One of the things I’m loving so far is the food here. I tended to avoid Chinese restaurants in Britain; invariably they would have the same menu where ever you went, and I’m a typical Brit in that I love variety in my diet.
Understandably, the ‘Chinese’ cuisine we see in the UK isn’t really a true reflection of the real thing. Since my last post on cuisine I’ve eaten a whole series of different regional food variations. Hunanese again, Yunnanese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Thai, a burger. Then, I bought some elasticated trousers and tried Shanghainese, Cantonese, Szechuan, Xin Jiang, Japanese, Hot Pot and so on. You get the picture.
The diversity of food doesn’t just apply to regional types but also extends to ingredients. When I know more about the different types and the heritage I’ll write about them (or you could just research it on the interweb). At the moment I can talk a bit about the different ingredients; because I’ve been eating some fun stuff….
Chef mess and jellyfish
Emma has done brilliantly trying new foods while we’ve been here, things that i’m sure she’d never have tried at home. There have been a few times where we’ve probably got close to her level of tolerance though, so I’ve been unable to eat at certain “restaurants” (to use the term loosely!). One night last week she went out for dinner with a new friend. “When the cat’s away the mouse can play”, I thought. In this scenario the cat is Emma, I am the mouse, and ‘playing’ is finding somewhere and something to eat that would probably void my health insurance…
The place I went to was great fun! A bit like a greasy spoon, no English spoken, some local old men playing cards and shouting. Some of the English translations in the menu were pretty funny. Treats in this menu included ‘acid bean chicken Miscellaneous’, ‘Crystal elbow flowers’ and ‘Chef mess’.
I couldn’t see something on a menu called ‘Chef mess’ and not order it. I also ordered ‘Sesame Jellyfish’, and (so that I didn’t leave hungry if my risk didn’t pay off, ‘Beef with chilli peppers’).
I was actually somewhat disappointed when ‘Chef mess’ turned out to be a delicious Chinese-style chopped salad. The beef was really good too (I find beef and pork here delicious, but chicken a bit fussy to eat due to the bones and gristle).
Talking to people later on, they were surprised this was my
first time eating it (with the not-unreasonable assumption that because Britain is an island we’d eat it all the time). I’d assumed Jellyfish would be a similar texture to a poached egg, or maybe a wine gum but fishy flavoured; but it wasn’t anything like that. It was served very cold and had a very firm texture, but wasn’t at all fishy. The texture is unlike anything I’ve had before. I’ve been trying to think of a description for ages and the closest I can come up with is….
Imagine you were a child in the mid 90s who absolutely adored cabbage. Inspired one day having just seen the film Jurassic Park, you decide that you want to capture some morsels of this glorious vegetable for future generations. You preserve it in the only chemical you are aware of at that age, PVA glue, and bury it in a time capsule in the garden. Years later, as an adult, you are digging a hole to install an attractive water feature when your spade makes contact with the time capsule. You open it and, driven by nostalgia and a love of simple garden produce, you carve up the cabbage into small pieces and pop them in your mouth. Over the years, bits of it have become quite glutinous and soft, other bits are all hard and chewy. Do I like it? No, not really. At least not cold. I imagine warmed up or maybe fried it could take on a different format. Chilled, it feels too much like chewing on a polar bear’s nose.
There’s an Italian peasant food called finanzieri that I had once on holiday that is a clay pot filled with all kinds of offal; Rooster crests, chicken heart, lung and gizzard; cooked in a kind of thick broth and then some peas added so you can get one of your 5 a day. I believe I had the chinese equivalent this week.
This bit of food hovering above the rice is goose web, or the bit of foot in between a goose’s toes.
In the clay pot, we have crab meat, sea cucumber, some enormous slices of mushrooms, some large white slices of what are probably part of a fish, fish lips and broccoli. All cooked in a spicy creamy sauce.
I know some of you are thinking:
But, I really enjoyed it. Like finanzieri, if you think too hard about what you’re eating it can become a little difficult to eat. But if you just enjoy the flavours and textures it’s really quite nice (and if you’re a sustainability hipster like I am, then using every little bit of an animal is a good thing). In this kind of cooked dish, everything tastes like mushrooms anyway. I’d urge you to try both (this and the italian version)
Hashima in papaya
My first night staying at a hotel in Changshu, my main dish of conch meat (shellfish, tastes a bit like snails and scallops) hadn’t quite filled me up. There was definitely room for a pudding. Of the items on the menu none of them were recognisable (I think all were Japanese) so I took a punt on a mid-range priced dessert, “Braised Hashima in papaya” – the picture of which looked like a kind of risotto in a papaya. As soon as I started eating it I realised it wasn’t. It was sweet, and not at all unpleasantly textured, but it had a faint fishy smell. But what was it? Dare I check before I finished?
So, I thought i’d create a mini quiz for you: View the picture below and guess what it is. Then scroll down for the answer. For those of you with excitable imaginations, the white liquid is coconut cream.
A – A kind of tiny prawns, similar to Brown Shrimp in the UK.
B – The fatty tissue surrounding the fallopian tubes of frogs.
C – Cauliflower ‘rice’ cooked in fish stock
D – Polar bear nose tissue
For those of you who guessed:
B – The fatty tissue surrounding the fallopian tubes of frogs.
This is probably the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten (and I wasn’t even trying). When I told my team at work they all laughed at me.
“What’s so funny about that? Frog tubes for dessert is a bit weird”
“No, it’s more that it’s traditionally a girls dessert. For girls who want bigger breasts and smoother skin”
Desperate times must call for desperate measures!