Part Ten in a series of articles about the experiences of an Australian Conversational English Teacher in Rural China. Self published author of 'The King's Calendar:The Secret of Qumran', (a study in Biblical history and chronology), R.P. BenDedek is a pseudonym
FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
"Well, what will it be tonight?" you hear someone ask.
"How about Chinese?" someone suggests.
"Yeah" says another, "I know this great Chinese Restaurant downtown. They serve the most delicious Chinese Cuisine you can imagine."
I can only dream of such a conversation. How I have longed for 'real western' Chinese food.
I have eaten in restaurants in Beijing, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Wuhan, Huangshi, Hong Hu and in ordinary homes and villages, and I can honestly say, that none of it looks like 'Chinese food'.
|Taken in HuangShi near Wuhan. A pleasant evening with staff and students of the university.|
Whether dining 'alfresco', or in a private room in a posh hotel or in the common back alley restaurant; in the meal room at school or at the take away stand in the street, or even in private homes, meals are an informal communal activity.
They are a pleasant adventure, except for the food - until you get to know what to eat that is! Of one thing you may be sure however; the meat will always be fresh. Killed and bought or bought and killed that very day, and in some cases, killed to order; it is always fresh.
|There is nothing like fresh meat killed to order or take home alive. No Thanks!!|
You can often tell what people will have for dinner, for dinner is often flapping or slithering around in that bag they are carrying. Fish is a common food here, with the exception of goldfish, and about the only two things that have four legs that won't be eaten are dogs and cats. (Actually I later discovered that this was incorrect!) I just love to point at people's little pets, rub my stomach and smack my lips. They are absolutely horrified.
|Fresh meat in the fresh air and don't mind a bit of cigarette ash. It doesn't matter! (Bu Yaojing!)|
Everyday trucks roll in with livestock for the slaughter, and the meat is sold in established markets or in the open street. Never mind the heat, the flies, the dust, the mud, the unhygienic cutting benches, the cigarette ash or occasional coughing fit. It doesn't matter! It's all out there for you to inspect and haggle over, and haggle they do.
|This is Asamani and his sister in their Muslim restaurant beside the Qing Chuan Hotel in WuChang Wuhan.|
Although I have yet to find one in Hong Hu, most places have 'Muslim' restaurants and while chefs come in all shapes and sizes, it is amazing to note how young many actually are. Assamani, the chef in the photo above is 18 years old, but they do come younger. I particularly like the Muslim places because there you are guaranteed of being able to get 'lamb' and 'cow beef' as opposed to Ox which is hideous to eat. I have tried to cook Ox in so many ways with so many different herbs and spices but failed every time.
Now I don't want you to think that this is a negative article for it is not. Nor is it about restaurants and eating places. That I will leave to another article.
|Original photo was lost. But still a home cooked meal|
This article is about food itself, you know, the sort of stuff that mother cooks at home. Now take for example the dishes in this photo. This meal was cooked by the mother of my boarder Xie Qin Chao, the evening of his final exam for the University Entrance test. I had just arrived back from Wuhan and had the pleasure of partaking in this meal.
In the top row on the left you can see fried cucumber, and to its right pickled garlic and peppers. Middle row on the left we have a bowl of thin noodles with fish.
There is fish again in the small bowl to its right. On the far right we have fried egg. On the bottom left we have dried (rehydrated) bean curd, and to its right a plate containing small green beans and long green something or other.
There is another dish especially made for my household by Tian Ying, the mother of my 14 year old boarder Zhan Yan. It is one of many types of preparations of Lotus stems. Every part of the lotus plant can be eaten, and apart from one particular preparation of Lotus root, I like all types of Lotus dishes.
Tian Ying frequently brings food to my house. In fact, on the day this article was written, I was resigned to having eggs for supper, when she turned up with a freshly cooked meal. Her favourite preparation is the one type of Lotus root meal that neither myself nor the other boys in my house like. The root sits in a soup with pig knuckles.
When you pick it up it trails 'mozzarella' type streamers, and is truly revolting. I always thank her for it and then toss it out as soon as she is gone. Eventually I had the boys tell her not to make it.
|Regular fare on a regular night in a regular little town in the middle of nowhere|
One student's uncle has a restaurant in a back street behind the supermarket, and I took a Chinese friend there for dinner. The food was delicious, but it did help to have a translator, and some idea of the different ways that food might be served, so that I could 'order' exactly what I wanted to eat.
In this photo we have pickled lotus root top left, beside which is a lovely soup with egg and something green. Personally I don't eat whatever is in the soup, just the soup itself. At school they serve soup with dead lettuce leaves, which I guess is where the occasional grub comes from.
Center stage is a bowl of finely cut pork with lots of peppers and chillies, and to its right, an especially ordered bowl of fried diced potato, again with peppers.
On Christmas day 2003 I went to Chibi to attend the local Roman Catholic church service.
|A hot snack on a cold winter's day, but delivered with true Christian Charity for a stranger in a strange land. Taken at Chibi in a local home while I was visiting the visiting Catholic Priest.|
Something must have been lost in the interpretation of the original invitation, for the service was over when I arrived and there were but some 'private' worshipers left.
An old man remembered me (as if he could forget their first and only foreign visitor), and grabbing my arm, dragged me to a house in which a small prayer meeting was being led by a young priest.
It was a cold day of course, and they quickly sat me down and served me hot bread and some freshly poached eggs floating in water and tons of brown sugar. It's the Chinese version of 'quick energy' food.
Chinese hospitality is evident everywhere, whether you be a stranger or a friend, or a friend of a friend. I have been many times invited to dine with Tian Ying and her family, and why not, I am Zhan Yan's surrogate father. (That's another story). This next photo is of Zhan Yan's grandmother and in the one below it, you can see some of the food served us on this occasion.
|This is Zhan Yan's grandma, and Tian Ying's Mother. A lovely lady and a good cook and a great conversationalist. On this particular day she gave me an interview about her life in China. She spent 8 years in a labour camp during the cultural revolution.|
Top left is a plate of boiled potato the likes of which I have been served nowhere else. It is superb. Beneath it is a bowl of hot roasted peanuts (yes it is possible to pick them up with chopsticks). Beneath this is one type of lotus root preparation. It is the steamed variety. In the center we see a large plate with an assortment of meats. There are the regular type chicken drumsticks, chicken feet, duck's feet, and something else, along with boiled eggs (don't ever try them). Behind the plate there is a dish I can't now recall. To the right we have white pickled lotus root, some chicken flesh and lots of black seaweed (or something similar). In the bottom right corner is a preparation of Lotus seeds, which are simply great no matter how they are cooked.
Being the honoured guests, we (my brother, his wife, my son and myself) had to try everything there, but I could not under any circumstances put the duck or chicken's feet in my mouth. Chicken's feet are a particular delicacy and my Chinese sister-in-law loves them. As for me, I looked at the Chicken's feet and couldn't help wondering where they had been walking just 15 minutes earlier. It was more than I could stomach. Despite the way it often looks, most food is delicious, even if it is filled with peppers and chillies.
|Ellen, a New Yorker but living in Israel for the last several decades and now teaching English in Wuhan, prepares a typical Jewish - I mean Chinese meal.|
Of course you don't have to be Chinese to prepare this type of food. Yiddisheh Mammas are renowned for their cooking, and as can be seen in the photo above. As long as you are not orthodox, it is possible to cook like the Chinese. This meal was prepared by Ellen, a New York born Israeli. Left to Right and Top to Bottom we have Chicken and Peppers, tomato and egg, cucumber, pork meatballs, grilled fish with mushrooms, bean curd, tomatoes and onion, and finally bottom right cucumber and pork. All very very Chinese.
Grade Two Senior middle school student Luo Yu ('Rain'), invited me home for supper, and in this double feature you can see both her family members and the dinner. Neither she nor her mother (who spent the whole time in the kitchen and did not eat until we had finished - as is custom) are in the photo. The boy on the right is Zhan Yan (Tian Ying's son and my boarder). The lady to his right is Rain's grandmother and beside her is her husband. Beside him is his brother. The girl in red is Rain's friend and the man with his back to us is Rain's father.
The kitchen is on the other side of the public walkway, and apart from this dining room, there are only two bedrooms, with the first serving as the TV room as well. As you can see there are Nine dishes, which means they went 'all out' to impress me, and it is all served on beautiful (but old) crockery.
I can't remember exactly what we had but there was at least, lotus root, peanuts, finely chopped pork with peppers (Chao Rou), bean curd and a green vegetable which looks just like a garden weed. In the center is the Lotus soup which I hate.
When someone who speaks Chinese takes you to a restaurant in China, you should never be afraid to tell your host exactly what you do not like. This of course is a little difficult if you don't know anything about the food that may be served. Prior to coming to China I had never eaten pork and had quite an adjustment to make, but I have learned that there are many ways in which it can be cooked that are not pleasing to me.
The same goes for chicken. In this photograph which was taken in a restaurant at a dinner at which I played the host, I was very specific about the food. The small plates you see are the freebies that come with the meal, but starting with the foods at the top, the one on the left is water chestnut. It can be prepared many ways and is always enjoyable. To the right of it is a Sichuan style pork, which in this case meant slivers of prebaked pork tossed with two varieties of chillies. I was the only one who was not jumping up and down with their heat, even though prior to coming to China I had never eaten Chillies.
The bowl with the ladle (center left) is a soup. I was particular about the fact that I wanted no meat or fish in it. Vegetarian soups can be quite delicious. The center plate is chicken. Most meat is served on the bone, but by that I don't mean that it is like a chicken drumstick or leg of lamb, it is literally just chopped up and as you eat it you find yourself chewing on little slivers of bone. For this dish I was quite specific that the chicken have no bone. It was served with peanuts and peppers, and presented as a decorative center piece. To its right is a plate of deep fried potato - western style - which was specifically ordered, although they needed instructions on how to prepare it. The bottom plate is pickled lotus root.
While I will in another article discuss restaurants and eateries, I will take opportunity here to point out that not only on every street corner, but in our particular street at both lunch and supper times, one may find 'fast food' vendors.
|There is nothing like fast food, made to order. You don't even have to go far to get it, it comes to you.|
From hot chips to a spicy kind of bread, and from rice to noodles, one is able to choose a quick meal to satisfy one's hunger when time or circumstance prevents you from enjoying a meal at home.
There are about eight licensed vendors plying their trade in our street, and I personally often find it very convenient - provided that is, that I can remember to get there before the school bell sounds.
From time to time Muslim vendors appear selling specialty foods. On this occasion it is a 'sweet', a compressed compilation of nuts and fruits held together with honey or syrup. It is absolutely delicious, but very expensive.
It may not have resulted in a reduced price, but greeting them with 'Assalaam Aleikum!' certainly lit up their faces, and astonished the regular Chinese. 500 grams sells for 20 yuan.
|Muslims in town selling sweets on the roadside.|
Although I do not know the location, I have been informed that there is a Muslim community and mosque just a couple of hours drive from here.
Another type of quick and easy meal is Malatang. A cross between 'hotpot' and 'fondue', the food is already cooked and waiting for you when you arrive. Price varies with the particular food you choose, and the vendors have a keen eye to ensure that you pay the right price. Lotus root, carrot, potato, chicken, and bean curd are common.
Most vendors are set up in marquees rather than permanent sites. In Wuhan however there is a modern twist on malatang in the big shopping centres where one can sit at a counter with one's own 'personal' cooking pot. It is however quite expensive by comparison.
The fact that malatang is usually served in non permanent places does not mean that such places are inferior to 'established' businesses. These three dishes were purchased in a back alley restaurant in Wuhan. The staff were both astonished at and pleased with my patronage. The dish on the left is fried potato in a sweet sauce. To its right is an attractive 'beef and vegetable' dish. The third is a green vegetable with garlic.
Foods naturally comes in all types, shapes, sizes and flavours and there is no shortage of fruit vendors, convenience stores and cake shops. Unfortunately the Chinese like to eat most of their fruit 'unripened' (by our standards) and while all the ingredients are available to make a nice fruit salad, trying to get everything ripe at the same time is difficult.
|Most store bought cream biscuits are very easy to forgo, as are almost all biscuits. However in this store I can purchase wonderful fresh baked peanut cookies. I just phone them to let them know I will be there tomorrow and they will cook 2 kilograms worth just for me. The specialty cakes are sponges thickly coated with tasteless cream.|
Bread and cake shops abound, but the bread is usually made of rice and loaded with sugar, which isn't bad if you are fortunate to pick up a loaf with fruit in it. It makes a decent fruit loaf. But nothing is ever constant here, and one day the bread has it and the next it doesn't. There is one store that sells wheat flour bread and their best bread was made during a period of weeks when sugar was in scarce supply.
There are a number of supermarkets in town, so there is no shortage of chocolates, soft drinks, chips, and many other items you would recognise, but be warned. Just because it looks like the thing you are used to, does not mean it is. Many 'western' products sold here are altered to cater to the Chinese taste buds. Have you ever eaten ginger prunes? Revolting!
Ok! That is all I have to say on the specific issue of food. I hope you are a little wiser. If I have not already mentioned it, food here is full of chillies and peppers that really do make you sweat on a cold day. I will leave you now with some additional images for your amusement.
|The meal room at school. An ordinary day and an ordinary mess.|
|LEFT: Top shot is of a brand new modern corner store and fruiterer. Underneath is of my 'egg lady' and her store. RIGHT: This photo was taken while having dinner in my student's uncle's restaurant. This is Wang Xi's mother taking a break just inside the front door of the restaurant.|
|We were having dinner when an old lady appeared in the doorway begging for some food. Grandma immediately got up and prepared a big bowl of food for her. The old dear sat on the front steps and ate. She was also sent on her way with a little money. Not 200 metres from this front door there is a 'slum' and the people's dignity does not permit me to photograph their conditions.|
|Doggy Bag Chinese Style - but the meat is a little underdone I think!|
|Female taxi driver being investigated by police in TianJin for driving without a taxi License. The whole situation developed because I hopped into her cab and the other taxi drivers wanted my fare because as a foreigner they could rip me off. They were sadly disappointed. I am wise to their tricks.|
- In 2010 at Magic City Morning Star News I published 19 Chapters of my book 'Finding Myself in China'. They are listed at the above link.
R.P. BenDedek is the pseudonym of an Australian who has been teaching in China since 2003. In addition to contributing to Magic City Morning Star News as a columnist, he is also currently assisting the Editor of this Newspaper.
2004 Stories from China
Additionally, BenDedek is the author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' at www.kingscalendar.com