This is the signboard for a little restaurant/takeaway in the backstreets of Jianshui, in southern Yunnan Province. It says ‘The sisters’ fast food shop’. You might imagine that they’d be selling fried chicken and chips, but ‘fast food’ in this case meant a ravishing selection of dishes freshly made from ingredients they’d bought that morning in the street market just around the corner.
Of course I couldn’t resist stopping by for a quick bite, and ended up with a delicious and healthy bowlful of spicy tofu, scrambled eggs with tomatoes, cucumber salad, stir-fried lotus stems,pickled taro stems with a little minced pork (these were stupendous), and rice jelly with Chinese chives, all served with steamed rice. I sat at a table outside in the sun, opposite the small son of one of the sisters, who had just popped back from school in his lunchbreak.
The market itself consisted of a couple of streets where peasant farmers from the surrounding countryside were selling their own produce, gathered that morning: lettuce stems and radishes, spinach and potatoes, garlic stems and peasprouts, mint and garland chrysanthemum leaves… It was a vibrant reminder of what freshness really means (and of the sad un-freshness of much of the produce sold in supermarkets).
A glorious morning yesterday at the Worton Organic Garden and Farm near my parents’ house in Oxford. I brought back purple sprouting broccoli, basil, multicoloured tomatoes of many different shapes, and, most excitingly of all, a couple of freshly harvested, locally grown Chinese vegetables! It turned out they were growing the prickly Chinese variety of cucumber for its exquisite flavour (it’s much less watery than a typical European cucumber) and soybeans. They also had a row of Chinese chives 韭菜 in their hothouse – not enough, they said, for commercial use, but growing enthusiastically. The budded chives stems 韭菜花 are particularly good stir-fried with a few slivers of marinated pork; the chives themselves in dumpling stuffings or made into omelettes or scrambled eggs.
I boiled the soybeans, green and tender in their bristly pods, and we ate them before lunch, with a sprinkling of seasalt. The cucumber will find its way into a spiced Sichuanese salad 炝黄瓜 very soon.
I did ask owners of the farm if they’d considered growing wo sun 莴笋(known in English as celtuce or stem lettuce), which is one of the most versatile and subtly delicious of southern Chinese vegetables, but unfortunately they said it didn’t much take to the English climate, and that their attempts to nurture it had fizzled out.
Later in the year, they tell me, there will be plenty of pak choy and gai lan… I can’t wait.
Do any of you blog readers grow your own Chinese vegetables? If so, which ones?
Look at this beauty! It’s a tiny Sichuan pepper tree! It was a present from Richard S., a friend of the Oxford Food Symposium’s, who managed to track one down in a specialist nursery in the UK. He told me he’d give me one a long time ago, and here it is! The leaves have some of that bewitching pepper fragrance if you squeeze them between your fingers. I have no idea how long it will take to bear fruit, but I hope it will eventually – I have seen one fruitful Sichuan pepper tree growing in Oxford, so I know it’s possible in the English climate! At the moment it’s sitting in a pot on my sunny, south-facing windowsill, but I hope to transplant it to my parents’ garden in Oxford before too long, where it will have more room to grow.
As those of you who have read my ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ may know, I have never quite got over abandoning a tiny Sichuan pepper tree from Hanyuan at Beijing airport a few years ago. I had transported it very tenderly all the way from the mountains of Hanyuan to Beijing, but Britain was in the midst of the foot and mouth epidemic, with widespread paranoia and tight restrictions on agricultural imports, and I chickened out at the last moment and left it behind.
A fascinating piece in the Guardian today about an FAO policy paper on the eating of insects. Apparently, senior figures in the UN and elsewhere are looking for ways to boost consumption of creepy-crawlies as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Rearing livestock such as cows, pigs and sheep guzzles agricultural land and spews out 20% of global greenhouse gases, and so we all need to start eating less meat. Insects, it seems, are a promising alternative, since they are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals, and breeding them produces far less pollution than breeding conventional meat animals. The only problem, according to the experts cited in the article, is the Western taboo on eating insects.
If you are interested in this subject, I heartily recommend this extraordinary book by the Victorian Englishman Vincent Holt, which deploys powerful, rational arguments in favour of eating insects – and offers some recipes that sounds rather interesting. It’s a delightful, amusing and provocative little book. You might also like to read my thoughts on the subject in a piece for the FT a few years ago, which is on this website. The photographs that accompany this post are of some of the ingredients (raw and cooked) on the menu of Zou Haikuan’s restaurant, which is mentioned in my article.
There’s an interesting piece in the China Daily today that brings together three contrasting views on China’s decision to allow the cultivation of genetically-modified rice. Continue reading…