Real Chinese food

Did I mention that the food in China was great? Travelling there I was full of trepidation about the food. Chinese is not my favourite cuisine, though that’s more likely because of the bland, generally Cantonese skewed dishes we get served up at our local take-away joint. I had the idea in my head though too that it would be somehow confronting. Though I never consciously pondered it I feared I might come across a market with cute little dogs stuck in cages. Or else happen across the generally smelly and practical wet market you see across Asia.  I wondered to if the food itself, closer to it’s roots, might not be too unfamiliar to me, and challenging to swallow.

If you can imagine eating it then it’s probably here

As it turns out none of that occurred. I saw live ducks for sale at different places, and turtles in markets and by the side of the road, but nothing near as full-on as I feared. For the most part the difference in the food from home was well in China’s favour. I remember once being unpleasantly surprised by the presence of large, roughly chopped bones in a chicken dish, but that was mere inconvenience – the dish was delicious. In fact pretty well everything I ate was delicious. Should be no surprise, but it was about a hundred times better than the Chinese tucker here – and not once did I see a lemon chicken, beef and black bean, special fried rice or a number 46 on the menu.

The fact of the matter is that the Chinese we eat has been westernised to fit in with our generally blander palates and more delicate sensibilities. We get a narrow band of food in general, with the exception of some pretty good restaurants. China is a bloody big country, with different ethnic groups and regions all with their own particular specialties. For the most part we don’t get exposed to that here. Sure, we tuck into our spring rolls, like our dim sum, and delight in the variety of dumplings we can get here; we get plenty of Cantonese food, Sichuan cuisine is pretty well known, plus we get other bits and pieces from all over – I guess the greatest hits package. What we don’t get is the vast range of different food available in China, and little of the street food. It’s a lot to ask that we might be exposed to so much variety maybe, but really, we’re missing out on a lot.

Chinese love their food – in fact one of their common greetings translates to “have you eaten yet?” – but are also pretty matter of fact about it. I guess when you’ve got over a billion mouths to feed there’s not much sense in being squeamish about the available food sources. And so besides the conventional chicken and pork, beef and fish, there are plenty of other options that Chinese swear by – turtles obviously, and reputedly dog, donkey quite commonly, as well as a variety of insect life – beetles, centipedes, cockroaches, etc. There’s sheep penis (though, as a friend pointed out, more correctly ram penis), and the various nether reasons and entrails of lots of different formerly living things.

Sheep penis? Anyone?

I steered clear of all of that stuff. I’m all for adventure and believe one of the great delights of travelling is the food, but this mouth doesn’t need a penis in it, let alone a bug.

My adventure was largely with the street food, which was great. Dumplings obviously, but also fried noodles, a little shallot pancake the locals have for breakfast, a spicy chopped chicken wrap sort of thingy, and skewers, generally lamb, cooked over a small metal barbecue, as well as little sesame buns, and so on. All this is cheap, very popular, and generally delicious. I was happy to get by on street food.

Still, I ate out most days, and had some cracking meals. My favourite Chinese cuisine is Sichuan. I like it hot and spicy, and I sought it out while I was over there. I had plenty of meals chock full of Sichuan pepper and chillis. When I wasn’t having that I tried regional favourites from all over China, and found I liked the food from Tibet and close-by – but really it was all pretty good. The only doubtful meal was when I was in Xidi, where I got served a dark, liquid dish containing chunks of potato and glutinous hunks of fatty pork belly in a sauce redolent of star anise. It wasn’t bad, it was just a bit fatty for my taste, and I’m not a big fan of star anise.

Bottom line is that I return to Oz and Chinese food now is now one of my favourites – but the Chinese version, not the bland counterfeit we get too often here.

Sichuan in Shanghai

Bai, Dai & Miao folk food

Mr Sri’s famous, delicious, and very filling dumplings

When in China

National emblem of the People's Republic of China

Image via Wikipedia

I have a holiday booked for China next year, a trip I’ve been quietly anticipating up until I read a David Sedaris article on his trip there.

Now David Sedaris is a humourist, and a very funny one at that, so you have to factor in some artistic exaggeration. It’s not going to be as bad as all that you figure, besides, I’m the intrepid traveller right, the robust Aussie go-anywhere kind of dude, not an aging, albeit funny, American east-coaster? So it goes. And yet amid the quiet chuckles evinced as I read his piece the thought crossed my mind that exaggerated or not there must be some skerrick of truth in this.

One of the main reasons I travel is to experience different things. To find places and situations different to what I know, to whit, to travel outside the upholstered familiarity of my comfort zone. By and large this is a very positive experience. More often than not what you find is pretty good to great in terms of food. culture, people, geography, and so on. There’s no guarantee of that though. There’s no small print that that claims that everything outside of your comfort zone is going to be positive. Hell, you’d have to be a dolt to believe that. That’s why you have a comfort zone, you put all the things you like inside it and leave everything don’t out of it. Sometimes you’ll go on your excursions from it to see what you can learn and what you can bring back with you, but no amount of broadmindedness is going to convince me that I want to try dog face say, or book a vacation in downtown Kabul. They’re outside of my comfort zone, and they can stay there.

Now China doesn’t fall into that category, not at first glance anyway. I’ve travelled to many more rugged places than that and had a hoot. I don’t mind roughing it within limits, I love to try different things generally, and my ambition almost always is to immerse myself in the other culture. That’s why I’m there after all, not to take happy snaps and send postcards, but to to experience, learn, feel and enjoy.

China, you would think, would fall well inside that criteria: a fascinating culture with a long history; an emerging, still slightly mysterious economy; some great destinations, from the Great Wall to Shanghai; even, theoretically, a classic cuisine – though we’ll come to that later. All that is true perhaps, but David Sedaris also described something different which, in my slightly squeamish way, I share an aversion to.

Slag and turds. Slag everywhere as the locals hawk in unison and deposit the contents of their lungs and their nostrils upon every available surface like, as Sedaris puts it, freshly shucked oysters. A cacophony of slagging is how me makes it sound, as if it where the universal pastime of the billions of native Chinese. Then there’s the turds. Not just animal turds as we may inadvertently discover in any pet loving country (though surprisingly rare), but also human turds, deposited as convenience demands.

Truth to be told I’ve come across both these situations previously, and neither have featured as a highlight – though they do occasionally make for an interesting story. I recall particularly when I travelled in Egypt the girls utter disgust at the holes in the ground that acted as toilets, and the generally erring aim of previous visitors. Fortunately my bladder is famously capacious, and my bowels well regimented, so my visits to these dark chutes leading directly to an abject hell where few and far between. Many of the girls, however, were deeply scarred by the experience.

That was the same throughout much of the region, where the occasional slag would also occur. In Asia also, in the backblocks you’ll often find things best left unfound. Still, you turn away and give thanks to armitage shanks, modern technology and being born an Aussie to enjoy them. Through it all you also gain an unlikely perspective, reinforced as you travel. You recall how lucky you are to have what you do and promise never to take it for granted; and you appreciate the difference, the hardship if that is what it is, that other cultures must deal with. The surprise at first is how well they seem to thrive without the comforts you crave, and how cheerful and generous they are. Somewhere in all of that is a lesson, but a lesson I’m happy to forgo if it means I live without my porcelain.

Food is different. For someone like me food is one of the great delights of travel. It remains a cultural as well as culinary experience though. God knows how many times I’ve had a meal purchased from roadside vendor. Unsurprisingly I once copped a dose of giardia travelling in India and ignoring the advice of the locals. I don’t regret it. Otherwise I’ve had no problems despite the rudimentary to primitive cooking and … standards. I’ve had bowls of wonderful Thai food while around the corner there’s a stinking canal with dead dog in it. I’ve eaten amongst the entrails and left over bits of the beast I’m now consuming. I’ve eaten with my fingers more times than I can count, had familiar dishes served up in unfamiliar ways in almost every place I’ve been too.

The point I’m making I guess, is that though the food is generally great you have to leave behind your western expectations. We’re lucky, everything is easy, everything is nicely packaged, regulated and presented. We’d be shocked if it wasn’t, because that’s our world. It’s different when we venture into the world of others where the rules, when they exist, are different, just as the expectations are. It’s great to learn and experience that, and to go with it – which is why I had my roadside snack in Delhi when common sense told me I shouldn’t. I’m here, do it.

Which brings us to Chinese food. Sedaris admits from the start that he’s never had a great love of Chinese food, and I’m the same. Much of the reason for that would be the bland representation we get stuck with in our western societies, an average standard pegged somewhere around the lowest common denominator. For me Chinese food is an occasional pleasure, and, by my experience, just about the least of the Asian cuisines – but I’m happy to learn different. I do like spicy Szechuan stuff though.

A few years back I was in Hong Kong, where I had a very mixed culinary experience. Now I’m allergic to seafood so I’m behind the eight ball right from the start. I missed on a lot that looked utterly delicious as a result of that, and what I had was either great or somehow disappointing. I anticipate finding a much greater range of food on the mainland, but Sedaris comments on his eating experiences don’t do much for my confidence.

Fact is that China is a vast country with myriad cuisines, many of which never see the light of day in western society. I’m certain there will be much to make me blanch and shake my head. I’ll try much too, even some of the things I might be warned against. No point going to China and eating Maccas and beef with black bean sauce.

Wait a few months folks and I’ll give you my first hand reports from the food to the incidents of slags and turds. I’ll take on board Sedaris wry warnings, but in the end I’ve got to live it myself.

More, more, more…

The Destruction Of Sodom And Gomorrah, a paint...

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I had planned to go to the football on Saturday night. It was a big match and potentially a good match, but it was also my nephew’s birthday. I to’d and fro’d, urged and beseeched until I did what any good uncle would do and gave in. Off to dinner we went.

My nephew had chosen a restaurant in the outer suburbs he liked the sound of. He’s just turned 13, and I guess at 13 you are drawn to the sensational, the big, the loud, the outrageous, and his choice of restaurant was all that.

I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to enjoy the venue, but I was willing to give it a crack. When I pulled into the car-park there was a queue of about 30 metres along leading from the front door and curling around the corner of the building. This was the second sitting of the night. There were no parking spots so I parked in the street beyond – when I left I found cars parked illegally on the nature-strip and in the centre island. The doors opened and the queue of people tumbled in, much like at Myers on Boxing Day. We were led to a table in a corner while people went in all directions and noise reverberated around the barn-like structure.

Soon there were people with plates in their hands lined up to dig into the trays of Chinese food kept lukewarm by the bain-marie. It seems appropriate in a place like this that food should be measured by the metre – at this restaurant there was about 40 metres of food lined up of all types, mainly Chinese, stir-fries and dumplings and Peking duck and spring rolls and curries and seafood and sushi, then there were desserts. People came and went with plates piled high with food they scoffed at the table with a beer or a glass of wine, before going back for more. Empty plates were left on the table or on the floor to be collected by the Asian waitresses buzzing around like so many flies clearing up the mess. Conversation was raucous, but constantly interrupted by return visits to the feast laid out for our consumption.

I’m sure if Hieronymus Bosch were around today he might paint something like this, dark and decadent and ugly, on the theme of gluttony. For me personally it was just about the last place I could imagine myself being by choice. This for me was another level that Dante might of written of in his Inferno. I feel awfully moralistic these days, but looking around there seemed something awfully wrong in the scene before me. People ate unthinkingly, filling their plates and consuming as if it was being produced by a machine for their pleasure. It seemed less about enjoying the food itself – which was average – than actively participating in an orgiastic ritual of conspicuous consumption. Nero would have been delighted.

I spoke to my younger nephew at one point. He had returned from his third round of the food trays with a plate full of prawns. He ate 2-3 then pushed his plate aside. “I’m full,” he said. I looked at the plate of uneaten and never to be eaten prawns and felt a kind of outrage at the wastage. “You know,” I said, “they were alive once those prawns. They were swimming about until some fisherman got them and they died. They died so you can eat them, but if you don’t eat them they died for nothing.”

It might seem a silly argument perhaps, but I felt it deeply. I often think people have become disconnected from where things come from, and how they got there. There’s a certain arrogance when we simply expect to eat our fill without once considering how the food made it to our plate. We forget and we lose the value of things, which is the very heart of my complaints. Food is a commodity we can waste without respecting where it came from, which seems symptomatic of our affluent times.

I left as soon as I could. I don’t understand why anyone would choose to spend their Saturday night at a place like that, but I guess I’m the one out of step. The restaurant was outrageously, ridiculously expensive, so much so that we could have had a nicer meal in much more ambient surrounding at somewhere like the Flower Drum. There you pay for quality, and the elegance of the experience. Doubtless these food barns they factor in those gluttonous Homer Simpson types who go back again and again to get their money’s worth, and more. I did my best to get some of money’s worth, but was happy to leave when I live. You wonder how God, presuming there is one, views scenes like this. I’m sure Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of true vice, but it’s hard not to think it is in restaurants like this you see true modern decadence.

Perhaps I am elitist. I don’t doubt there is some cultural snob in me. What it comes down to, as always for me, is reason. I’m not making value judgements. I can choose not to go to restaurants like this (and generally do), and that may be the end of the matter. Except that there is something unhealthy in excessive and unthinking consumption. I love the all-you-can-eat as much as anyone, but without restraint, respect, and some kind of understanding it is but a display of debauchery that goes beyond the gastronomic.