I’m thrilled and amazed to be nominated in two categories this year! Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking is on the shortlist for international cookbooks, and my Lucky Peach article ‘Dick Soup’ (one of the pieces I’ve enjoyed writing most!) is shortlisted in the ‘Personal Essay’ section, alongside pieces by two fantastic writers, Elizabeth Gilbert and Gabrielle Hamilton. You can read the full shortlist here.
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.
How to cook a stag penis? Not a question I’d ever seriously pondered, until I inadvertently acquired four of them, and had to find a way. You can read about my adventures in the latest issue of Lucky Peach or on Buzzfeed here…
Here is the Amazon link:
Development, Sichuanese cuisine, Unusual delicacies / 5 Comments
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…
Environment, Food and health, Food safety, Unusual delicacies / 6 Comments
My piece on the Australian relationship with eating kangaroo meat seems to have stirred up a lot of interest and emotion! It was one of the most read and shared articles on the BBC news website throughout the day it was published, and I received a fair number of tweets, emails and comments about it, roughly divided between people who agreed with what I said and those who didn’t. Continue reading…
Chinese cuisine, Cooking, Environment, Unusual delicacies / 6 Comments
You can read my piece about the Australian hang-up about eating kangaroo meat here, on the BBC website. And if you like, listen to a different version on From Our Own Correspondent here – it’s the last recording, towards the end of the programme.
Of course, Australian’s reluctance to eat their most distinctive local meat is not particularly surprising, given the deep irrationality of human food choices. Most people in the West, for example, will eat shrimps but not insects, pork but not dog, and beef but not horse meat. History is littered with examples of societies that suffered because they wouldn’t change their eating habits, like the mediaeval Norse community on Greenland, who starved to death because they refused to eat fish and seal like the natives, but insisted on maintaining a tradition of cattle farming that was unsuited to their fragile northern habitat.
The interesting question is how much people will be prepared to change their eating habits to accommodate climate change and rising global population. If the UN has its way, we’ll soon by eating insects...
Above, on the right, by the way, you can see my own cooking experiments: Sichuanese kangaroo tail soup; stir-fried wallaby with yellow chives; wallaby with cumin; and mapo tofu with minced wallaby.
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Sea cucumber, Unusual delicacies / 8 Comments
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.)
This excellent breakfast, enjoyed at the Big Table café in Adelaide’s Central Market, might look like a run-of-the-mill fry-up, but it’s not. I’d been browsing the market in search of local specialities, and had inevitably spent a while at the famous kangaroo shop, and another stall called Something Wild where they sell kangaroo, crocodile, goat, buffalo and camel meat. It was my last day in Adelaide, and I was dying to try some of these unusual ingredients, but none of the local cafes appeared to serve them (I think I’d only had crocodile once before, actually in a Cantonese restaurant in West London). But the incredibly kind staff at the Big Table, where I’d eaten breakfast a few days before, agreed to cook a couple of speciality sausages for me as a substitute for the bacon and eggs in their ‘Big Brekkie’. So here they are: a kangaroo country sausage from the kangaroo shop, and a crocodile sausage from Something Wild. And I’m happy to report that they were both absolutely delicious, and not disturbing in any way. The kangaroo banger was dark, juicy and peppered with fragrant herbs (it didn’t taste gamey at all), while the crocsausage was gorgeously juicy and tender, a little like chicken but lighter in texture. Both were wild, sustainable, free-range meats – and in the case of the crocodile, I’d say it’s better to eat it before it eats you. Continue reading…
My piece on eating hairy crabs will be broadcast on From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4 this morning – you can listen to the broadcast live at 1130 GMT here, listen afterwards here, or read it here! Hairy crab (mao xie 毛蟹) is one of the Chinese names for this delicious freshwater creature, but they are generally known as ‘big sluice crabs’ (da zha xie) because they were traditionally caught around the floodgates in the Lower Yangtze Region, especially around the Yangcheng Lake near Suzhou. As you will read in my piece, they are known as ‘hairy crabs’ because of the spiky yellow hairs that grow along their legs – but Westerners have a tendency to call them ‘mitten crabs’, possibly because that sounds less unattractive in English, but also because they have ‘mittens’ of moss cushioning the base of their claws.
Although the crab season is now drawing to a close, they are ubiquitous during the autumn months if you happen to be in Shanghai or its surrounding region. They are advertised on great billboards looming over city streets, sold, graded by size and sex, at specialist shops, and listed on the menus of many local restaurants. You can even buy boxes of live crabs at Shanghai’s airports, their feet and claws tightly bound with rice straw, and take them home with you.(They also have a history of illicit immigration, hitching rides on container ships to places like England, where they are regarded as an invasive species.)
In my BBC piece I mention the butterfly and the monk – pictures below.