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.