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

Reasons to go

This has gone viral apparently, and it’s easy to understand why – it’s fabulous. I swear I had tears in my eyes watching this. It epitomises so much about the experience of travel so simply that it blew me away. Got me itchy again too. Great images, and a great score to go with it. Well done.


Changing the beat

Adventure into Fear

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve had this recurring fear lately that my days of adventure are over. It seems to have come on suddenly. Up to a few months ago I didn’t give it a second thought, literally. Now though, for reasons unknown, I fear that all that is behind me.

I am getting older. I probably can’t do all of the things I used to. Fact is though that I’m happy to leave most of them behind me, and regardless being able to or not do them makes little difference. There is no physical impediment then to continuing on as I have before. That being the case, is it then psychological?

I feel as young as ever, certainly in mind, but also in body. I’m just as curious and intellectually adventurous as ever. I still crave variety, difference and the unpredictable. Mentally I’m as fresh as I’ve ever been, neither tired nor particularly weary. In short, I’m still up for it. Do I think I’m getting too old for it? No, not consciously. Perhaps I’m more aware than before that I am getting to the age when I should be safely settled down: you’ve sown your wild oats H, far and wide, time to knuckle down to domestic bliss. Maybe.

There is something in that, quite slight, which is telling. When I think of adventure I’m thinking primarily of travel, and of embarking on new enterprises. I have my own business, which is adventurous enough by itself thank-you very much, but it doesn’t count. I remember my travels, of the great cities and small villages I’ve seen across the world, the myriad trains, buses and planes I hopped on and off, the people I’ve met, the hospitality I’ve been shown, the food I’ve tried, and the nights of occasional debauchery. I remember the singular moments when somewhere distant everything seems perfect, I vaguely recall the women I’ve seduced, and been seduced by, all across the world. I think of myself and the picture in my head is of youth (despite having travelled in excess of 20 years), of manly vigour, curiosity and adventure, lean and bearded, hair growing long, the sun tinting my face and arms, a heavy pack on my back as I fumble, smiling, with an unfamiliar language.

When I say that I’m afraid my adventurous days are gone it is that which I fear is lost, that me, that attitude, that sense of unknowing you cheerfully plunge into with the unshakeable belief that what the hell it’ll be fun and besides, you can handle anything that comes your way right H? Right. That’s my youth.

I still feel that, which is ironic. I feel not one whit diminished. In a lot of ways there’s a lot more to me now than ever before. The question is whether it is quite appropriate for me now; whether I can, in good faith, continue to go on living as if I was still 25 and golden haired. It’s a fair question, and the day will come when the answer is no. But not yet I think, despite my reservations. I think probably I need to re-calibrate my expectations. Not lessen them, change them.

I spent an evening last week going through a Chinese guide book reading and highlighting the bits and pieces I want to do in my brief trip there next year. It was exciting and fun. The trip is small by past standards, but is better than nothing. Whisky wants me to go with him on a motorcycling trip through Central America some time. I was dubious at first, but red hot now. I imagine the adventure in that: I can almost taste it.

Adventure isn’t past me, but I have to make it happen now, and re-assess how I experience it. Ultimately it is in your make-up. It is a good part of who you are, if it’s on or off, how far it’s dialled up. I often think that within a few years I’ll find myself some land in the country not too far from town where I’ll settle and build another life. It is an attractive notion, but running counter to that is a certain restlessness that seems innate. I don’t want to settle yet, and I mean that in the psychological sense. I still have things I want to do and experience. I hope there are a few more twists to keep things interesting: I expect one day to live abroad for a time.

That’s my journey. Everyone is different. Most happily find themselves in a comfortable groove they have no intention of shifting from. Others are more ambitious, but that guarantees little. I had lunch with the extremely cute Vietnamese entrepreneur recently lusting at her as she sat opposite me – and slowly found myself becoming bored. She is full of life and zest and energy: for her the sky is no limit. That’s all there is though. I’m driven to achieve and take great pleasure in that, but it’s in the context of a broader way of living. I put down my tools to do things, to share, to have adventures, and so on. Much as I admired and desired my entrepreneurial friend I knew she was not for me. She gets a high from what she does, but to me it’s like dancing to the same beat over and over again. That’s my idea of adventure: changing the beat.