Who would have guessed that a famous Chongqing pickle, the preserved mustard tuber made in the town of Fuling, would be used by the Chinese government to measure labour migration?! According to this article from the Economic Observer (which I found via the South China Morning Post), zhacai 榨菜 is a ‘low quality consumable’ 低质易耗品 that people eat regardless their income. Under normal circumstances, the article says, consumption of zhacai, and instant noodles, is pretty much constant among the urban population – so if statisticians notice a sudden rise in zhacai sales in a particular city, this implies that a lot more people are now living there. Continue reading…
Development, Sichuanese cuisine, Unusual delicacies / 5 Comments
Banquets, Chengdu, Chinese food culture, Development, Environment / 6 Comments
Scientists are again urging people in the developed world to eat less meat for environmental reasons. Here’s a quote from a piece on the Guardian website today, which outlined some of the environmental consequences of our addiction to cheap meat:
The answer, [Prof Mark Sutton, lead author of a UN Environment Programme (Unep) study published on Monday] said, was more vegetables on the plate, and less animal protein. “Eat meat, but less often – make it special,” he urged. “Portion size is key. Many portions are too big, more than you want to eat. Think about a change of culture that says, ‘I like the taste, but I don’t need so much of it.’” Continue reading…
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Development, Environment, Events, People / No Comments
I’m just back from a week in Turin for my first Slow Food Salone Del Gusto and Terra Madre. The Salone Del Gusto centres on a vast ‘Slow Food’ trade fair: two enormous halls filled with vendors of Italian delicacies, and (more interesting), a slightly smaller international hall where you can find extraordinary and wonderful foodstuffs, including ancient varieties of almonds from Uzbekistan, Yak’s milk cheese from the Tibetan Plateau, and dried mulberries and mulberry halva from the Pamir mountains. The simultaneous and adjacent Terra Madre is a gathering of some six thousand delegates from 161 countries, all of whom are in some way involved in sustainable local food production.
Funnily enough, I was a member of the Chinese delegation. Continue reading…
Chinese food culture, Development, Unusual delicacies / 4 Comments
I was just looking through one of my notebooks, and found a rather endearing story. It was in Ningbo, at the end of a fabulous dinner that had involved, among other things, divine little octopi (served whole), crunchy jellyfish, salted raw crab, white shrimps and red-braised pork with sea moss, and the chef was telling us all about a culinary conference he’d attended in a nearby city. ‘You know, everyone at the conference agreed [he sighed as he said this] that Western science was very advanced and developed, but that Western food didn’t amount to much. Whereas China might not have such advanced science, but the Chinese had really moved their brains 动了脑筋 when it came to food.’
It’s not the first time I’ve heard Chinese people blaming gastronomy for their country’s decline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries*, but I loved the way he expressed it!
*In my ‘Shark’s Fin’ book I think I mentioned the Xi’an taxi driver who picked me up from the Banpo Neolithic village, and who moaned on the way back into town about the fact that the Chinese had invented steaming in the Stone Age, but had only applied it to cooking, leaving it to the British, many centuries later, to invent the steam engine.
Development, Environment, Events, Food and health / 6 Comments
Last night I went to a press screening of Food Inc, Robert Kenner’s film about the corporate takeover of the American (and global) agricultural and food industries. For anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, many of the issues, and even the characters, will be familiar – Pollan and Schlosser both appear in the film – but that doesn’t make it any less chilling. Most shocking was its account of the bullying tactics used by big agro-food corporations to silence their critics, and of the cosy relationship they have with those in power. Continue reading…
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Development, Environment, Ingredients, Unusual delicacies / 3 Comments
There’s an article of mine in the Financial Times Weekend today, about the dilemmas facing China’s artisanal food producers.
The picture on the right was taken at the camellia oil press described in the article, just after I’d tasted the oil.
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.