray’s chilling new film about overfishing, the End of the Line. (It’s based on Charles Clover’s investigative book of the same name.) This should be essential viewing for anyone who considers themselves concerned about the state of the environment, and indeed the world. Might it actually be a tipping point in persuading governments, particularly those of Japan and the European Union, to do something about the pillage of the world’s oceans?
One of the highlights of my recent trip to China was a lesson in braising a whole pig’s head. I couldn’t resist posing for a few photos with the half-cooked head. The final product, served with steamed buns, spring onions and sweet fermented sauce, was magnificent…
Fresh bamboo shoots are one of life’s great pleasures – and one of which the tinned version gives you absolutely no possible inkling. I had some for dinner tonight in Hangzhou, cooked with a little fine stock and a speckling of Jinhua ham. They were sublime, crisp and juicy, with a sweet-savoury taste of indescribable loveliness. They gave me particular pleasure today because I went out digging for bamboo shoots in the rain earlier this week. This is quite a challenging task for the novice: you have to look for a crack in the earth which betrays the presence of a growing shoot, and then dig the shoot out without damaging its ivory flesh.
Last Saturday I went back to Zhenjiang, the old vinegar town on the Yangtze. My friend Gwen and I spent the day exploring the old streets around the former British Consulate, which were as charming as I remembered from my last visit two years ago. I was particularly happy to find that the woksmith was still there, in his old workshop, running a business that has been in his family for more than a hundred years. It’s incredibly unusual to see such a shop these days, and especially to be able to watch the red-hot woks, fresh from the furnace, being hammered into shape.
It’s also pretty unusual to return to anywhere in China after a two-year absence and find that it hasn’t changed. Apart from the woksmith, the avenues of wutong trees were still there, casting their shade over the road, as was the shop where you could buy singing crickets in their tiny openwork bamboo cages.
But, almost inevitably, we discovered that the whole area is due to be demolished in the next couple of months. The woksmith, along with his neighbours, will be moved away to another district. As he is clearly close to retirement age, I’m guessing that will be the end of his business.
Of course this made me sad, but not as much as the news that the Xinjiang government plans to demolish 85% of old Kashgar. I have been to Kashgar twice, once in 2002, and once in 2004, and it’s a fascinating place. Despite the bland uniformity of the new Chinese town, the old Uyghur quarter held much of its magic. There were markets and teahouses, craftsmen hammering pots out of copper and carving wood on a lathe.
After all the atrocious mistakes made in China’s development over the last fifteen years (not least the total destruction of old Chengdu, including the last two old lanes, Kuan Xiangzi and Zhai Xiangzi, which have been ‘preserved’ by a total rebuild in an inapproprate style, and the incorporation of international chain stores including, incredibly for anyone who knew the lanes as they used to be, a Starbucks), I still find it hard to believe that the authorities would do anything so stupid in Kashgar, if only because it has the potential to be a lucrative tourist destination for them – and I can’t see anyone wanting to travel that far across the desert to see concrete buildings finished off with a few touches of what I call ‘Islamoiserie’. But I suppose the writing has been on the wall for some years – they had started knocking down bits of the old town when I last visited.
It was another of those moments when I felt so upset that I wanted to leave China immediately and give up on the country. It’s heartbreaking to see the ruination of yet another irreplaceable cultural treasure, and I just can’t understand the mindset of the people who do it.
I heard the news in an email that arrived just before I left to meet some friends for dinner, and I was in such a bad mood that I just had to talk about it, to explain the clouds of thunder that no doubt hung over my demeanor. My Chinese friends sympathised, and said they agreed that the decision was regrettable, but they were also apathetic, as one might be after having lived through the aftermath of previous attempts to challenge the system (I’m writing this post, of course, on 4th June). But I don’t think they are duped – one woman I talked to privately later on was sceptical about the official explanation that the town will be razed ‘to protect people from earthquakes’, and thought it more likely that the reason was a desire to Han-ify the region.
Anyway, I’m still here, somehow.
One of the things that always strikes me in China is how remarkably well so many people eat. It’s ironic that so many westerners think of Chinese food as being unhealthy – all those negative images of deep-fried food in gloopy sauces laden with MSG. Restaurant food is often richer, with more meat and fish, more oil and fewer vegetables, but home cooking tends to be centred on grains and vegetables, with small amounts of meat here and there.
And look, to the left and below, at what I found builders on a construction site eating when I visited Beijing in March: a widerange of fresh vegetables, freshly-cooked, some meat and beancurd, plenty of rice… It’s hard to imagine British builders eating so healthily during their lunchbreaks. And yesterday, on the expressway to Hangzhou, my bus stopped at a service station where the refreshments on offer were mainly many different kinds of fresh fruit, and steaming zongzi (leaf-wrapped glutinous rice parcels) with a variety of fillings. Again, I couldn’t help comparing this kind of thing with the packaged foods sold at British petrol stations and motorway services…