News, tapas-style

Posted by Fuchsia on September 21, 2013
Barshu, Books, Cooking, Restaurants / 2 Comments

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.
Continue reading…

Anyone for chop suey at the Chinese Delmonico?

Posted by Fuchsia on September 13, 2013
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…

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A Devon idyll of cakes, cooking and conversation

Posted by Fuchsia on September 07, 2013
Cooking, Foraging, Writing / 5 Comments

Totleigh Barton

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…

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Stone Age cookery

Posted by Fuchsia on August 22, 2013
Cooking / No Comments

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?)

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The MSG controversy

Posted by Fuchsia on August 21, 2013
Chinese cuisine, Food and health, Ingredients / 14 Comments

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!

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The ‘preserved mustard index’ 榨菜指标

Posted by Fuchsia on August 14, 2013
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…

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Chinese vegetables grown in Kent

Posted by Fuchsia on July 20, 2013
Chinese cuisine, Ingredients / 2 Comments

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…

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El Bulli: Ferran Adria and the art of food

Posted by Fuchsia on July 10, 2013
Restaurants, Uncategorized / 5 Comments

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…

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Eating kangaroo – reprise

Posted by Fuchsia on July 10, 2013
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…

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Eating your national emblem

Posted by Fuchsia on June 30, 2013
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.

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.

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