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.
Chinese food culture, Foraging, Unusual delicacies / 5 Comments
A friend of mine who is a big cheese in Chinese food circles (or should we say ‘a big tofu’ in these parts?) has asked me for ideas in translating his Chinese term shi xue 食学 (literally ‘Food Studies’). He is proposing that there should be an academic discipline of this name on with the same status as subjects like chemistry, geography and history. It will encompass ecology; food production from farm to plate (including agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, fishing, foraging…); cookery; gastronomy; the aesthetics of food; the biological process of eating from mastication through digestion to excretion; food law; nutrition; diet-related diseases; famine and other food disasters; anthropology of food; food education; and so on. Continue reading…
I know it’s something of a cliche to giggle at Chinese menu mistranslations, but the menu I came across at lunchtime today was such a spectacular disaster that I had to share it! Here are some of the linguistic catastrophes on offer in a Shanxi restaurant in Beijing:
荞面灌肠 Buckwheat noodles enema [unfortunately the same Chinese characters are used for an enema and some sausagey-type things]
凉拌莜面 Cold you face [here, the dish is cold oaten noodles, but the character for noodle-type foods (mian) is the same as that for face; and clearly they couldn't find oats in the dictionary so they didn't bother to translate and just gave the pinyin transliteration of the character, 'you']
老醋烧带鱼 Vinegar burning octopus [the character shao can be translated both as 'burn' and as 'braise/cook': the translator clearly got confused here. Mysteriously, the main ingredient isn't octopus at all, but hairtail fish.] Continue reading…
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:
READING: I’ve been gripped by Anya von Bremzen’s memoir of eating in the USSR, ‘Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking’. The story of three generations of her family and a century of life in Russia (and other parts of the USSR), it’s darkly funny, richly informative and fascinating. The sweet-sour nostalgia for an era characterised by food queues, political doublespeak, black humour and deprivation reminds me a little of China, where some people still reminisce fondly about life under Maoism.
Chinese cuisine, Chinese food culture, Chinese restaurants, Menus / 3 Comments
Thanks to Cool Culinaria for sending me samples from their new collection of vintage Chinese restaurant menu prints, which date from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s! The originals come from the Harvey Spiller Collection, which is apparently the largest privately-owned Chinese menu collection in the world. They offer a fascinating glimpse not only into the food, but the imagery used to sell Chinese food in America, including ‘chop suey’ fonts and dragons. Two early examples particularly caught my eye. The cover of the Bill of Fare from the Hong Far Low, a restaurant in Boston in the 1930s, displays a black-and-white photographic portrait of a serious-looking man in a traditional Chinese gown with cloth fastenings, who is described as ‘the first man in Boston who made Chop Suey in 1879′. The menu itself is only in English and clearly aimed at American customers, with sections on fried chicken, chicken chop suey, chow mein fried noodles, chop suey, omelets and salads, and a collection of very unChinese-sounding desserts, such as chocolate cake. Continue reading…
I’m just back home after a week of intensive teaching and eating in Devon, where writer, designer, cook, photographer and restaurateur Alastair Hendy and I were running a food-writing course for the Arvon Foundation. We and thirteen students were let loose in Totleigh Barton, an ancient thatched house filled with books, with no television or radio and virtually no telephone or internet access. On all Arvon courses, lunches are provided by visiting staff, but dinners are cooked by whichever group of writers is in residence, and everyone fixes their own breakfast as and when they choose. Normally, the Arvon people provide recipe cards and suggested menus for the dinners, but with a food-writing group that included accomplished amateur and professional cooks… well, as you can imagine, we were largely left to our own devices, which meant that we feasted like kings for four days. Continue reading…
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.
It’s quite magnificently ironic that just as chefs at the cutting edge of Western gastronomy are becoming fascinated by MSG and umami, the Chinese are waking up to the stigma that has been attached to it for forty years and losing their taste for it, if this article in the Economic Observer, ‘China loses its taste for MSG’, is to be believed!
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!