Tag Archives: Hong Kong

Chinese Whispers – Food (50)

When I started writing this post, I was reminded of one of the simplest and tastiest dishes I had in China – stir-friend green beans with almonds. It was perfectly cooked and delicious. So was the Cantonese meals dished up on the train from Changsha to Guangzhou.

currywurst

Currywurst

It made me think of some of the dishes I’ve enjoyed over the years which were simple yet remain in my memory: French saucisson with impeccably cooked French fries in a small bistro in Strasbourg; Currywurst in Stuttgart: white sausage sliced in a crispy roll with tomato sauce and curry powder (sounds ghastly but was quite delicious eaten in the ChristKindlMarkt in the lead-up to Christmas on a bitterly cold winter’s day); veggie curry, alfalfa sprouts and chapattis in an Ananda Marga cafe in Perth, Western Australia; and last but by no means least, a burger and chips in Burger King in Hong Kong.

The last one sounds somewhat less than gourmet but we found it after we’d flown from the UK to Hong Kong for a stopover in 1994 on the way to Australia. I was suffering a lousy bout of bronchitis and, by the time we arrived in HK in the early morning, I was pretty ill and spent the day in bed fighting for breath. In the evening we sortied out to get a meal and the Burger King offering was absolute bliss! I returned to bed, my fever broke overnight and I woke with the bed soaked in sweat but me breathing more easily and able to travel on to Perth. So much for a stopover in Hong Kong – sleeping or staring at the hotel ceiling!

sea cucumber

Cooked sea cucumber – I found this image on the web and it still looks disgusting to me!

Anyway, from the ridiculous to the sublime!  Returning to our trip to China in 1998, soon after we arrived at the Peking Hotel and had got settled in, we were taken to the main Peking Duck Restaurant operating at the time, where we were served a full Peking Duck banquet.  Every part of the duck is used in this banquet. The whacko parts first: you have never lived if you haven’t looked at the beady eye of half a duck’s head resting on your plate. And another friend got stuck with the duck’s feet! Nor have you lived if you haven’t tried one of the entrees: shredded jellyfish – it bounces back however much you chew it, until finally you wash it down in frustration with water and hope you’re not going to choke on the sticky shreds. The chap beside me gave up on manners and decorum and pulled the shreds out of his mouth as they stuck in his throat.

The other entree dish that looked decidedly dodgy was what looked like lumps of black jelly in a dark-coloured sauce. Our interpreter told us it was sea cucumber, but I hung back, it still looked pretty horrible. The same guy,  however, bogged in and had a mouthful of this gunk when the interpreter suddenly said: “Oh, sorry, you call it sea slug!”. I thought my neighbour was going to throw up as his face went green, but he managed to keep eating and slumped in his seat once he’d demolished the sea slug.

Peking_Duck_4

Peking Duck dinner

But hoo boy, when we got the duck meat, with pancakes, hoisin sauce, cucumber and shredded spring onions, we were in hog heaven – it was an absolutely brilliant dish, one of the best I’ve ever eaten. The small pancakes are cooked facing each other, you peeled them apart, then stuffed them with the duck meat, hoisin sauce, cucumber and spring onions.  And to wind up we were served duck soup from the bones and remaining flesh.

Going back to food use, at a banquet in a village in the countryside I saw another dish which looked seriously gristly, grey and yukky. While no-one was looking, I managed to whack the pieces I was served under some leftover prawn shells. It was donkey tendon which, as a tour member gleefully informed me later, was a euphemism for donkey penis – thank god I never ate it.

peking duck pancake

Peking Duck pancake

At breakfast and dinner we mainly ate on our own. At lunchtimes, however, we were served banquets wherever we happened to be visiting as we were obviously considered honoured guests, being among the first tourist contingents to visit China as it was opening to the world. The banquets we were served during our tour were really pieces of art. The vegetable carvings and the way in which everything was laid out were absolutely beautiful.  The food itself was delicious and the many veggie dishes were amazingly tasty. Everything was served in a Lazy Susan in the centre of big, round tables and we were seated alternating with tour members, welcoming committee members wherever we were, and our interpreters. We could help ourselves but our Chinese friends took great pleasure in picking out food to serve us. I got very adept at waiting until people’s attention was elsewhere and then whacking suspicious-looking food under leftover bones or whatever, as I’d done with the donkey penis.

In Dalian we were shown around a fishing cooperative and then served a fish meal.  Luckily for the rest of us, the tour leader had the honour of eating the fish’s eyes when a whole fish was dished up. We ate quite enormous prawns with gusto, and were tucking into the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten with similar gusto until the head of the fishing co-operate remarked benignly: “I see you like that fish, you have to be careful in its preparation. It’s called puffer fish or fugu in Japanese.”  This is the fish which can kill you rather quickly if any of its poison gets into the flesh and I can tell you, it brought us all to a rapid halt. We lowered the fish back to the plate then cast surreptitious glances around to see if anyone started looking a bit ill or complaining of tingling lips or tongue. Luckily for us, the preparation of this fish had been perfect but none of us ate any more!

When I visited China again on a shorter tour in 1995, we went to Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province. When we arrived, our interpreter asked if there was anything we didn’t eat and I promptly said: “No dog” as I’d found out since our 1978 visit, that dog-eating was quite popular in parts of China. On the way to the hotel, the interpreter turned around to point out what I’m pretty sure was a barbecued dog on a stand at the side of the road, took one look at my face, shut up and hastily looked forward again.

The one dish I remember from Xian was a steamboat which, again, was absolutely delicious. It Chinese hot potconsisted of a centre steamboat with a broth, which was surrounded by various bits and pieces of meat and veggies – chicken, beef, pork, fish, prawns, carrots, beansprouts, greens, mushrooms and so on. You took whatever you fancied into your chopsticks, dunked it into the boiling broth until it was cooked and then tucked into the cooked food. The broth gradually got more intensely flavoured from the food cooked in it, and then at the end an egg for each person was broken into the steamboat, cooked and then the soup-like mixture wound up the meal.  Absolutely luvverly.

In China you learn that nothing is wasted, because it has such a huge population and the many millions upon millions of people have to be fed. At the time we visited, the country had made great strides in development but was still a very, very poor nation, engaged in re-building after moving from a feudal to a socialist society in 1949, recovering from the ravages of British domination and Japanese occupation during World War 2.

All sorts of food were utilised to feed the billion-plus nation, which is why donkey penis ended up on the plate, along with ducks’ feet and ducks’ heads. It may not suit our Western tastes, I know I learned to check out everything dished up to us, but most of us in the West have never known the poverty and hunger which stalked China in its feudal times and in the post-war, rebuilding era.

Adults in 1978 mainly wore grey or green clothing, because that was the cheapest to produce. And that bit of information was a surprise to me as I thought it was a sort of revolutionary choice in post-war China, but instead it was a simple, economic measure.

In my final post on China I’ll write more about my trip to Xian in 1995 and the massive changes I saw since the first time I’d visited this enormous nation in early 1978.  Changes there were but some things remained unchanged – the welcome; the earthy sense of humour; and last but not least, the ubiquitous flasks of jasmine tea waiting for us in whichever hotel we stayed in.

 

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Chinese Whispers – China in 1978 (46)

All You Need is Love

Enough of the childhood clear-out and back to my travels!

I saw a photo today of racks of sweet corn cobs drying in the air, and it took me straight back to the first time I and my husband visited the People’s Republic of China, aka China from now on.

In 1978 my husband and I had the opportunity to tour China at a really low price (as it was early days in the tourist industry) for three weeks.  We stayed with friends in Sydney, saw the start of the Sydney-Hobart Boat Race on New Year’s Day, then flew to Hong Kong , where we stayed overnight.

We were one of the first groups to visit China when it started opening up and it was less than thirty years since the PRC was established in 1949. We  did a bit of the tourist stuff in Hong Kong with all its glitz, glamour and kitsch. The next day we caught a train to the border, got out and walked across the border. Suddenly we were faced with rather stern-faced Chinese soldiers in uniform and you realised you were in a completely different world. We climbed on to another train which took us to what was then Canton and is now Guangzhou.

To say we – and all the others on our tour – were excited and nervous would be an understatement. President Nixon had visited the PRC in February 1972 and Australian Prime Minister Whitlam had normalised relations with China when he was elected in November 1972.  But China was still a bit mysterious, not very well  known, and really quite exciting since no-one knew what to expect.

We got settled in our hotel rooms in Gangzhou (which were lovely and comfortable, in case you’re wondering what accommodation was like in those days), and found waiting for us flasks of jasmine tea, something which greeted us in every hotel we stayed in and every function we attended.  We then met our tour guides in the evening. And all our preconceptions about stuffy Chinese officials went right out the window. We had four guides – the head honcho, his deputy, a young woman obviously being trained as an interpreter and guide, and a fourth man whose interpreting abilities were brilliant. As I’ve done simultaneous and consecutive translating at university when I studied French and German I could see that this interpreter had an intuitive gift to translate Chinese into everyday English, not simply translate the words which results in rather wooden conversation.  We also thought that, as there’d been a period of turmoil in China just before we went on our tour, this guy was being rehabilitated from past difficulties under the previous regime, known as the Gang of Four.

Our translators/guides entered a meeting room with a trolley of drinks and hors-d’ouevres and proceeded to talk to us, crack jokes,  and dish out the booze and tucker. One of the first things we tried was called Mao Tai, a spirit which tasted and smelled like rocket fuel and had to be sculled down to avoid the stench of the drink.  Our translators quickly put us at ease, were great, convivial hosts, and much to our surprise, created a really pleasant atmosphere. They also looked on with slight smiles and benign gazes as one of our number, who’d downed four Mao Tai shots in a row and who was very voluble, suddenly went silent and keeled over on his side, skittled by the rocket fuel!

It’s such a long time since I visited China in 1977 that I can’t remember all the details. We were on the go from 9 in the morning until 10 at night and by the end of the tour we were completely knackered as each day became a blur. The Chinese seemed determined to stuff as much as possible into our visit, which was wonderful as we saw and experienced so much, but it was quite exhausting by the end.

We visited Peking (now Beijing), Shanghai, Shandong Province, Changsha, Dalian and finally returned to Canton (now Kwangchou).  We saw schools, factories, potteries, artistic centres, villages, communes during the day, visited oil drilling sites, and in the evenings we watched movies or other cultural events.  The one thing I really remember is the way the children were treasured and cared for. Although adults had pretty functional, dreary clothing, the kids were dressed in bright colours, padded clothing, looked like little dolls in their bubble-like parka jackets and were so delighted to greet and entertain us when visited their schools.

At communes we were taken around agricultural and engineering production centres and made so very welcome.  People took great pride in their achievements and opened their homes and centres for us.  I do remember visiting a private house and being amazed at the bright colours of the interior – as if the functional dress most people wore was balanced out in the privacy of the home by bright red, orange, gold, turquoise, blue and green bed covers, wall hangings and so on.  I also remember plonking down on a bed (all the places we visited were very compact) and feeling like I’d jarred my spine from top to bottom. There was only a mattress stuffed with straw which was incredibly hard, a far cry from the interior sprung mattresses we were used to at home in Australia!

One of the noticeable features of that early tour was how people worked together collectively as labour was plentiful and cheap. We were in a small coach in one area where a whole heap of people were pushing up a telegraph pole. It was obvious that they’d never seen foreigners before as they stopped, looked at us, dropped the telegraph pole, and ran to the road to smile and wave cheerfully at us. We felt like kings until further down the road where we saw people in the approaching village scattering from a truck in front of us. We found out soon enough why they dived for cover – it was a truck collecting sewage (night soil) which had sprung a leak gifting us and the village with a most appalling stench.

In the following posts, I thought I’d break down our visit into Beijing, and then the provinces we visited, as well as one about food in China (yummy mainly but challenging on the odd occasion!).

 

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