Knife & Fork AKA Chopsticks

The header for this column should, by rights, be Chopsticks, since I have hardly used a knife and fork for the past three weeks as I have undertaken my latest China adventure.

The visit began in the relatively sophisticated surroundings of central Shanghai where I met colleagues for a lunch meeting at one of the many international restaurants, this one Italian themed.  I love Italian food but I don’t come to China for its European cuisine.  That said, the lunch was splendid and felt pretty authentic.  I am sure the mainly European kitchen staff would have appreciated that their efforts had gone down pretty well. 

My main business was an hour and a half by Express train (nearly 300 kilometres per hour) in Nanjing, a smaller and less international city but still at least the size of London and with an estimated expat population of over 20,000.

As Visiting Professor in the College of Design of Nanjing University of the Arts, I always try to settle in to the local way of life as much as I can when I go there, so there was no question of eating anything other than Chinese food. Here you can sample a broad range of Chinese cuisine, from Beijing (think Peking Duck) to Sechuan Hotpot style.  The latter involves cooking the raw ingredients in a boiling pot of “soup” on the table. The genuine Sechuan version is very hot and spicy but those which I sampled in Nanjing were (mercifully) a little milder.  Nevertheless, I reached the point of numbed tongue a couple of times.

The local Nanjing style of cooking which seems to be general across the province of which it is the capital city, Jiangsu, is sweet with fairly gentle spice content.  Meat features a lot, chicken, beef, pork, occasionally lamb. There is a wide variety of vegetables beyond those which we would recognise easily (Broccoli, PakChoi, Lettuce) some of which I never learned the names for. Cucumber and Aubergine are to be found and all sorts of fungi.  My favourite amongst these is the one just known as “black fungus” which is gelatinous, firm, and tasty, even a bit crunchy. These usually seem to have been lightly cooked and/or pickled. 
The meat is always in a thick, sticky, sweet sauce of one sort or other and, although I normally do not care for sweet main courses, I did develop a real liking for them.

The other real staple of course is fresh water fish, often from the Yangtze which flows through the city. While I was there the river was flowing hard, looking like a torrent of cold cocoa after all the recent rainstorms and floods. It may be no surprise that Chinese freshwater fish often taste slightly “earthy”, given how muddy the waters can be. Often the fish is served in a soup from which you simply help yourself, sometimes adding the liquid to an existing bowl of rice, sometimes in a separate bowl.  There never seems to be an exact convention to this so I have always just followed the trend at any particular table. Other times fish will be served on a platter, again for each diner to help themselves.

The convention once more is to use your chopsticks to loosen and take a modest portion – a mouthful - at a time. In upmarket establishments separate chopsticks for serving will be placed on each dish but on an everyday basis you just use your own.

Worried about hygiene? Tough – just get over it and enjoy the food! At most local restaurants there will be no napkin supplied, perhaps some small flimsy tissues which you take as required to wipe drips etc.  Somehow or other, most Chinese people manage to make relatively little mess. I am a bit more clumsy and always having to try very hard to avoid dribbling.

My dining experiences in Nanjing varied from the formal dinner of welcome from my university colleagues to very informal visits to everyday neighbourhood shops where the locals ate. While I am always pretty careful about where I eat, I have learned just to accept local hygiene practices and not worry too much about them.

Once my two-week Masterclass was over I was free to travel and with my colleagues Wang Kezhen and Wang Chao (one of those cases where two Wangs DO make a right) flew to Guizhou province to visit the minority Miao people, with an especial interest in their metalwork and embroidery. Flying in to Guilang city was a two hour flight to a completely different world. We were transported from sophisticated new China to a sort of intermediate state of being where new China has taken root and is developing at an amazing pace, but in parallel with old China. 

I occasionally had some sense of bewilderment over the next few days and felt that for many of the older generations it was much the same as they experienced their country and its somewhat mediaeval way of life transform into not quite the modern world but certainly one which was inexorably mutating for them out of a lifetime of habit and familiarity to something quite alien.

A couple of hours drive North from Guilang we used the new city of Lai Xi as our base from which we could drive a further one and a half hours into the mountains to visit some of the many Miao villages. Our local guides, university lecturers Zhou and Chen, were knowledgeable and extremely well connected, with the result that we were able to meet some of the remaining modern masters. Zhou is an established  expert on Miao culture and that includes the food.   

The cuisine here is seriously hot and spicy.  If you don’t like spicy food you will simply starve in this province. Hotpot is the norm.  The soup is pretty spicy in itself but additionally each diner is given a small bowl with a mixture of chopped herbs and spices to which some of the soup is added.  When the raw ingredients have been cooked in the hotpot, they are then dipped into this before eating. This is not just tongue and lip numbingly hot: it is tear forming, convulsively hot. I had a sense of the Gweilo* being tested out at one point but I know my limits and was not going to lose the enjoyment of new culinary experiences for the sake of proving myself a man, so to speak. The main ingredients I could detect were several kinds of chillies (there’s a surprise), coriander, star anise, and what is known as Chinese Peppercorn, originally an import from South America.

This is not food for the faint hearted but, if you are just a little brave, and not put off too much by the sight of the open kitchens, the new tastes, textures, and sensations are well worth it.

Our final Guizhou meal was in some suburb of Guiyang on the way back from our Miao adventure.  Zhou knew of a tiny little place which served wild fungi, freshly picked each day. There are risks involved, of course, since you have to trust the owners that the fungi ARE safe but, again, by being brave and following instructions to cook in the hotpot for at least ten minutes, oh, my, what flavours, what textures, as a reward. As someone who occasionally has foraged for wild mushrooms in the British and Norwegian countryside, I know the risks and am always ultra-cautious but I am oh, so glad to have had that particular experience, one I shall remember for a long time.

Earlier I wrote about proving oneself a man. One other common custom throughout China is drinking Moutei, a distilled rice liquour, or one of several similar drinks. Wine at meals is not common.  Sometimes beer is taken, but often a bottle is shared out amongst several diners. Wine may be limited to just one glass for the entire meal. If Moutei is present that means an endless round of toasts to the guest(s), the whole company, to and from various individuals or subgroups, until the bottle is empty. The killer is when someone calls out “Ganbei” (Dry Glass): this means that everyone involved must drink the contents of the small glass in one draught – no exceptions. This is always good natured but often enough might degenerate into a competition, and that’s tough. If there are some drinkers still sober or who have not admitted defeat at the end of the bottle then a second might be called for. 

Mercifully I have not encountered that sort of experience for a year or two and on this trip it was all very civilised. Eating and drinking with good friends of other cultures is an immensely rewarding experience.  I only hope that when any of them make their next trip to the UK I can show them as many excellent culinary experiences as they have given me. 

*A Cantonese term sometimes also used by Mandarin speakers. Originally an insulting reference to Westerners or any foreigners, especially Japanese, it is variously translated as White Ghost, Foreign Devil, Long Nose: take your pick. The Mandarin word is Laowai which would normally mean simply Foreigner but one of my friends suggested to me that it can mean One of the Cream Coloured People…………..

#KnifeandFork by Big Enn who can be contacted on @NcherryNorman