I’m fascinated by news of some research that suggests Europeans were spicing their food with garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) in the Stone Age – there’s more about it here. Scientists at York University have analysed residues in fragments of clay cooking pots found at archaeological sites in Denmark and Germany, and discovered traces of the seeds of this plant. Because the mustard seeds have little nutritional value, the researchers reckon they must have been used to add flavour to the food. According to the BBC report on the story, “The implications from these findings challenge the previously held belief that hunter-gatherers were simply concerned with searching for calorific food”.
Somehow it surprises me that anyone should be surprised that our Stone Age ancestors were concerned with making their food more delicious. Isn’t taking pleasure in food part of what makes us human?
(Are there any other species that add relishes to their food as we do?)
This article ‘Breaking Bland’, by John Mahoney, is the most lucid, informative and interesting I’ve read on the whole MSG controversy. It goes into great detail about what exactly MSG is, how it is made, and how the human body interacts with glutamates.
Even if Chinese people do request their food ‘without MSG’, it’s amazing how many chefs will continue to use so-called ‘chicken essence’ (ji jing 鸡精) anyway – and the cheap commercial ‘chicken essence’, which gives so many Chinese soups that intense umami taste and lurid yellow colour, has as its major ingredient MSG!
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…
You can read my piece about Farmer Mau Chiping in today’s Financial Times magazine. For years I’ve been torn between my desires to buy as much local produce as possible and to cook as much Chinese food as possible. With meat and poultry, it’s fairly easy – try red-braising pork from the Ginger Pig! But the supply of locally grown Chinese vegetables has always been limited. That’s why I was so thrilled to discover the tiny shop just opposite Pang’s Printing Press, in an alley off Macclesfield Street in London’s Chinatown. It’s a small Chinese provisioners, selling basic seasonings, noodles and so on, but also vegetables from Mau Chiping’s farm in Kent. The choy sum and gai lan are glorious, as are the mustard greens, pak choy, water spinach and occasional treats such as stem lettuce (celtuce) and Chinese garlic chives. The farm is not certified organic, but mainly Continue reading…
Last week I went to the opening of this new exhibition at Somerset House. It’s a peculiar idea, an exhibition about a restaurant without anything to taste, and I have to admit I was sceptical. So what’s in the exhibition? Well, there is a lot of memorabilia: old photographs, menus and the like. But what I found more interesting were the explorations of the creative process at El Bulli: a display of multicoloured modelling clays that were used to make maquettes for every dish, so that the proportions of each ingredient, each colour, each texture, could be reproduced accurately in the restaurant; the display of custom-made serving vessels, including strange bits of mesh, and indented glass. And there were many small video screens showing films of the construction of El Bulli dishes, which were compelling. The exhibition certainly helps to stake Ferran Adria’s claim to be considered as a creative artist and not a mere cook – but it’s hard to convey s sense the magic and fun of El Bulli in a museum in London… Continue reading…
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…
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.
Kangaroo meat shop in Adelaide
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.
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.)
Over dinner with some Sichuanese chef and restaurateur friends in London, this is what I was told: “The other day a Romanian woman came into my restaurant alone, and ordered several dishes. When she had eaten half the food, she called me over, and complained that one of the dishes was too sweet, and one too salty. Politely, I invited her to have a couple of other dishes to replace them, and sent out two more, complimentary dishes. Then she asked for the bill, and said it was too expensive, and she couldn’t afford it. I pointed out that all the prices were listed clearly on the menu, and she still said she couldn’t pay. Eventually I told her I would call the police – and I did. But when the police came they said there was nothing they could do, even though they agreed she had probably done the same thing at countless other restaurants. So they left, and the woman got away with her free meal.” [NB this is a fine example of the practice known as bawangcan 霸王餐, tyrannical eating, which you can read a little more about here]
The restaurateur, who has been in London for more than a decade, was shocked and amazed by this turn of events. “I really like English culture, and I do think English people deserve the word ‘gentlemen’,” he said, “But you really take human rights too far here. The government needs to be more strict, and less easy about handing out British citizenship and welfare and so on. If you are too soft, you’ll end up like the United States, with everyone carrying guns. People are too lazy here, too, and because of the prevalence of supermarkets and fast-food joints, they are forgetting how to cook. Honestly, I think Great Britain was Great a hundred or two hundred years ago [NB this is exactly when Britain was abusing China in the most ungentlemanly manner], but these days it’s just ‘Britain’”.
Interesting to hear a Chinese immigrant complaining about excessive human rights, and praising colonial-era Britain… and I appreciate that he thought the loss of cooking skills was one of the major causes of the decline of a once-Great country…
I spent a few days in New York for the James Beard Foundation Awards – a wonderful trip, as you can see from the photo! (Here‘s a link to the relevant article in Lucky Peach.) It was fantastic to run into so many good friends, and the weather was New York at its shining, brilliant best.
The most beautiful building, glimpsed through Gramercy Park
Foodwise: delicious crisp tofu and bulgogi beef sliders at a newish Korean place, Danji; an utterly perfect, simple lunch at the Gramercy Tavern; and a lavish, dreamlike brunch for Daniel Boulud’s 20th New York anniversary. Oh, and I cooked a Sichuanese feast for the friends who put me up, with fresh produce from Chinatown. (And apart from the food, it would almost be worth going to New York