Chinese food culture

Endangered sharks

Posted by Fuchsia on September 16, 2014
Chinese food culture, Environment, Unusual delicacies / No Comments

Shark fins for sale in Hong Kong

I was very interested to see this article on the Guardian website, highlighting the threat to sharks from tuna fishing. Basically, enormous numbers of sharks are being killed as ‘bycatch’ in the course of tuna fishing in Indonesia. Their valuable fins are sold onto the Chinese market, according to the article, while their meat is eaten locally:

“The shark are technically bycatch, but they’d be more accurately described as valuable byproduct. And the sheer numbers being caught are shocking. Even more alarming is the fact that all three of the shark species mentioned above are on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species.”

I have wondered for some time how many sharks were killed as bycatch, because it throws an interesting light on the campaign against eating shark’s fins: i.e. that it’s not just the Chinese appetite for fins that is jeopardising shark species, but destructive fishing practices in general. However,  when I interviewed an expert from a major environmental organisation about the fin trade, he seemed reluctant to discuss it. I wondered at the time if this was because any evidence of large numbers of sharks being killed as bycatch might detract from the black-and-white clarity of the campaign against the Chinese fin trade… Continue reading…

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The threatened pangolin

The pangolin, or scaly ant-eater (chuan shan jia 穿山甲), is an extraordinary creature. Plated in armour-like scales, it looks like a pine cone (or a stylised carp – if you just look at the scales – which is why one of its Chinese names is ling li 鲮鲤). Unfortunately, it’s now being eaten to extinction – and you can guess who is to blame. Yes, it’s the Chinese, along with the Vietnamese. Their relentless appetite not only for the flesh of the pangolin, but for its scales, a traditional medicine, is driving an illegal trade in pangolins from Africa and Asia. According to the newly-updated IUCN List of Threatened Species, the pangolin is now the most illegally-traded mammal in the world, and all eight pangolin species are threatened with extinction. Continue reading…

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The gastronomic adventures of Michelle Obama in China

Sichuan hotpot: the aftermath

While I was in Chengdu in March, I found myself staying in the same hotel as Michelle Obama for a couple of nights. Despite our proximity, I didn’t catch the slightest glimpse of her, although the hotel restaurant was swarming with White House people during her stay, and I was penned in at the side of the road outside the hotel one evening while her imposing motorcade swept past. As you can imagine, the question at the top of my mind was: of all the possibilities, where are they going to take the First Lady to eat?!

In the end, according to newspaper reports, the organisers settled on two restaurants: a Tibetan restaurant, and a hotpot restaurant. And while I fully understand the reasons for choosing a Tibetan restaurant, and love the riotous fun of eating hotpot from time to time, I’m sorry that Mrs Obama didn’t also have the chance to enjoy a more typical Sichuanese meal. Hotpot, after all, despite being a fun experience and an example of the mala (numbing-and-hot) exuberance of Sichuanese cooking, is hardly a showcase for the broader cuisine in all its dazzling variety. Continue reading…

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‘Extravant eating and drinking has never been part of Chinese culture’ (!)

Posted by Fuchsia on April 01, 2014
Banquets, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, Politics / 4 Comments

File picture of Chinese banquet

Over the last year, high-end restaurants in China have been struck as if by lightning by President Xi Jinping’s ‘anti-corruption campaign’ and ban on dining out at government expense. ‘People in China are used to such political campaigns,’ one friend of mine told me, ‘But normally they drop off after a while. No one expected the ban on expense-account feasting to last this long.’

Officials in China are paranoid about being caught breaking the rules: these days, all it takes to ruin a reputation, and perhaps a career, is a meddlesome citizen with a smartphone camera, hovering outside the restaurant as you sneak out after eating your shark’s fin soup. Continue reading…

Roast chicken musings

Posted by Fuchsia on January 27, 2014
Chinese food culture, Cooking / 4 Comments

As always, cooking mainly ‘Western food’ for Chinese friends was an interesting experience. For a start, I faced unusual competition for the best bits of the chicken. Whenever I cook roast chicken for my family or Western friends, chances are that someone will want the breast meat, which suits me fine – but anyone Chinese knows that the most delicious parts of the bird are the legs and wings, as do I. My friend chose to have wing ‘so I can fly high!’. She added that when she was a child, her parents wouldn’t let her eat chicken’s feet because they thought eating them would make her calligraphy as ugly as chicken’s footprints! (Probably her parents just wanted to eat the feet themselves.) And she said many Chinese parents in the past deliberately gave their children – or most likely, their sons – the cockscomb, because this resembles an imperial official’s cap, and might help them to enter the civil service. Continue reading…

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President Xi Jinping’s steamed baozi

Posted by Fuchsia on January 02, 2014
Chinese food culture, Dumplings, Politics / No Comments

Baozi (library pic - not from Qing Feng)

Last week, Chinese president Xi Jinping caused a sensation after being photographed queueing up for a tray of steamed baozi at a Beijing snack shop, Qing Feng. According to the pics, he bought his own meal ticket, queued up with a tray, collected his pork buns, and then sat down among other customers to eat them. Chinese people have been amazed to hear of their paramount leader rubbing shoulders with the ‘Old Hundred Names’ commoners of Beijing. Some have reacted cynically, wondering if this could possibly be a cynical PR stunt (dreamed up perhaps after former US ambassador to China Gary Locke caused such a stir by buying his own coffee in Beijing), rather than a real glimpse into the hitherto unknown everyday life of Xi Jinping.

It is unusual for today’s Chinese leaders to fraternise with the public. On my most recent trip to China, one of my friends remarked on how leaders’ lives were an absolute mystery: ‘No one ever sees them. We don’t even know if they actually live in Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound, as they are said to. After all, no one ever sees them going in or out.’ Continue reading…

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Christmas greetings!

Posted by Fuchsia on December 24, 2013
Chinese food culture, Festivals, Uncategorized / 4 Comments

I’ve always rather admired those incredible Chinese cold-cut platters 冷盘, in which auspicious scenes are recreated in a collage of little slices of food. Sometimes they may be assembled from slices of cooked tongue, roast duck and other meaty ingredients, sometimes from multicoloured vegetables, often a mixture of both. It’s rare to see them in restaurants these days, because they require a great deal of patient work and artistry – in China, I think I’ve only seen them as exhibition pieces in culinary competitions. But I love to flick through cookery books that show some of these extraordinary platters in their full glory. Continue reading…

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Strange fruits

Posted by Fuchsia on November 03, 2013
Chinese food culture, Foraging, Unusual delicacies / 5 Comments

These extraordinary wild fruits, harvested in the Zhejiang countryside, taste rather like pear or jujube, although of course they have proportionally less flesh to skin, to the skin seems thicker and more fibrous. The seeds form outside the fleshy fruit, as you can see in the pictures. Their Latin name is Hovenia Acerbis Lindl, which may be the same as Hovenia Dulcis, the oriental raising tree – see this Wikipedia entry. In Chinese, theyare called guai zao(拐枣), whose literal translation is apposite and charming: jujubes turning corners! A perfect description of their sweet, jujube-like flavour and strange, angular construction. I think they look like dancing horses or underfloor plumbing. According to Wikipedia, they taste like raisins when dried.

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Anyone for chop suey at the Chinese Delmonico?

Posted by Fuchsia on September 13, 2013
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, Menus / 3 Comments

Thanks to Cool Culinaria for sending me samples from their new collection of vintage Chinese restaurant menu prints, which date from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s! The originals come from the Harvey Spiller Collection, which is apparently the largest privately-owned Chinese menu collection in the world. They offer a fascinating glimpse not only into the food, but the imagery used to sell Chinese food in America, including ‘chop suey’ fonts and dragons. Two early examples particularly caught my eye. The cover of the Bill of Fare from the Hong Far Low, a restaurant in Boston in the 1930s, displays a black-and-white photographic portrait of a serious-looking man in a traditional Chinese gown with cloth fastenings, who is described as ‘the first man in Boston who made Chop Suey in 1879′. The menu itself is only in English and clearly aimed at American customers, with sections on fried chicken, chicken chop suey, chow mein fried noodles, chop suey, omelets and salads, and a collection of very  unChinese-sounding desserts, such as chocolate cake. Continue reading…

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The pleasures of texture

This is a video of a magnificent dried sea cucumber after two days of soaking and slow-cooking. As you can see, it has a lazy, springy, sticky texture. When I brought it home, dry and rock-hard like a fossil, it had an unpleasant fishy smell (like Bombay Duck, if anyone can remember that). But after the requisite soaking and simmering, it had virtually no aroma or flavour: it had been reduced to pure, glorious texture – which meant it was ready to be cooked. Isn’t it amazing?

One of the great barriers to outsiders’ appreciation of Chinese food is the Chinese love of textures that others consider revolting, as I’ve written before: the slimy, slithery, bouncy and rubbery; the wet crispness of gristle; the brisk snappiness of goose intestines; the sticky voluptuousness of that reconstituted dried sea cucucmber. This was the subject of a talk I gave as part of a London Gastronomy Seminar last week, following an excellent exposition by French psychologist Dominique Valentin on the cultural influence on food choices.

We ended the evening with a tutored tasting of some classic ‘texture foods’ (pictured right): naked, undressed jellyfish in all its crisp slitheriness, a terrine of pressed pig’s ear, layered with thin sheets of crunchy cartilage; sticky ox tendons in a spicy sauce; and then, for each guest, a duck’s tongue, which is a perfect example of a Chinese delicacy with a ‘high grapple factor’, which is to say one that requires a detailed, concentrated engagement of tongue and teeth to separate out the bouncy flesh and slender spikes of cartilage. We also had a comparative tasting of fermented tofu and Stilton, to highlight the distinction made by some Chinese friends of mine between what they found the clean, rapidly-dispersing stinkiness of fermented tofu, and the greasy, clingy, mouth-coating stinkiness of cheese.

It gave me great pleasure to see a whole roomful of people eating (in most cases) their first duck tongue, in the intentional pursuit of pleasure. (I’ve received quite a number of emails from readers of my book ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ who say that they’ve tried eating ‘rubbery things’ with a completely different, open-minded attitude after reading the chapter ‘The Rubber Factor’, which attempts to explain why the Chinese enjoy eating flavourless foods with interesting textures.)

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