My piece about inviting some chefs in Shaoxing (known for its stinky beancurd and other smelly fermented foods) to taste a selection of fairly whiffy Neal’s Yard cheeses appears in this weekend’s Financial Times magazine. It was fascinating to be able to witness some very accomplished Chinese chefs tasting cheese for the first time in their lives, and gave me a new perspective on one of my favourite types of food.
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.
Yes, many of you guessed correctly, the dagger is a fishbone! To be precise, it’s a bone from the head of the Ya fish (雅鱼, a type of carp also known as 丙穴鱼), which is a speciality of the western Sichuanese town of Ya’an. (you can see a picture of the fish here). The fish, which is often made into a claypot stew, is famously tender, with few bones and delicious savoury flesh.
On the left, you can see a Ya fish, presented dramatically in a cloud of dry ice in its raw state, to be cooked in the dining room, in the pot on the left-hand side of the photograph.
My hosts that night mentioned some colourful legends about the knife in the fish’s head, and I’ve done a little research today. There seem to be a few different versions of the story. Some say that the bone was formed when the creator goddess Nu Wa 女娲，while patching up holes in the sky, let her double-edged sword fall into the waters of the river at Ya’an, far below. One tells of an evil river demon who demanded that a beautiful girl be given to him as a bride, threatening calamitous floods if the people of Ya’an failed to oblige him. A young woman volunteered to save her community by offering herself up as his wife, and she challenged the demon with a double-edged sword. All the fish in the river, so the legend goes, decided to commemorate the bravery of her sacrifice, by forming an image of the sword in their heads, and using it to suppress the river fiend.
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.
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.
Chinese food culture, Cooking, Politics, Unusual delicacies / 1 Comment
It’s funny how the UK’s weird and inconclusive general election result has brought out the food metaphors! The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, spoke of a future coalition government as a sausage, in which the meat should be Conservative. And the BBC’s political reporter said on the radio at lunchtime that any government proposed by our current prime minister, Gordon Brown, would be a difficult cake to mix, because it would have to involve too many ingredients!
It reminded me of that age-old Chinese metaphor for the juggling of rival political interests: the seasoning of a stew (or, to be precise, a geng 羹, which is a kind of soup that is thick with cut ingredients – as opposed to a tang 汤, which is a lighter, more soupy type of soup). As David Knechtges says in a fascinating essay on this*: ‘In the Chinese classics, the proper seasoning of food is a common analogy for good government… The comparison of the perfectly blended stew with the art of good government is a commonplace both in ancient and later literature.’ Continue reading…
When your dinner guests include a scientist who makes ice cream with liquid nitrogen at his own parties, and a food writer and broadcaster who is notorious for his adventurousness, how do you surprise and entertain them? I decided it was time to cook the dried frog ovaries I bought in Hangzhou last year.
Known in Chinese as 雪蛤 (xueha), and in English as hasma, hashima, snow frog etc (see this article by Jacqueline Newman in Flavour and Fortune), it’s one of those Chinese delicacies that is baffling to Westerners. It’s usually described as frog fallopian tubes, ovarian fat or ovaries – I’m not sure exactly what is is, but it’s the waxy looking amber-coloured stuff that encloses the eggs of dried snow frogs from the northeast of China. After a long soaking, and steaming, small pieces of this substance expand miraculously into flubberous, transparent clouds of tasteless texture. They are often served with papaya, or in soups that may be slightly sweetened. Continue reading…
I’ve been discussing camel cookery with my friend Anissa Helou, an expert on Middle Eastern food, and Charles Perry, an expert on Medieval Arabic food, on Anissa’s blog. I would love to post a picture of a dead camel here, but unfortunately it’s from my pre-digital period and I don’t have a scanner!
One thing I never thought I’d be is an agony aunt for people struggling to cook ox penises!
According to reports in various newspapers (such as the Guardian in the UK), legal experts in China are proposing that a new law to prevent the abuse of animals should include a ban on the consumption of cats and dogs. As anyone who lives in China knows, eating these animals is rather unusual, and generally limited to a few regions. Moreover, eating dog meat, though it dates back to ancient times, is a seasonal delicacy, suitable only for very cold weather because of its heating qualities. Looking at Western discussions of Chinese food, however, you’d never know that it was a minority pursuit. Westerners, as I argued in this op-ed piece in the New York Times a couple of years ago, have been obsessed with Chinese dog-eating since the time of Marco Polo. It’s something they just love to get outraged about. Continue reading…