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TOPICS INCLUDE: Unusual foods; China trip report Part I

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Letters to the Editor

Winter Volume: 2001 Issue: 8(4) page(s): 6

From P.M. via e-mail: The review of the Great Wall restaurants in Jerusalem and then the letter from the Netherlands made me stop and wonder about whether, if yes, and when there were large numbers of Jews in China. And one more query, if they were there, did they have any influence on the cuisine or visa versa?
P.M.: You and several others mused on this and related topics. For those who want to explore the Jewish presence in ancient China, try Sidney Shapiro's expanded edition of Jews in Old China published by Hippocrene Books in 2001. This translated set of studies by Chinese scholars is well worth reading. As to culinary influence, you’ll learn little, but we think the answer to the last questions is: none we ever heard about. The Chinese were familiar with several groups who ate no pork, Jews and Muslims among them. They were tolerant about these and many different beliefs of others, perhaps that is why. Until recently, little was known about the number of Jews and where they lived in China. They were called Zhuhu, or Tiao Jin Jiao--the Sinew Plucking religion, or Lan Mao Huizi--the Blue Hat Muslims. Should you want to know more about at least one of them who lived there for years and years, read about an American lawyer/translator who married a Chinese woman, and became a Chinese citizen in 1983, namely I Chose China. It is by the same author and publisher as the volume above, the copyright is 2000.

We are three ladies, each called Mary, who note these days seem to be loaded with great interest in unusual food items, particularly fruits and vegetables. Is there any book that looks at items in the animal kingdom? We read your article about unusual foods and want to learn more about the unusual creatures the Chinese consume?
TO MARY, MARY, and MARY: Frederick Simoons published a book on this topic in 1961. His classic work, Eat Not this Flesh was published by the University of Wisconsin in Madison; it is worth reading. So is an item by Peter Lund Simmons nearly two centuries ago; no doubt there are many others. The latter book, The Curiosities of Food just published a facsimile edition with an introduction by Alan Davidson (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, 2000). Optical scanning would have made an index valuable in this old gem. Alan Davidson’s introduction to this copy does help put it into perspective. We read it all, and located twenty-seven different pages that mentioned an equal number of perceptions about Chinese eating duck tongue, meat long simmered with lots of items and cooked in tea, the use of badger, dog, dried sea-slug, bird's nest, wild boar, and other known and less well-known Chinese delicacies.

I had the good fortune of being part of a seventeen-day trip to China. Here is a report, or at least part one of same, to advise others of an opportunity to join next year’s 'Taste of China' tour. It was a wonderful culinary and cultural experience.
DR I. LIM: Here is your report. We hope others will travel, as you did, and share tasting adventures. In the next issue, we will print the second and smaller part of your tastings. Room does not allow for all in this issue. Now, on to your report, part one.

What a trip! I had the good fortune to accompany Malaspina University-College’s inaugural educational tour, 'A Taste of China'—a seventeen-day visit that combined cultural delights and sights. This was a dream come true for a serious foodie! The main cities on our itinerary were: Beijing, Xi’an, Guilin, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Food certainly was a focus and no one was ever left hungry with three complete daily meals. Breakfast was always a buffet of both eastern and western items. This allowed for the less adventuresome to have the familiar such as omelets made to order, toast/buns/breads, sausages and cheese, and cold or hot cereal, to name a few. Those who wanted something a bit different could dine accordingly on foods that included congee, Chinese steamed buns, miso, smoked fish, and pickled vegetables. The tastes of European, North American, Japanese, and Chinese tourists were clearly accommodated given the variety of foodstuffs available. Many in the tour regularly mixed and matched tastes and gastronomy. I, for one, who frequently has cold cereal with yogurt and milk at home, immediately gravitated to the Asian items. As a dim sum aficionado, this was good enough reason to rise and shine even at an early hour. Unlike some other tours, the two remaining meals were Chinese. This was not a tour for the 'meat and potatoes' individual; to appreciate this tour, you really had to like Chinese food. Of course, everyone was encouraged to use chopsticks and this clearly was not an easy task for many, especially after a tiring day of serious sightseeing when the only desire was to eat, eat without concentrating on chopstick form. To help digest the meal, beer was the regular beverage offered as was bottled water or beer; and tea was standard fare.

With a focus on food, every effort was made by the organizers to provide a range of cuisines even though most of our time was spent in northern and eastern regions. In some locales, the indigenous flavors were indulged while in others a different regional fare was sampled. For example, in Beijing, not only did the group have roast duck, the specialty of Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, it also tasted the cuisine of the western regions while being entertained in song at the Western Regions Restaurant. At the Dai Jia Cun, notable for its traditionally dressed servers, pouring tea was equal show and dexterity by the pourer. His teapot was brass with a spout about a meter in length.

As a side note, the roast duck was reminiscent of the same eaten and served at Peking Duck in New York City. The manner of eating with thin wheat flour pancake, hoisin sauce, and scallion is that of the Peking Duck, but skin and meat are served together. The distinction between roast and Peking duck is in the skin. For the latter, the duck is air-dried after the skin has been separated from the flesh to allow the skin to become crisp and the fat to drain during the roasting process. To aid in the latter, the skin is also scalded with boiling water. Before drying, the duck is also coated with a syrupy mixture, usually diluted malt sugar, in order to produce the characteristic colored skin. Seasonings fill the cavity for the distinctive taste. Traditionally, 'Peking duck' is served as three courses with the skin first, then the meat, then the bones, either as is or prepared as a soup. In Beijing alone, participants began to recognize food ingredients used in a different manner, as well as 'new' ones. For example, North Americans think of cucumber as something to pickle or to serve raw. We ate them as appetizers, pickled Chinese-style, and cooked--stir-fried with pork, a typical Beijing dish. The cucumbers were not our English, pickling, or white spine varieties, but a braising or Japanese kuri cucumber with a knobby appearance.

Another common vegetable served in the north is stir-fried garlic stem or stalk. On my return to Canada, I noticed that one of the local supermarkets carries this produce item. My advice for the home gardener is to save those garlic stalks; they provide a tasty vegetable alternative while still green and tender.

Of course, there were plenty of vegetable greens and when asked, I was often told it was a local leafy green. Obviously, people took advantage of produce locally available and distinctive. I was pleased to see that crops cultivated and eaten were well-suited, perhaps, even uniquely so, to the particular environment.

Among the specialty dinners, the group sampled from the imperial cuisine in Beijing, both dumpling banquet and hot pot dinners in Xi’an, and a Buddhist vegetarian dinner in Guilin. The imperial cuisine served at Fang Shan was memorable but also for the restaurant’s setting, within Beihai Park, part of the former Imperial City. The décor was elaborate, as was the food presentation.

Those who have had the good fortune to be invited to a Chinese banquet, especially one for a wedding or other special occasion, know the artistry exhibited in the kitchen. The dishes at Fang Shan were adorned with carved vegetables. In Xi’an rather than carving, the molding of dumpling shapes at the Shaanxi Grand Opera House was astonishing. None of us needed to be told what each dumpling held because the shape was so precise that there was no question—walnut, chicken, duck, fish, etc. In addition to all the dumplings, we were entertained by a recreated Tang Dynasty show.

For those who liked to taste, there were opportunities other than scheduled meals. In Beijing, the best place was the Dongdan Night Food Market. This is where locals snack on foods prepared while you wait, such as noodles, Chinese sweets, egg rolls, or grilled corn and meats. The latter include foods that North Americans folk consider exotic, or perhaps do not even assign to the category of food---silkworm pupae, frogs legs, locusts, etc. Being adventuresome, I was anxious to try the silkworm pupae that I had read about in Flavor and Fortune. This, I did at a cost roughly the equivalent of a Canadian dollar; or about seventy cents American. The 'taste like chicken' response did not work. I doubt there is an equivalent to compare in the North American taste/texture context. It was chewy on the outside and, no surprise, soft on the inside.

Perhaps the rest of my companions were too full from their dinner, but I forged ahead with my foraging, sampling next, grilled stinky tofu. It looks like pressed tofu but is black in color. The color alone might repel the American diner without even knowing its name. As it is fermented, I was surprised that it did not have a particularly strong flavor. This time I had more of my fellow travelers willing to have a taste than with the silkworm pupae; but only the women expressed interest.

You will read about the rest of the trip in the next issue. In the meantime readers, Malaspina University College and Red Dragon Travel will be hosting 'A Taste of China' tour with a similar itinerary in May 2002. Interested folk can contact them for full details and costs by using one of the following e-mail addresses: learning@mala.bc.ca or rdtravel@home.com

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