Unusual delicacies

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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A wild breakfast in Adelaide

Posted by Fuchsia on March 21, 2013
Unusual delicacies / 2 Comments

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…

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The pleasures (and perils) of eating hairy crabs

Posted by Fuchsia on December 15, 2012
Unusual delicacies / 1 Comment

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.

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Cured pig’s head – Shanghai

Posted by Fuchsia on October 26, 2012
Unusual delicacies / 9 Comments

I tweeted a picture of this beauty last night, and it turned out to be about my most popular tweet ever, so I thought I should post it here as well, so it lasts! I took the picture in a food shop on Nanjing Lu, near the People’s Park. By the way, the eyes are real.

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Pig ears set sail for China…

Posted by Fuchsia on July 28, 2012
Chinese food culture, Unusual delicacies / 2 Comments

You can read my piece about the new Sino-British pork deal that will bring shiploads of British pig’s ears to China in today’s FT magazine.

Photographs:

On the right, some sliced pig’s ear served as part of a Sichuanese hors d’oeuvres.

On the left: me modelling a nice pig’s head in Yangzhou.

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Garlic scapes

Posted by Fuchsia on July 16, 2012
Cooking, Unusual delicacies / 5 Comments

For the first time, to my delight, I’ve found garlic scapes in one of my local shops. They are thicker than Chinese garlic stems (suan tai 蒜薹 , suan miao 蒜苗 , suan xin 蒜芯 – they have different names in different parts of China), with much larger bulbs, but have a similar flavour. Of course I cooked them in my favourite Sichuanese way, stir-frying them with a little streaky smoked bacon. With wok-scrambled eggs and a beansprout salad, they made a glorious lunch.

These scapes come from The Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, just off the coast of southern England.

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Wobble wobble

Posted by Fuchsia on July 10, 2012
Cooking, Events, Unusual delicacies / 7 Comments

Fancy a jellyfish jelly? This is one I made for the Oxford Food Symposium Mad Hatter’s Tea Party on Friday.

It’s just a home-made lime-and-lemon jelly with plenty of sliced jellyfish and some gouqi berries for colour.

As you might expect, the jellyfish is transparent and has a jelly-like consistency, although one slightly more taut and elastic than that of the actual jelly. It’s completely tasteless, so please don’t imagine this lovely tea-time jelly has a fishy flavour to it.

Like jelly, jellyfish has a very satisfactory wobble when moved from side to side (hang a strand from the end of your spoon and see).

Has anyone else tried making a jellyfish jelly?

Here’s the recipe, as far as I can remember it:

海蜇冻 Jellyfish jelly

Ingredients

Seven limes

One lemon

Two packs of ready-to-eat jellyfish (each 150g)

175g white sugar

Six gelatine leaves

One 20g piece of ginger, skin-on, slightly crushed

4 tbsp dried gouqi berries

Method

  1. Place the jellyfish (which should be already sliced) in a sieve and rinse thoroughly. Then soak in cold water until ready to use. (You won’t need any flavouring sachets you find in the pack for this recipe.)
  2. Cover the gouqi berries in cold water and set aside until ready to use.
  3. Cover the gelatine leaves in cold water and leave to soften.
  4. Squeeze all the limes and the lemon. Place their juices in a pan with 450ml water, the ginger and the sugar. Heat gently, stirring from time to time, to dissolve the sugar, and then bring to the boil. Allow to cool for ten minutes.
  5. Then pour off a little of the hot liquid, add the drained gelatine leaves and allow them to dissolve. Add this mixture to the rest of the juice and mix well. Shake the jelly fish dry and add it to the juice mixture. Allow to cool.
  6. Wet a one-litre jelly mould. When the liquid is tepid, stir in the drained gouqi berries and pour into the mould. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight to set. Turn onto a plate to serve.

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The glorious stinky foods of Shaoxing

Posted by Fuchsia on June 25, 2012
Unusual delicacies / 4 Comments

My article on the delights of rotted amaranth stalks and other Shaoxing specialities is now on the Financial Times website here – it was originally published in their international edition. It’s one of my favourite pieces, and brings back happy memories of Shaoxing and its many gastronomic surprises. (It’s a kind of sister piece to the article about the cheese-tasting in Shaoxing for which I won my James Beard Award.) The following are a few photographs of the delicacies mentioned in the piece:

Rotted amaranth stalks - yum!

The stalks on a bed of innocent white tofu

Fermented tofu skin steamed with minced pork - unbelievably scrumptious

Uncooked stinking tofu

Stinky tofu street stall

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An amazing durian snack

Posted by Fuchsia on May 24, 2012
Unusual delicacies / 4 Comments

It’s a lobe of ripe, fresh durian, enclosed in a kind of cage of shredded taro, tied prettily with seaweed and then deep-fried – so your teeth crunch through the outer layer into the bewitching succulence of the fruit. Oh blimey. If you’re a fan of durian, which I have been since a midnight initiation in Singapore a few years ago by the street food guru K.F. Seetoh, you’d adore this incredible titbit, bought at the old seafood market in Taipei, which been converted into an ultra-chic supermarket and ‘stand-and-swallow’ (i.e. no seating) sushi bar. Just the memory of it is driving me slightly wild, and now I’m wishing I’d bought some of those freeze-dried durian chips at Bangkok airport on the way home… And I’m also remembering the taste of durian in flaky pastries from Vietnam, and a divine, incredible shaved durian ice cream in Hong Kong, but that’s about the limit of my durian experiences. Anyone like to share their memories of other interesting durian snacks?

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Chinese cheese adventures

Posted by Fuchsia on May 20, 2012
Regional cuisines, Unusual delicacies, Yunnan / 5 Comments

You can read my piece about making cheese in Lunan County, near the Stone Forest in Yunnan Province, on the BBC website, or listen to the podcast of my voice on the same page. As you’ll see/hear, the kind of cheese they make there is a fresh, unsalted goat’s cheese that is somewhat reminiscent of Cypriot Anari. It’s delicious pan-fried and served with a dip of sugar or salt and Sichuan pepper; steamed with Yunnan ham; or stir-fried with other ingredients.

Another kind of Yunnan cheese just mentioned in passing in that piece is a speciality of the Bai people in northwestern Yunnan, especially Dali. I didn’t make it up there on my most recent trip, but came across it on the streets of Kunming. It’s a really unusual form of cheese known as ru shan 乳扇 (‘milk fans’). Continue reading…

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