Octopus dinner on a Friday night

After my two-hour lecture at the Globe theatre and my mind still half-settled in 16th century London I wandered into Borough market. It was raining and I had a couple of hours to kill before my next seminar. I looked in on a new gyoza stall, bought some peaches, avocados and went in search of a fishmonger. And that’s when I saw it. Lying under a dangling puffer-fish with it’s legs sprawled over a bed of ice, a huge purple octopus. Naturally I had to inquire. How much was it, what was it’s name.. I mean where did it come from? Apparently this particular one was frozen and defrosted from the mediterranean. There was also a cheaper pure white version, fresh off the Cornish coast. He held it up for me to inspect- compared to its purple cousin it was a positive baby.

He offered to remove the eyes. Delightful. And altogether make it more manageable for me to handle. Marvellous. And how do you cook an octopus? Parboil for 10 minutes, pat dry and flash fry apparently. Is it possible to skip the first stage and just flash fry? Nope, not unless you want to be eating old shoes, they said smilingly. Well at £3.80 it would at least be the cheapest shoe I ever cooked.

In the evening, my friend cancelled and my flatmate was on her way out for a cocktail. So it was just me and the 8-legged one then. The only octopus I had ever had was raw on sushi and another time as part of a seafood salad on the coast of Puglia. However I have eaten a lot of squid, fish and even cuttlefish before, and based on what I knew about cooking them, I charted a course to an experimental octopus three-ways.

Firstly I portioned the octopus, into manageable pieces of roughly the same size. I scored the flat pieces like squid. The upper tentacle I sliced as thinly as I could with the knife I had. To this I added similarly thin slices of fennel, lemon juice and my very best quality olive oil (Zucca: £18 a bottle).

Improvements: Add diced tomato and a dash of sugar for sweetness and some herbs (basil?) for added taste.

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Studiously I parboiled most of the rest for ten minutes in salt water, patted dry and flash fried in a wok. Mum usually adds sichuan peppercorns and ginger to fishy dishes, I had no ginger so I put the sichuan peppercorns into the hot oil first. I also like squid with chilli and garlic salt but I didn’t want it to burn so after putting the octopus in I added a little bit of red and green chilli pepper, flaky salt and garlic.

Improvements: This ended up on the chewy side so I decided boiling for 10 minutes first was too long. Perhaps try a dash of Shaoxing wine towards the end?

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Notes: The longer you cook octopus, the more purple it becomes. The sinewy parts become particularly dark. The acid of the lemon cooked it but kept the white colour.

With the rest I had a go at merely dipping in hot water for less than a minute before flash frying with some fennel. This was less chewy. In future, I’d like to try cooking octopus slowly over a long period of time in a stew to break down the collagen.

Before going out, my flatmate mentioned she had read somewhere that octopus stock was the most delicious in the world, and therefore perfect in a risotto. All the time I had been cooking, the delicious aroma of mum’s dried cuttlefish and rib soup had been building in my kitchen. The salt water I had boiled the octopus in had turned a pinkish purple- I tasted it. It was essentially my mum’s cuttlefish soup. And therefore one of the most nostalgic, moreish and comforting foods to me in the whole world. Instead of dried cuttlefish I had a new ingredient to rave about.

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I used to have cuttlefish soup with a scoop of cooked rice, and my friend had mentioned a risotto so I added some Thai rice to the water to cook. Unfortunately the water had already been over-salted as I hadn’t planned to cook with it but the resulting congee, with a drizzle of olive oil resulted in an odd blend of East and West that triggered enough memories to make the whole experiment worthwhile.

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In future I think I will try and perfect an octopus stew- with more time, and a little less chewiness. As it happened I polished off the entire thing and headed out to join my flatmate for a cocktail. A very quick and satisfying supper before the night really began.

Mama Wang’s Kitchen

Another pop-up stall you’ll find at Kerb on a Wednesday is Mama Wang’s Kitchen. We tasted their dishes in their one-off takeover of the Doll’s House, Hoxton Square. The building is soon to be knocked down, but in the meantime it provides a temporary kitchen space for different chefs to take over for an evening or two. I’d been dying to learn how to make hand-pulled noodles, or at least see them getting made ever since I first heard about them. Lorraine Pascale was filming at their pop-up stall a few weeks ago for her new show so I guess I’m not the only curious one.

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The territory of inspiration is roughly Northern China; noodles and jiaozi both being “mian shi” or wheat-based foods. However not without a little bit of a Western influence, in the presentation, the names, as well as the food itself. Like any good translation there’s always an element of creating anew and Mama Wang’s kitchen isn’t without innovations. Like these distinctly fishy mackerel dumplings:

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They were served in a delectable trio with sprigs of dill and slices of radish on a plate of vinegar. Mackerel in dumplings are new… and the traditionalist in me probably wouldn’t have pulled it off with any kind of conviction. I found this version lacked the fragrant punch of herbs that I’m used to in dumplings. Dill and mackerel is what I might smear on melba toast: if not coriander or chives, even ginger or oyster sauce would have been a welcome addition to this fishy pate.

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Mama Wang’s Biang Biang noodles may be a little rustic in appearance, the flavours were all there. The cumin spiced lamb was tender and flavoursome. Usually the noodles are served in the soup they’re cooked in or delicious stocks, but this makes it less shareable and trendy. This less splashy version was not without some kind of stock but the noodles lacked bite.

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I was very happy to see pig ear terrine on the menu. As a child I liked pig ear slices as a snack (I had a liking for cartilage just like Jack’s giant did for crunching on bones for dinner). Disappointingly for my inner infant, these pig ears had been cooked to the point of jelly softness in order to hold in one gelatinous mass as a terrine. The aubergine on the side seemed like a separate addition.

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Lotus root meat sandwiches in batter. Ingenious. If it could be done without the batter, I would be even better appeased. The sauce was delightful. Couldn’t quite fit the lotus sandwich into the dipping cup though. Nice crunch from the lotus root and flavoursome filling.

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Ma Po Tofu. Or my poor tofu. Flavours were there, spice and all, plus a little more; I spotted a cardamon seed which is the first time I’ve seen it in a Chinese dish. Tofu could be softer and served in a little less oil.

The Doll’s House itself was an interesting dining experience. Furnishings were stencilled on to the walls (why splash out on furnishings, if the place is going to be knocked down?) and rows of tealights lined curtainless windows. We shared a table, a beer, a story or two with a group of people we’d never met before and went away appreciating Chinese cuisine from different sides of the table.

Texture-wise I have been a little critical. But I’ve refrained from damning for the sake of saying it’s not the same as what I know. I like to see innovation in Chinese cuisine, but I’m also aware it’s difficult to balance, especially when there’s often a strong sense of doing something a certain way. Outside of China there are different tastes to cater for, in addition to the drive to recreate familiar tastes and dishes. I take my hat off to Mama Wang’s kitchen for giving me comforting food but with an appeal to difference, not to guidelines.

BAO at Kerb

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Back and settled into the cooler climes of England and the start of a busy term in London, I find myself trudging along the grey pavements thinking about all the different faces and foods I left behind in China.  A bout of Fresher’s flu later and some preparatory diversions from my culinary strand of thought and I still find myself yearning for a taste of the Orient. Although my cravings aren’t quite for the exact copy of what I tasted on my travels. Rather, for the sake of nostalgia I find myself seeking comfort foods and anything that merely reminds me of those elusive authentic flavours. After trying a few restaurants on Time Out’s list of Best Chinese restaurants in London, I am on the point of resignation for my quest to recapture the excitement, joy and curiosity of eating in China. Thankfully fate (in modern day terms: a friend’s recommendation) led me to the discovery of a few diamonds in the rough.

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One of the best things about China is the culture of eating out, not only in restaurants, but out and about on the street food scene. In London, Kerb is an advocate of precisely that and operates in a couple of locations. Unfortunately the Kerb at the Gherkin was closed down at very short notice, with it seems very little reason and after happily operating for many months (there’s a petition to get it reinstalled here). Thankfully it’s still going strong at their King’s Cross location and I went along one Thursday to check out a Taiwanese street food stall, BAO.

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BAO, recently won the British Street Food People’s Choice Award and you only have to try it to see why. “Bao” can mean pocket, or bag and can refer to a variant dumpling “baozi”, which looks vaguely like a drawstring bag. In this case, “bao” refers to pocket in a pitta-like sense, an open pouch of steamed fluffy bread filled with braised pork belly, pickles, peanut shavings and coriander.

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Heaven in a pouch. Coriander needs no introduction. It’s the bomb. The sweetness of the pork and the peanut was just deliciously comforting and nicely balanced by the pickles. I went for the meal deal, which also came with soy milk marinated chicken thigh nuggets and a pomelo salad. The nuggets were the best I have ever tasted. Of course, dark meat is more flavoursome and should be used more often, but by marinating it in soy milk overnight, the meat was both succulent and irresistibly tender. There must have been other spices, of which I will take a wild guess and say some variety of pepper and maybe a hint of garlic, but on this question, the chefs smiled so sweetly I think I will just have to be happy eating and not knowing.

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The pomelo salad also included carrot, sesame seeds and a sweet and sour dressing with crispy wanton skins on the top. I watched as the chef painstakingly took each giant pomelo apart into miniscule clumps and grains of pomelo jewels. I suggested some liquid nitrogen and shattering it to save time (an idea I picked up from the El Buli exhibition at Somerset House); the amount of prep that I could make out was certainly comparable to the Michelin greats. For one, the soy milk for the marinade needed to be made fresh from scratch (see my tofu recipe for details), the marinating process lasts at least several hours, as does the home-made steamed bao buns, the pork belly which must be braised for a long time to a traditional recipe and of course, carrots aren’t born grated to the size of pins and needles. I got my 3 courses for a mere £8, taking into account all of these humanoid hours, I was blissfully bowled over by the wonder that is BAO. Their efforts were not wasted, the result was sweet perfection.

A Chinese Wedding

The initial reason for my going to China was because I had been asked by my cousin to be her maid of honour. This was my first experience of a Chinese wedding and it proved to be anything but boring.

The traditional ritual to which the wedding tends is to collect the bride from her house and to carry her, not without due pomp and ceremony, to her new husband’s house and her new home. This sounds simple. The first problem was that my cousin lived in Shenzhen and the groom lived in Ningbo, the equivalent of going up and down between London and Aberdeen 3 times.

Instead, the journey was made from a hotel in Ningbo. This is where I come in. When the groom came to collect his bride he had to get past me first. My brother and I had spent days thinking of riddles and even mathematical puzzles before we realised we were totally barking up the wrong tree. The whole affair was merely a show, as if to say “I’m not going to just let you walk in and take my cousin away- you had better give me good reason to!” The questions themselves were really just playful banter- “who’s going to do the washing up?” and that kind of thing, after which if the answer was not enough in the way of appeasement then a red envelope containing money would be. Perhaps I did my job too well, barricading the door etc. but I delayed the groom and his saucy best man (who seemed to be doing all the talking) enough to make us behind schedule. As my mother kindly put it afterwards, I was meant to let them in after all. I was also under the impression that I was collecting the money (equiv. £20) for my cousin when actually I was meant to keep it. After getting past me, my uncle guarded the final door to my cousin’s room.

Once the groom got past even this intimidating hurdle, my uncle, being the male representative of this side of the family had to carry my cousin down to the antique Rolls Royce waiting outside. The theme here was that the bride’s feet must never touch the floor at any point during her journey (unless it’s carpeted in red) and likewise the scorching sun should be kept at bay. Armed with parasol in one hand and the bride’s shoes in the other I shielded the ruddy complexion of an uncle (who has high blood pressure) carrying a delighted cousin who despite having a light frame was not exactly wearing the lightest or most compact dress.

The open-top car had a red fur carpet laid down for the luxury of her feet and the car moved slowly enough for me to keep the parasol up for most of the way. We were followed by a procession of posh cars covered in pink pompoms (an elegant pairing) and serenaded by loud, traditional Chinese music.

At the other end, it was the groom’s turn to carry his bride to her new home (16th floor, thank goodness for the lift) and likewise the groom’s family’s turn to interrogate my cousin. This was done not half as well as I had done, (or perhaps better), for she was through in a jiffy. Upstairs the groom’s family had prepared a soup which appeared to be made from boiled dragon eye fruit and quails eggs. At no other point in life would I ever expect to eat such an unexpected combination. I don’t know if this is merely a Ningbo tradition or not and I’m not sure if anyone in the room knew what it meant. We ate it to be polite and it was rather sweet. There were also some shanghai xiaolongbao, again not for any particular reason. I do however know the meaning of the dates, peanuts, dragon eyes and watermelon seeds in four bowls sitting on top of the nuptial bed. The words in Chinese are: zao, shen, gui, zi and homophones for something that roughly translates as: give birth to a beloved child soon. My cousin offered tea to older members of both sides of the family. A fragrant rose tea, which I noticed they did not drink, but rather pretended to sip.

From here we went to the chosen grassy spot for the ceremony to take place. This part was in the Western tradition, except instead of a priest there was a guy with a microphone conducting the whole affair as if it were a musical, complete with cheesy music. It was certainly much more dramatic to watch. The host and his microphone followed us to the hotel and continued to conduct things in a voice that reminded me of the releasing of the lottery balls. He cracked jokes, he sang songs, he made up competitions for the guests to have a go at. It was a very lively wedding for sure, even if I was getting a headache from his singing.

The rest of the feast as far as I can tell, did not have as much signification as the previous nuts and dates had. The ingredients were expensive and the portions generous. I spotted my cousin’s favourite salmon sashimi, drunk crab (raw crab that has met an excessive end) the luxurious collagen-rich sea cucumber, lobster, king prawns, shanghai chicken, my favourite osmanthus flower flavoured jiu niang (fermented rice wine) with tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) and egg, with the unconventional addition of watermelon. So many platters, I cannot remember them all… There was simply no possibility of finishing it all…

The bride and groom could not indulge too long in their own feast, for it was their job to drink a toast to everyone in the room. After first drinking to their parents they had to make their way around at least 12 tables, over a hundred guests! The best man and I accompanied them around the room. He handed out cigarettes and I topped up the bride and groom’s glasses with red wine. A friend of the groom’s came up to me and asked me if it was really alcohol. Of course it was! I said in earnest, look, it says 11.5% on the bottle. He looked at me and then at the groom’s flushed face and said, the groom can’t take too much wine. He then sniffed the bottle, smiled and sat back down again. This put me in an awkward position. To continue to pour the wine that the groom was expected to drink, even if he shouldn’t, or to hell with tradition, and pride, and possibly offending guests. Thankfully the rounds were coming to an end anyway and we resumed our seats. It later transpired that the married couple had indeed diluted the wine down, without my noticing- I had been pouring 60% Coca cola!

The rest of the day was taking photographs in the French quarter of the city, in the shadow of an old Gothic church. We handed out sweets to strangers from the open top car, people smiled and pointed as we drove by and everyone was very congratulatory. It struck me that a wedding wasn’t strictly just business between two people, it was everyone’s business.

And what about my cousin? There she was up from the crack of dawn, ferried back and forth like a spinning rugby ball, patiently posing for every photograph and under a heavy dress the size of a house on a very hot day. For her, the wedding was a personal feat in more ways than one. She explained: at home you have your parents to think of you, at work, your role is very specialised (Adam Smith’s division of labour and all that), you’re just one part in the grand scheme of things- a wedding is the one thing you can organise entirely by yourself, like being the producer and director of your own film. It’s the kind of statement that sets the precedent for how you want to live your life in the future. And how you organise your wedding says a lot about the kind of life you want to live.

I have mixed feelings about my cousin’s views. Is a wedding really the only thing left to personal direction? As much as I would like to argue that you should direct your life the way you want in all things, being part of a family and even starting a family can mean personal ambition gets sidetracked. For example, the bride and groom can’t continue to work in Shenzhen and Ningbo forever respectively. Someone will have to compromise. This also means someone will have to live away from their single mothers. And of course my cousin is an only child, as is the groom.

This kind of case is increasingly common in China. Both bride and groom gave me very realistic and practical answers about their future. If the way they directed their wedding together is an accurate precedent for the future I believe they’ll be able to reach a solution that doesn’t involve yoyoing between cities and families.

Shao Xing and the land of wine

With water comes aquatic delicacies, fish and wine. These three elements characterise the cuisine of ShaoXing. Its rivers, lakes and waterways are teeming with possibilities.

LUNCH

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Lotus seeds or “lian zi” make a healthy snack. (The outer green skin is discarded)

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Fireleg (similar to parma ham), smoked mussel and shrimp soup. This was my first taste of smoked mussels, the texture is less rubbery, the colour is a pinkish maroon. All in all very smoky flavours for a delicate soup.

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Mung bean and lily bulb soup (more like a drink really). Mung beans are very healthy and are used in sweet dishes including ice lollies. Lily bulbs on the contrary are a tad bitter and made a complimentary addition to the bittersweet. It may not look or sound very exciting, but this is the stuff I grew up with and is neutral enough for the everyday palette.

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Dai yu. A type of flat fish that isn’t eel. Fried but with no trace of oil whatsoever.

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Boiled peanuts.

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Something that grows in water, tastes rather like water chestnuts, but isn’t water chestnuts! Cooked with mei cai, a type of preserved vegetable. Sorry the descriptions are sounding more like riddles by the second…

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Bamboo shoots. These reminded me of artichokes in the sense the tougher outer leaves could be peeled away and discarded.

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Cold fish (like salmon) jelly. The jelly is dark from the soy sauce and spices used to cook the fish. Once cooled, the natural proteins in the fish skin turn the sauce into a light jelly.

DINNER

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Freshly squeezed cantaloupe and watermelon juice respectively

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A shot of a very sweet version of ShaoXing wine, easy to drink.

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Simply the best dish of our entire trip around China. Fish ball soup with shrimp balls, mushroom and omelette pieces. The fish balls were so delicate, like an airy and light fish mousse or a quinelle and just like biting into clouds. Usually the fish balls we buy in Chinatown are rather rubbery and a totally different texture. The flavour of the soup could only have been the result of extremely fresh fish and great technical skill.

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Mini shiny pork buns. Very soft, so much better than the ones in Chinatown and just the right size.

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Bacon wrapped asparagus in bbq sauce decorated shrimp stir fry. If this was an attempt to blend in Western cuisine I am left underwhelmed.

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Black cod stir fry with celery and chillies, seasoned with possibly cumin and cinnamon. This would have been in contention for the best dish of the holiday if it weren’t for the redundant pringle decorations around the edge. Black cod is tastier than ordinary cod and the texture is closer to jelly than firm flakes.

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Tofu served in a hot stone (you can see the bubbles at the edge it was so hot!)

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Lotus root half slices stuffed with shrimp and cooked with some kind of mushroom with a large stalk and wo sun (a vegetable with a cucumber-like refreshing taste). Great balance of soft and crunch and light delicate flavours.

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Very wet noodles made from a batter consistency of drops in boiling water served with cucumber and shrimp garnish.

Overall the cuisine is light, healthy and more delicate to compliment the river fish and other delicacies found in the region. Although we may not have access to all the ingredients in England, there are fresh and local substitutes such as Kentish cobnuts, which I found are a very healthy substitute for water chestnuts and are currently in season. It is also possible to grow the likes of wo sun in Britain’s wet climate.

A meeting with Chinese etiquette

My mother says I was born with the gift of saying exactly the wrong thing, at the wrong time and quite often, to the wrong person. Apparently this unnatural talent of mine altered fate the day my mother decided that after living in the UK for over ten years she wanted to move back to China and get to spend more time with my ageing grandparents, her sister and her brother. To say a little about myself at the age of eight, England was all I knew, I sang hymns merrily to myself walking home from school and I wasn’t short on childish puppy fat from asking for school dinner seconds of crumble and spotted dick. Apparently when my mother mentioned the idea to my grandfather, he replied thus: “with a truth-telling daughter like that? She won’t be able to cope.” I didn’t think much of this slightly embarrassing story when it was recounted several years later. In my ignorance I assumed it was something to do with Grandpa’s own experience under the communist regime.

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So we had decided the next step of our journey would be ShaoXing. ShaoXing was interesting to me on several levels. From an ancestral point of view, my wise sage of a grandfather had grown up punting his raft in its Venetian-like waterways; from a literary standpoint, ShaoXing is famous for turning out intellectuals such as Lu Xun, whose commitment to writing in plain and accessible language about society and its flaws I can compare only vaguely with the likes of Orwell; and finally from the culinary perspective, ShaoXing wine (doubtlessly the secret of the region’s high intellectual output) is both a famous drinking wine and a kitchen staple.

So the destination was decided and the flights to Hangzhou booked. We travelled with one of my mother’s university friends and we went in the hope of meeting another of her friends in ShaoXing. The day of the departure had come and to my surprise I found no-one had made contact with the third school friend.

Me: Why can’t you just call him up and tell him you’re coming?

Mum: If we do that he’ll plan our entire trip for us. He’ll go above and beyond in terms of food and visiting places and we won’t have the freedom to do as we choose. We only have two days to explore all of ShaoXing and really the most we can spare is a few hours for dinner.

Me: Well why don’t you just tell him so. Make it clear you only have a limited amount of time to catch up.

Mum: But then he’ll ask when we arrived and when we’re going.

Me: Can’t you just say we only have a few hours?

Mum: No. That’s rude.

In the end, they decided to call him on our first night from the hotel. I don’t think mum could have predicted better what happened next. Despite it being 30 years after they last spoke and it being 10 o’clock at night he insisted on coming to our hotel to meet us for drinks. On arrival he told us he had everything sorted from the moment we got up tomorrow to dinner in the evening. His chauffeur would take us to the scenic hotspots in the morning, we would take a look around his factory and continue sightseeing in the afternoon and of course lunch and dinner were on him. Mum happened to mention grandpa’s connection to the place and before we left, 2 bottles of 20-year old vintage ShaoXing wine were put into our care to take back for him.

Perhaps I’m just a child in a world of adults but I know for sure this case is not singular. Everywhere we went, we were taken out to dinner by all of mum’s childhood friends, adulthood friends, family friends, who chose the choicest dishes of the region, no expenses spared. Once we went to Beijing and I’m sure we ate Beijing duck consecutively 4 days in a row. The menu always appears in the singular, no matter how large the party and one person (the billpayer) has total control over what everyone else eats. Thankfully all Chinese food tastes amazing, so this isn’t usually a problem. As a child I had a habit of saying outright what I liked to eat and it would always be ordered no matter what the price was. Afterwards, I would be appropriately told off.

(My brother has now taken over this role and everywhere we went he insisted on eating lots of meat. Of course this isn’t a crime, but the thing about subjecting yourself to someone else’s tastes is they want you try what they like, not to stick stubbornly to what you know. He was also under the impression that since they were ordered for him, they were for his consumption alone, whereas in a sharing situation everyone modestly tries a little of everything without seeming like a totally gluttonous pig.)

“It’s too complex in China. It’s good you were brought up abroad, it’s just simpler.”

My mother’s friend may have a point, but I’m sure China is not mutually exclusive in having its own social customs. To me, generosity is a great virtue. And if generosity is customary then there will be a time when the generous will be treated in return.

Only now do I realise what my dear and now sole grandparent meant was thriving on an everyday, fundamental level. The complexity of Chinese social customs falls nothing short of deserving an encyclopaedia, with pictures. I will always remember a China that beckons with many welcoming faces, that of family, friends and sometimes strangers, even when everything else around them seems to change, the generosity and smiling nature of those familiar faces has remained.

The home of Avatar and Hunan cuisine

After our short stay in ShenZhen we soon made our way by night train to ZhangJiaJie. The name probably doesn’t ring any bells, but Avatar, Pandora or even the Grand Canyon might.

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Well I guess it’s a well kept secret. Many scenes from Avatar, including the floating islands were shot in this natural treasure. I mention the grand canyon for a comparison of height (approx 300 m) and an appreciation of scale, but in terms of area, Zhang Jia Jie is almost twice its size. I’m not a geologist but even I can see the rocks are different, possibly older and very much leafier. For something so incredible and so large, you’d think it would be difficult to keep secret. But no, it lies in the middle of nowhere and if it weren’t for James Cameron most of the world may never have heard of it.

More importantly- what do they eat in Pandora? In the depths of Hunan Province, I was expecting spicy cuisine. The way my grandfather explains it is: “so far away from the sea, what will they flavour their food with if they have no salt?” My father is from Hunan and he used to say a meal was not a meal without chilli in it. Whilst we were there it was confirmed several times from different locals that you were indeed not really a true native of Hunan unless you liked spicy food. Not the numbing, aromatic spice of Szechuan peppercorns, but the straightforward punch of chillies and dry heat that makes you cough and splutter.

My first test came the moment we got off the train and looked around for breakfast. We walked past KFC down a road off the beaten track to find a little open-air (the shop had no front), family-run affair selling fresh home-made dumplings. Perfect. They were boiled in large pots over charcoal burning cylinders. The charcoal pieces themselves were like large lotus roots, cylinders with holes to allow air through. I watched as the white ashen blocks were replaced with new black pieces using tongs to grip the holes.

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The dumpling skins were being rolled five at a time with lots of flour in between to stop them from sticking. The pastry looked too soft to be strong flour, just plain. The mother rolled, the daughter filled and clamped them in one movement, no pleats, no fuss.

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The soup (or rather the water they were cooked in) was served in a separate bowl to drink, whilst the dumplings sat positively steaming on a large plate.

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The skins were thicker and the meat was salted like bacon. In such a hot climate, it’s no surprise the meat needs a little extra help in its preservation. It also gave the meat a firmer texture. Now, the chilli sauce. I asked for a little to sample and cautiously dribbled a trickle sparsely over a small portion of my dumplings. The chilli dip consisted of chilli oil and chilli flakes which I expected, but I am certain that it was also laced with a deadly dose of chilli powder. As you can tell from the foggy picture, the dumplings were still very hot. Each piping hot little dumpling only added insult to injury. I stared agog at diners at other tables coating each dumpling in generous layers of orange poison whilst I gulped water down and fanned my scalded mouth. So this was my first experience of Hunan cuisine. And I rather liked it. On a separate occasion, we also tried dumplings served in their own soup. To the otherwise rather bland broth she added some salt, pepper and a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil, which I expected, but she also added a spoon of pork fat. As much as I didn’t like this unhealthy addition, I couldn’t deny the fact it did make the soup much tastier than it otherwise would have been.

Within the UNESCO heritage site, there are no new buildings or hotels. The only exception I saw to this iron rule was a McDonalds being constructed near a point of interest, which made me both angry and rather sad. We stayed with a family who had converted their home into a small hotel. There was a water ban during the day, as there had been a particularly dry Summer up in the mountains and we were cooked a very simple and tasty fare each day. Soup noodles with a fried egg in the morning and small dishes of vegetables and a little meat to flavour in the evenings accompanied with rice. We asked for no chillies to be added.

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In such a place, hollywood seems to fade into insignificance when you put into consideration both the traditional lives led and the slow grandeur of time that carved such wonders over hundreds of thousands of years. No cars from the outside world are allowed in the National Park and only certain vehicles are allowed on certain parts of the mountain. Our driver and tourguide was part of an industrious farming family, we met his sister in the mountain selling different herbs and a refreshing jelly made from a type of tree root sap (guo gen fen), his mother had a pot noodle stall and his wife stayed at home looking after their two children and the household*. Depending on the season he would go with his brothers and friends to collect seedlings from the forests to sell. He laughed when I asked my mother if I could borrow ten yuan to buy a drink, as if the concept were slightly ridiculous. In his family the labour was shared and it seems so was the fruit.

*(Our guide was of the Tu Zhu minority and in China if both parents are of a minority you are allowed to have two children, but in this case his wife wasn’t so they had to pay a fine.)

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In the mountains there were also people selling huge blocks of honeycomb, jars of honey, dried mushrooms, crispy pancakes in chilli sauce,  mature corn on the cob and barbequed meats and vegetables. We avoided the barbequed goods to be on the safe side but we did discover a very tasty snack made from millet, sugar and sunflower seeds. They were cut into blocks like nutrition bars and extremely tasty and moreish. The sunflower seeds made the humble millet puff deliciously nutty. There was also a more expensive version made with red (purplish) rice, which really only varied in colour rather than taste. If I were at all inclined to be entrepeneurial, this is the one snack I think the world could do with a little more of.

The impression I’m left with is the link between the landscape and the food and culture of a region. In the high and dry mountains of Hunan, the food does credit to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people there. It’s a landscape of paddyfield shelves emerging from seas of clouds, trees lifting their fruit to the skies and drying chillies and sweetcorn in the harsh sun.

When we came back from Zhang Jia Jie to Shen Zhen we continued to discover more of Hunan cuisine at a convenient restaurant close by. Everything we asked for was without chillies.

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Huang Shan fish stir fry with chillies and onions was the exception to our chilli ban. Huang Shan is rather fishy and needs the chilli flavour to cover it. Not enough fish in this one!

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Skewered prawns hiding under a blanket of mature garlic chives. The shells were so crispy it was far more convenient to just eat them without peeling.

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Fish Soup with red dates and spring onions floating on the top. There’s also a small dish of marinated seaweed beside it with chillies and garlic.

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Very very yummy steamed bread with condensed milk dip. The golden ones have been dipped in salt water (I am told to keep the oil from seeping into the bread) and deep fried after steaming, so the inside remains soft and the outside crisp and golden. I didn’t manage to get a single shot of all of them on the plate, they went so quickly!

I also used the bread to encase other foods on the table, like a sandwich. When dad made these at home I remember people used to ask him why his steamed bread was so pale and well risen (the ordinary flour in the UK doesn’t give such a  white finish) and he never said, but I saw him secretly putting icing sugar into the mixture…

Hunan cuisine ticked. Onwards and upwards, to Shaoxing and the land of wine.