When I started writing this post, I was reminded of one of the simplest and tastiest dishes I had in China – stir-friend green beans with almonds. It was perfectly cooked and delicious. So was the Cantonese meals dished up on the train from Changsha to Guangzhou.
It made me think of some of the dishes I’ve enjoyed over the years which were simple yet remain in my memory: French saucisson with impeccably cooked French fries in a small bistro in Strasbourg; Currywurst in Stuttgart: white sausage sliced in a crispy roll with tomato sauce and curry powder (sounds ghastly but was quite delicious eaten in the ChristKindlMarkt in the lead-up to Christmas on a bitterly cold winter’s day); veggie curry, alfalfa sprouts and chapattis in an Ananda Marga cafe in Perth, Western Australia; and last but by no means least, a burger and chips in Burger King in Hong Kong.
The last one sounds somewhat less than gourmet but we found it after we’d flown from the UK to Hong Kong for a stopover in 1994 on the way to Australia. I was suffering a lousy bout of bronchitis and, by the time we arrived in HK in the early morning, I was pretty ill and spent the day in bed fighting for breath. In the evening we sortied out to get a meal and the Burger King offering was absolute bliss! I returned to bed, my fever broke overnight and I woke with the bed soaked in sweat but me breathing more easily and able to travel on to Perth. So much for a stopover in Hong Kong – sleeping or staring at the hotel ceiling!
Anyway, from the ridiculous to the sublime! Returning to our trip to China in 1998, soon after we arrived at the Peking Hotel and had got settled in, we were taken to the main Peking Duck Restaurant operating at the time, where we were served a full Peking Duck banquet. Every part of the duck is used in this banquet. The whacko parts first: you have never lived if you haven’t looked at the beady eye of half a duck’s head resting on your plate. And another friend got stuck with the duck’s feet! Nor have you lived if you haven’t tried one of the entrees: shredded jellyfish – it bounces back however much you chew it, until finally you wash it down in frustration with water and hope you’re not going to choke on the sticky shreds. The chap beside me gave up on manners and decorum and pulled the shreds out of his mouth as they stuck in his throat.
The other entree dish that looked decidedly dodgy was what looked like lumps of black jelly in a dark-coloured sauce. Our interpreter told us it was sea cucumber, but I hung back, it still looked pretty horrible. The same guy, however, bogged in and had a mouthful of this gunk when the interpreter suddenly said: “Oh, sorry, you call it sea slug!”. I thought my neighbour was going to throw up as his face went green, but he managed to keep eating and slumped in his seat once he’d demolished the sea slug.
But hoo boy, when we got the duck meat, with pancakes, hoisin sauce, cucumber and shredded spring onions, we were in hog heaven – it was an absolutely brilliant dish, one of the best I’ve ever eaten. The small pancakes are cooked facing each other, you peeled them apart, then stuffed them with the duck meat, hoisin sauce, cucumber and spring onions. And to wind up we were served duck soup from the bones and remaining flesh.
Going back to food use, at a banquet in a village in the countryside I saw another dish which looked seriously gristly, grey and yukky. While no-one was looking, I managed to whack the pieces I was served under some leftover prawn shells. It was donkey tendon which, as a tour member gleefully informed me later, was a euphemism for donkey penis – thank god I never ate it.
At breakfast and dinner we mainly ate on our own. At lunchtimes, however, we were served banquets wherever we happened to be visiting as we were obviously considered honoured guests, being among the first tourist contingents to visit China as it was opening to the world. The banquets we were served during our tour were really pieces of art. The vegetable carvings and the way in which everything was laid out were absolutely beautiful. The food itself was delicious and the many veggie dishes were amazingly tasty. Everything was served in a Lazy Susan in the centre of big, round tables and we were seated alternating with tour members, welcoming committee members wherever we were, and our interpreters. We could help ourselves but our Chinese friends took great pleasure in picking out food to serve us. I got very adept at waiting until people’s attention was elsewhere and then whacking suspicious-looking food under leftover bones or whatever, as I’d done with the donkey penis.
In Dalian we were shown around a fishing cooperative and then served a fish meal. Luckily for the rest of us, the tour leader had the honour of eating the fish’s eyes when a whole fish was dished up. We ate quite enormous prawns with gusto, and were tucking into the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten with similar gusto until the head of the fishing co-operate remarked benignly: “I see you like that fish, you have to be careful in its preparation. It’s called puffer fish or fugu in Japanese.” This is the fish which can kill you rather quickly if any of its poison gets into the flesh and I can tell you, it brought us all to a rapid halt. We lowered the fish back to the plate then cast surreptitious glances around to see if anyone started looking a bit ill or complaining of tingling lips or tongue. Luckily for us, the preparation of this fish had been perfect but none of us ate any more!
When I visited China again on a shorter tour in 1995, we went to Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province. When we arrived, our interpreter asked if there was anything we didn’t eat and I promptly said: “No dog” as I’d found out since our 1978 visit, that dog-eating was quite popular in parts of China. On the way to the hotel, the interpreter turned around to point out what I’m pretty sure was a barbecued dog on a stand at the side of the road, took one look at my face, shut up and hastily looked forward again.
The one dish I remember from Xian was a steamboat which, again, was absolutely delicious. It consisted of a centre steamboat with a broth, which was surrounded by various bits and pieces of meat and veggies – chicken, beef, pork, fish, prawns, carrots, beansprouts, greens, mushrooms and so on. You took whatever you fancied into your chopsticks, dunked it into the boiling broth until it was cooked and then tucked into the cooked food. The broth gradually got more intensely flavoured from the food cooked in it, and then at the end an egg for each person was broken into the steamboat, cooked and then the soup-like mixture wound up the meal. Absolutely luvverly.
In China you learn that nothing is wasted, because it has such a huge population and the many millions upon millions of people have to be fed. At the time we visited, the country had made great strides in development but was still a very, very poor nation, engaged in re-building after moving from a feudal to a socialist society in 1949, recovering from the ravages of British domination and Japanese occupation during World War 2.
All sorts of food were utilised to feed the billion-plus nation, which is why donkey penis ended up on the plate, along with ducks’ feet and ducks’ heads. It may not suit our Western tastes, I know I learned to check out everything dished up to us, but most of us in the West have never known the poverty and hunger which stalked China in its feudal times and in the post-war, rebuilding era.
Adults in 1978 mainly wore grey or green clothing, because that was the cheapest to produce. And that bit of information was a surprise to me as I thought it was a sort of revolutionary choice in post-war China, but instead it was a simple, economic measure.
In my final post on China I’ll write more about my trip to Xian in 1995 and the massive changes I saw since the first time I’d visited this enormous nation in early 1978. Changes there were but some things remained unchanged – the welcome; the earthy sense of humour; and last but not least, the ubiquitous flasks of jasmine tea waiting for us in whichever hotel we stayed in.
I forgot to mention that, when we arrived in Beijing, we were each issued with the ubiquitous winter coat that all Chinese wore at that time – padded, long, grey-green, fur collar, fur-lined hood, quilted and amazingly warm. I say this because, when we went to an oil field on Shandong Province, there was a photo of me only you couldn’t tell who the heck it was because I was so rugged up: thermal underwear; jeans; two pairs of socks; steel-capped boots; t-shirt; jumper; thick jumper; padded winter coat; scarf; woollen beanie and fur hood pulled right down over my forehead!
I’ve mentioned it in a previous post, but just to recount: we were taken to meet a women’s brigade working on the oil field. I had enormous respect and admiration for them because I couldn’t imagine working in those freezing cold temperatures, I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold and, as it was flat, the wind screamed across the oil fields and added in a wind chill factor.We met the young women in the cabin where they stayed while working shifts on the oil field, and where they had bunk beds for their night accommodation.
We had a wonderful time talking to them, much laughter and many jokes because Chinese people have a wonderful sense of humour. We sang an Aussie song about women workers to them and they sang a song back about women workers in China. We asked why they had a separate brigade and their leader told us they’d found that the women worked better on their own where they could be more independent and not feel intimidated by male colleagues.
We didn’t stay long in Shandong Province and, when we returned to Beijing, we caught an overnight train to Changsha which really was pretty untouched at that time by foreign visitors. If you have never travelled overnight on a Chinese train, at least at that time when we were there, you have missed a very interesting experience. We were in the first class section and were served the ubiquitous jasmine tea plus a very tasty dinner. We had bunks in our own compartments to sleep in, but it was the visits to the toilets which were the most, well, interesting! The stench was unbelievable as quite often the aim by the men had missed by a mile so when you entered the toilet you were paddling in urine. Also the toilets got blocked up very easily which added to the unbelievable pong. All of us had to use the toilet the next morning and we all staggered back to our compartment looking green and somewhat nauseous!
When we reached Changsha, we stayed in a hotel which was not geared much to foreign visitors but more to Chinese people staying there which was interesting as we got a better view of China than when we were staying in a Westernised hotel. The one thing I really didn’t like, though, was the number of spittoons parked around the hotel with Chinese hawking and spitting in them as we headed to the dining room. That really did put me off my breakfast! I understand that this practice is now frowned upon as being unhygienic.
The first thing we noticed when we arrived was the chlorine in the water. Wherever we arrived, we’d head to the flask of jasmine tea which was found in every hotel we stayed in. And we all took one mouthful in Changsha and spat out the tea. It reeked of chlorine as did every meal we had in the hotel, so much so that we all virtually stopped eating as the taste of chlorine was so vile. At one meal we got quite excited to get a dish of soup, only to feel our faces fall when we tasted the chlorine again and also squared up to a fish’s head floating to the top of the soup and staring at us out its dead, black eye!
We were mainly in Changsha to head out to see the birthplace of Chairman Mao, quite a long journey to Mt Shaoshan which is about 130 kms from Changsha. It was interesting to be in a really rural location, to see the very plain conditions in which Mao Zedong had lived as a young man, and also, in the freezing conditions, to shudder when they told us of Mao’s daily routine of washing from the well outside whatever the weather. Yes, we were softie Westerners and none of us felt like adopting Mao’s routine when we got home!
From Changsha, we caught a train to Guangzhou to wind up our tour. We had told our tour guides that we were quite tired from the trip and not very hungry to explain the loss of appetite in Changsha, but the food they dished up on the train was Cantonese Chinese cooking and we descended on the food like a plague of locusts, much to the surprise of our guides!
In Guangzhou we had quite a rest as we were very tired after what was a really hectic trip, but we did get to see the Memorial Hall of the China Communist Party Third People’s Congress in Guangzhou, where we heard about the history of the CPC and its foundation meetings. To be very honest, I was so knackered by the time we got to the building that I don’t really recall much about what happened at the end of our tour.
I do know that we had a wind-up meeting with our tour guides where we were all quite emotional at having to say good-bye, as we’d become good friends during our three week tour. But all good things come to an end and finally we caught the train from Guangzhou back to the border and then to Hong Kong where we stayed overnight before flying back to Sydney, Australia.