Food. We all need it. It’s all made of basically the same stuff. But oh, in how many different ways can it be prepared. Speaking as a man for whom food is very important, it played a big part in my visit to China last month. I resolved, as soon as I landed, that as I am allergic to nothing, I would try everything that was offered. I went as native as I could, eating Chinese even at breakfast (noodles, chopsticks). I ate all sorts of wonderful things, from sea cucumbers to chickens’ feet, donkey to pork tripe. I do not regret any of it for a second; I suffered no ill-health – in fact, I have rarely felt so well - and I’m beginning to believe that Chinese food has materially changed my life and my health.
More on that later.
Let’s start simply. I’d been out of Beijing for a couple of days with my hosts from the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology (IVPP), exploring the fossil-rich beds of Liaoning Province, a day’s drive to the North-East. On our way back to Beijing we pulled off the freeway in search of lunch, stopping at this family restaurant
… by the side of the road.
I learned that the lanterns and gay decorations were there for a reason – the restaurant had opened for business that very day. The forecourt was strewn with spent firecrackers (the bright red litter). Some were not quite so spent – footfalls could produce an occasional loud crack. The restaurant was packed with the friends and relations of the patron. People flowed in, carrying large, ornately framed calligraphic mottoes- traditional offerings to bestow good fortune.
Our arrival was treated as an omen of similar auspiciousitudeness portent. The restaurant lay close to a reservoir, a source of water for Beijing: fish, therefore, was on the menu. The patron went to a large outdoor tank and pulled out what we’d be eating for lunch.
This is what it looked like when it arrived at our table. Somewhat later.
Not that our mouths would be kept idle while the fish was gently stewed.
I apologize if what follows seems like old hat for some – to me, it was a new experience, even to one who has dined sporadically at the best establishments that Chinatowns in London and Los Angeles can offer. Chinese food eaten in China is nothing like that.
Chinese meals are not structured into courses, on the western fashion. Whether the meal is modest or magnificent, one is always offered a few small, cold dishes to start with, and while one is picking at these, more and more dishes arrive, until the table is crammed with a fair bestiary of benisons, each one more splendentious than the one before. Sometimes the dishes are recycled – the carcass of a fish you might have picked at earlier in the proceedings might reappear later, as soup. A Chinese meal is less a set meal and more of a buffet in which the food comes to your table (rather than your having to take your plate to a buffet) and dances enticingly before you.
As for taste – well, nothing I tasted had very much of a strong flavor, at least by my English, curry-scarred palate (except for a strong liquor that tasted like petrol with a hint of jasmine). What I learned was that texture and presentation are at least as important. Wherever I went, in down-home dives or posh hotels, the food always looked so beautiful it seemed a shame to eat it, and when you finally did eat it, each morsel provided a fine balance of taste and texture.
Take tofu, for instance.
The tofu above was rather chewy and came in flat sheets and resembled, in texture, a cross between lasagne and old carpet underlay. But tofu in China is like pasta in Italy – it comes in a large variety of shapes, sizes, colours and textures, from white tofu that’s so soft it melts even before it meets your mouth – to tofu cooked until brown, chewy and meaty. It is served in large heaps, like pasta, or in soup, or as unassuming support to some more spectacular ingredient. Here, for example, is an amuse-bouche from a hotel restaurant in Shanghai.
It’s a dish of baby abalones, served with lotus seeds and small, meaty tofu squares. My colleague and I thought they might have been pieces of mushrooms – another ingredient whose spectacular variety finds myriad outlets in Chinese cooking.
This ingenuity as regards tofu, mushrooms (and noodles, and fish, and just about everything else) might compensate for something that will seem surprising to anyone whose experience of Chinese food runs to the local take-away. In my entire time in China I saw almost no rice at all. This was northern China, you see – rice is a staple of southern China. So, next time you have a meal of Peking duck with a side-order of rice, this is as inauthentic as asking for a side-order of pancakes and maple syrup with your oyster po’boy. The only rice I saw as a distinct dish was in Shanghai.
But back to what was served before the fish stew turned up. Here is Dr Zhonghe Zhou and me, tucking into the first of the fare.
Zhonghe is attending to the ‘hundred-year-old-eggs’
while I’m enjoying a slice of cold roast donkey. In the middle is a heap of noodles. The cafetiere at the back contains green tea (I drank a lot of this and brought quite a bit home with me).
But wait, there’s more.
I went to quite a lot of rather spectacular banquets, of which this is but one example.
The variety and splendour of the dishes here is beyond staggerment.At a meal of more than four people, Chinese diners sit at round tables, the center of each is dominated by a glass turntable on which the dishes are placed. This enables each diner to get to have a pick at everything. The most exciting dish at this banquet was crustaceous:
except that some of it wasn’t strictly marine. Here for the benefit of Keeper of the Snails, are some silkworms. Sadly, I didn’t get to eat any of these (at least, not knowingly).
Again, to anyone whose knowledge of Chinese food extends no further than the local take-away, it takes a visit to China to appreciate regional variation in cooking. In Liaoning there was seafood – but in Beijing my hosts were keen to show me what appeared (to me) to be the latest trend – ‘Muslim’ restaurants. That is, restaurants featuring the cuisine of Xinjiang, the westernmost region of China, what older atlases call ‘Chinese Turkestan’. Xinjiang meals have no pork, of course – they have a lot of lamb, and also – something rare elsewhere – bread. However, as an outsider, had you not been told that the meal you were about to consume came from this far-flung desert region with its own ethnic and culinary tradition, you’d have probably thought of it as an authentically Chinese meal. There is so much to learn!
Well, I could go on and on, and probably will, but I should close with an observation I started to make at the head of this post – about my health. For many years I have suffered from psoriasis. Now, I thought this was either an early twentieth-century radical movement for self-determination in Crete, or at least an obscure Pharaoh of the 94th Dynasty of the Middle Kingdom, but it turns out to be a chronic skin complaint, whose causes are obscure (suggestions have ranged from autoimmunity to genetics to diet to stress) and for which there is absolutely no consensus on effective treatment. At times I have suffered very badly: much of the skin on my arms and legs has erupted into plaques, and I’ve needed serious UV therapy to clear it up. Psoriasis can’t kill you – but it doesn’t go away, either. Perhaps these factors in combination have resulted in the fact that serious research into this complaint is, to say the least, exiguous.
On the ninth day of my ten days in China – it was at breakfast, in Shanghai – I looked down at my usually freakishly scaly forearms and found that although the patches hadn’t receded, they looked a lot less angry than usual. The patches of dead skin cells clinging onto barely formed dermis had settled down into proper skin. A bit pink and raw, but skin it was, and not something from Dr Who’s makeup department. I set to thinking what it might have been about China that could have set this in train – and after eliminating many things, came up with one hypothesis, and it was all to do with food.
For all the variety in Chinese food, there is – from a Western perspective – one, major omission, and that’s dairy products. Except for one lapse (an iced latte in Starbucks in Beijing airport while on my way to Xian) I had consumed not a smidgeon of anything from the underneath of a cow, in my entire trip. No milk. No yoghurt. No cheese. No dairy produce at all. I learn from a friend (a Miss S. L. of Omaha, NE) that many Chinese people are lactose-intolerant, and I have also heard, though I can’t remember where, that many Chinese people view the consumption of cheese with the horror with which we regard, say, the ingestion of chickens’ feet or ‘hundred-year-old’ eggs.
The problem with psoriasis, as I have said, is that medical science in this area has not advanced much beyond alchemy, leeches and bloodletting. As far as I can tell from a search on PubMed, there are no papers reporting any link between psoriasis and dairy products. That’s right, folks, none. Not that there isn’t quite a lot of anecdote on teh interwebz of the my-husband-gave-up-cheese-and-his-psoriasis-vanished-overnight variety, but that’s not really what I am looking for.
Until such time, therefore, as such a study is forthcoming, I shall persevere with my research with a subjectivity and sample size (N=1) that might even alarm Dr Andrew Wakefield. Since my return to Britain I have managed to remove all dairy products (well, nearly all) from my diet, pouring soya milk on my breakfast cereal and so on, and after a month, my psoriasis seems to be in abeyance. though it hasn’t disappeared. Watch, as they say, this space.
Photo credits: All the pictures were taken by me, except the ones in which I feature, which were taken by Dr X.-J. Ni.