I recently finished reading Hilary Spurling’s masterful biography of Pearl Buck, the daughter of American missionaries who grew up in China and became a novelist who introduced many in America to Chinese culture (and won the Nobel Prize for Literature). It was an utterly absorbing read. Among other things it was a sobering reminder of the appalling poverty of pre-revolutionary China, and the extraordinary achievements of the communists in their early days in power – it’s easy to let the horrors of the Anti-Rightist Movement, the post-Great Leap famine and the Culture Revolution obscure this. And the episodes in which Pearl and her family were threatened and turned on by people in a place that felt like home will resonate, at least distantly, with many foreigners who have lived in China. (Peter Hessler, in River Town – another wonderful China book - described a nasty little event in Fuling, his home for two years, when a crowd turned ugly just because he was a foreigner. And it reminded me of the time I was nearly lynched by a hostile crowd in Chengdu, my beloved Chengdu, just after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.) Continue reading…
You can read my piece about eating my way around Piedmont with Chinese restaurateur A Dai on the From Our Own Correspondent pages of the BBC’s website. Or you can listen to me reading it myself on their podcast for today, 13 November, on this webpage.
I’ll try to post a suitable photograph later!
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 cuisine, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, People, Restaurants / 11 Comments
You can read my article about Suzhou cuisine in today’s Financial Times Weekend.
Here are a few photographs from my various trips there: one of my favourite garden, the Garden of the Master of the Nets (网师园)；one of the Wumen Renjia restaurant courtyard, and other of the wonderful Mrs Sha, who runs it; and a couple of food.
The legendary Catalan chef Ferran Adria announced last night that he would be closing his restaurant, El Bulli, after the next two seasons. As I think I mentioned, I went there for dinner for the second time in October. Anyway, you can listen to me on BBC Radio today, on Newshour, talking about Ferran Adria and his work.
Chefs, Chinese cuisine, Chinese restaurants, People, Restaurants / 13 Comments
Francis Lam has written an interesting piece on the history of General Tso’s chicken for Salon.com. And I think it may clear up one of the niggling little questions that has been perplexing me since I gave a paper on the subject last month, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the discussion that followed my talk, I realised that I didn’t have any idea how to explain the fact that, although the Taiwan-Hunanese chef Peng Chang-Kuei seems clearly to be the originator of the dish, and although the Chinese name of the dish on the menu of his restaurant in Taipei is Zuo Zongtang’s chicken (左宗棠土雞 － Zuo Zongtang is the full name of General Tso), he translates it as ‘Chicken a la Viceroy’. It didn’t occur to me to ask when and how the English name was changed from ‘Chicken a la Viceroy’ to ‘General Tso’s Chicken’ – and I’d resolved to ask Chef Peng and his son about this detail next time I talk to them. Continue reading…
My old friend Volker, who readers of ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper’ may remember as my original partner-in-crime at the Sichuan cooking school, came to stay at the weekend. I hadn’t seen him for over three years, mainly because until two weeks ago, he was on a Tibetan Buddhist retreat at the Lerab Ling Temple in the South of France, which lasted, in traditional Tibetan fashion, for three years, three months and three days. As you can imagine, we spent the weekend spinning a lovely web of memories of Chengdu, discussing Buddhist philosophy, and eating. Continue reading…
Non-Chinese cooks often consider Chinese food as a complete world apart from other styles of food, but I find that Chinese cold dishes mix well with dishes from other traditions. I often rustle up some kind of Sichuanese chicken salad, dressed in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, chilli oil, Sichuan pepper and perhaps a little Chinese vinegar, for a party, and it always seems to go down a storm. The spicy cucumber salad from my Sichuan book is another favourite – incredibly easy to make in advance, unusual and delicious.
Supper at my friend Anissa Helou’s place last week turned out to be a polyglot feast, with Gujarati snacks she commissioned from the mother of her newsagent, a magnificent Lebanese tabbuleh, a Sichuanese chicken dish and fish-fragrant aubergines, served cool. We all thought they went together rather nicely.
Altogether, it’s been an incredibly varied fortnight, foodwise: my first visit to the River Cafe in London for a close friend’s birthday (fabulous langoustines with marjoram), a Sichuanese supper at my place for my ‘kitchen sister’ Lipika, a glorious home-made bouillabaisse at another friend’s house, hog roast in a West London garden, extended family picnic in Waterlow Park (with another Sichuanese salad as my contribution), cocktails at Loungelover and dinner at my favourite Vietnamese place, Song Que, with Anissa and visiting food-writer Anya Von Bremzen! Anyway, enough of all that, tonight I’m off to a deserted Scottish island to make bread and attempt to catch fish.
A Chinese woman I met the other day has fallen in love with London. Why?
Because ‘it’s so crappy and dirty, the streets are narrow and you see old buildings all around. It reminds me of Beijing in the 1980s. Nowadays you can’t find anything like this in Beijing, it’s all modernity and skyscrapers.’
I was amused by her comments – but not entirely surprised. They brought back vivid memories of my tour of California with three Sichuanese chefs, who were looking for the American Dream and bitterly disappointed by the reality of modern America.
The tables are really turning. Westerners go to Shanghai to ride on the Maglev train at 400km an hour and to drink cocktails at the top of the Hyatt. Chinese people come to Europe for a glimpse of primitive, olde worlde charm! Continue reading…
The other day I went out fishing in a lake in Zhejiang. At the edge of the lake I met an old man and his wife who were living on a sampan. They were sitting at either end of their boat, patiently hooking tiny worms at intervals onto two long, long fishing lines. Apparently this takes them several hours every day. The old man had a mug of tea to sip as he worked, and a pack of cigarettes. In the small living space in the well of the boat were their simple possessions: rolls of bedding, a few clothes in a bundle, a calendar, an old-fashioned wireless and a clock. Some half-shelled soybeans were lying in a bowl on the floor.
The fishermen I was with say that just a few decades ago the only way to get around this area was by boat, along the canals and through the lakes, and that boat-dwellers were fairly common. These days there aren’t many left. The old man I met, who grew up on a boat, said his three children were all migrant workers in cities – he’s the last of the line (if you’ll forgive the pun).