It was truly a food odyssey. No guides, no language, just the desire to eat whatever looked and smelt OK.
This was our pilgrimage last January (1997), to explore eating in China.
How do you find food in a foreign culture? In China food is in evidence everywhere. How to get it is another question. Travelling in winter added to the piquancy of the challenge.
The weather concentrated our selection of places to visit down to Kunming in the temperate south, Chengdu capital of Sichuan province and Shanghai which is as far north as we wanted to go in winter. These cities provided fascinating contrasts.
Kunming still feels like a large provincial town but is poised to become a major tourist centre; Chengdu is, literally, a cuisine hot bed and Shanghai is simply huge. The concentration of people and of business there is mind boggling. It supports thousands of restaurants, notably one which operates 24 hours, turns over hundreds of customers, even at at 5am in the morning. La Coupole in Paris had seemed pretty impressive with a real buzz at 1 maybe 2am, but with far fewer customers and a much smaller menu.
No culture on earth, not even the French, is so concerned with gastronomy as the Chinese. Food is more than obsession in China, it is life itself. And it has always been so. In the Shang Dynasty Palace, of the 4,000 staff employed, more than 60% handled food and wine. There were 162 master dieticians, 70 specialists in meat, 62 in game, 342 in fish; 128 chefs for the family, 128 for guests and 62 assistant chefs. There were 335 specialists in grains, vegetables and fruits, 24 in turtle and shellfish; 28 meat dryers, 62 pickle and sauce specialists and so on. For many Chinese, even today, to get a meal is the principal work of the day and the meal itself is not merely an interval in work but an aim in itself. What and where you eat is a constant part of conversation.
In Kunming and Chengdu markets and street stalls are everywhere. Business starts at dawn and continues into the evening. There is often a lull at about 3-5pm, perhaps the only time of the day when you can walk several blocks without seeing constant eating.
In Shanghai, the colder weather and the much more developed city means less food on the streets. But this does not mean less eating. There is a constant queue at the Government Dumpling Shop (also called The Big Cup of Spring). It is open from 7am -5pm with one hour closed at 1pm. Just before the midday closing time, the queue extends way down the street. It is both a take away service and a series of benches where you sit just long enough to add a dash of wine vinegar to the fantastic fried dumplings, maybe slurp up a bowl of soup and get out of the way for the people standing behind your stool waiting, not too patiently.
And waiting is an important part, Lin Yutang, a Chinese scholar, wrote in 1935, no food is really enjoyed unless it is keenly anticipated, discussed, eaten and then commented upon . . . Long before we have any special food, we think about it, rotate it in our minds, anticipate it as a secret pleasure to be shared with some of our closest friends and write notes about it in our invitation letters. I wish that I could have gone to some of his dinners. However we made do by asking Chinese eating advice of food friends and Chinese cooking experts, Elizabeth Chong and Gilbert Lau in Melbourne; Michelle Garnaut (owner of the wonderful Michelle at the Fringe in Hong Kong and regular China traveller) and Hong Kong's gourmet guru,Willie Mark. We were given lots of advice and some addresses.
But the advice and addresses don't get you food without language. So you must go to China hungry. Not only to eat, but to experiment, to look around you, really try and see what people are eating, look at how busy places are and what sort of people are eating there. Then examine the food on display. Most eating stalls and restaurants showcase all the raw ingredients. Use your commonsense and assess its quality and look at the people cooking and serving. Western standards do not apply. But you can have great food experiences if you watch what the locals are doing and then apply your own taste and judgement. Then point out what you want. A dictionary is limited help, Mandarin is not universal and words, especially in cooking have very specific meanings. To order a chicken has thousands of permutations (roast, steamed, with noodles, in broth etc. etc.) but if you see something you like the look of on someone else's table, then go for it. Politely try and indicate that's what you want. It really works!!
Then try and watch what the cooks do with it. Chinese cooking is very much about the art of the mixture. Its the balance between the yin (the cold) and the yan (hot) ingredients and understanding within what flavour spectrum each belongs. There is also much concern about the ingredients' medicinal properties. It seems that there is a great deal of commonsense knowledge in Chinese society about the qualities of food. If you ask people why they choose certain things to eat, there is usually a fascinating story.
The Chinese have been more inventive in their sourcing of ingredients than any other culture, and have a great variety of foods available throughout the year. The range of wild plants, herbs, grains (notably soy bean) is huge, before even looking at the fruits, vegetables, fish and animals of which no part is left unused.
In Kunming we saw an extraordinary variety of fresh foods in the depths of winter. One typical meal we were able to assemble by the pointing method was -- baby broad beans cooked with a fine dice of capsicums; dumplings and snow pea shoots in a light broth; potatoes fried with spring onions in oil and liberal amounts of salt ; mustard greens with ginger and peas cooked with Yunnan ham and a little stock. This, plus rice and one beer amounted to 26 Yuan (less than $5)
On the tables in Kunming you will find bowls of salt but no soya sauce. We were also interested how tomatoes were used. It's not a vegetable that I had previously associated with Chinese cooking. But in both Kunming and Chengdu we often saw it sliced on the top of large bowls of broth, and in a sort of omlette dish with spring onions. Potatoes were also everywhere, particularly on the streets as snacks, large drums are filled with roast spuds and sometimes also pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Smaller potatoes are < Spelling/typo query here >par-cooked and skewered, dusted with Sichuan pepper and grilled. In the markets of Chengdu, the satay sticks are the size of chopsticks and are used to grill whole small fish, chicken legs and whole flattened quails.
Fruits were fantastic in Kunming. On the streets everywhere were small sweet pineapples, the eyes cleverly cut out, halved and eaten from sticks, huge pink grapefruits which had been meticulously pithed, fat yellow pears, crab apples sometimes fresh but often poached and served from tubs of syrup.
Less than an hour's bus trip from the centre, is Dragon Gate Temple, where we ate at a stall outside and picked out 8 different varieties of the fungi which this province is famous for. In season, there are more than 30 varieties to try. We pointed out the Yunnan Ham and spring onions and seasoning we wanted and it was cooked in front of us.
Back in the centre, other wonderful dried produce were the massive slabs of dried apricots, sultanas and walnuts pressed together to form a huge cake from which astoundingly expensive $6 slices could be cut off. These were sold from bike drawn small carts by tall young men all with the same almost Slavic features reminiscent of Mongolia.
In Chengdu, it is essential to eat the Chen MaPo bean curd. The texture and taste of their bean curd is sublime and the complex meat sauce (very hot) makes it one of the world's great dishes. A White and Red Hot Pot is also essential in this city but so is an appetite to cope with the amount. Unlike many other eating places in Chengdu, the Hot Pot restaurants are often open late.
The market off Renmin Donglu is fantastic. Hundreds of food stalls are packed into a small area. Rows of smoked meats are hanging with whole piglets and large flattened heads of various animals. The production of the bouncing rice ball is something to hear and see. The cook strikes his metal tools on the counter like a gong to attract the crowd then catches a ball of dough thrown to him, bounces it high into the air, then simultaneously flattens and flips it into a cauldron of hot sweet syrup. It is then ladled out into small bowls, and eaten straight away. The other crowd pleaser is the young pastry cook who works the candy out into the crowds, by means of two large sticks, walks backwards into the mass of people, tosses and crosses the mixture in mid air then loops it back over the sticks. This goes on for as long it takes to get enough buyers around.
After all this food there are always the tea houses to retreat to. Here you will find people of all ages and occupations. There are many in all Chinese cities, some of them are occasional centres of performance also. But they are really for conversation and games. Cards, draughts, chess and sometimes billiards. Seating is mainly outdoors on portable bamboo furniture. The tea houses are wonderful institutions. They provide those moments in the day and in the city's life when time stands still. Some people always sit in the same spot at the same time of day. And what do they talk about? Life itself -- the last or the next meal.