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.