WTF. What the foot?

Hi. It’s Matt, hopefully you remember me. I’ve been very inactive blogging for a while. Here are my excuses:

  1. I’ve been painting a lot. I hit a decent vein of ‘form’ with some paintings. So I’ve spent quite a lot of time working on that. If i feel creative, I have to prioritise painting over blogging. Sorry blogging.
  2. It’s harder to find weird. When I first arrived everything was weird. “Hey, wow, you can get beef flavoured sweets! Hey, wow, ‘duck bits’ are a more popular snack than crisps! Hey, wow, you can get preserved eggs for breakfast that look like the jellified black translucent output of a zombie chicken”. Now, the ‘once-weird’ is just my normal diet. When I’m peckish, no longer do I reach for a packet of crisps, i like packets of dried seaweed. Rather than toffee I eat tofu. Rather than gummi bears I eat bear gums. (I may have made up the last one). Anyway, this means my frame of reference has been normalised, so it’s hard for me to find noteworthy topics. I liken my quandry to that of a person from Sunderland who was brought up on our local delicacy of chips – with our recommended daily intake of fruit and veg usually being provided by squirtings of tomato ketchup. One day, I discover some mavericks covering their chips in cheese and red sauce. What!!?? No way! Now, I find this incredible and begin to regularly add cheese to my chips and ketchup. One year, I somehow end up in the bohemian town of Middlesbrough. Middlesbrough is about 20 minutes south of Sunderland (therefore 20 minutes closer to Vienna), so the chip chefs invented a fusion dish called ‘Parmoe’
    800px-Meat_feast_parmo
    Parmo. The north-east UK’s interpretation of Chicken Parmeggiana, whereby you take Chicken, cheese and then replace all of the other ingredients with chips. Best served in a heap on a polystyrene plate, even when (as in this picture) proper crockery is available.

    which is chips, topped with cheese (like in Sunderland) but then doused in bechamel sauce (white sauce), and deep fried chicken schnitzel.  The Sunderland native, seconded to the peculiar and alien world of Middlesbrough, would invariably be thrilled with his exciting new discovery, and amaze his mates back home with tales of this weird ‘white stuff’ all over his familiar chip bed. He would relish as his friends struggled to even comprehend this discovery: “Ah man, that’s not natural like.* The chemicals at that factory** must have turned the tomatoes white for them to get that weird sauce out of them”. However, over time he would find he actually preferred white sauce with the cheese and schnitzel, and though unhealthy, he would grow used to the variety of flavours as his palate developed, even preferring these new styles. The point being, it becomes harder to blog about weird stuff when you no longer see it as weird.

  3. I got too self indulgent. I tended to spend far too long on irrelevant and meandering preambles to the real content of my blog. Usually this felt like I would be shoehorning something extraneous into the blog, just to pad it out and disguise the fact that I don’t have the dilligence to do proper research, or the talent to do proper food reviews.

*I know we have readers from many different countries now, so this is a very soft representation of a north east accent. If you want to hear what a north east accent sounds like, watch an episode of Byker Grove or Geordie Shore.

**Middlesbrough was famous for having a large chemical factory which you could see clearly if you drove north up the A96.

Anyway, fortunately i’ve no more need of such excuses, and i’ve eaten some new things to talk about. So let’s get on with it:

Chicken feet

The first time I ate chicken feet was in Birmingham. Em and I were presented with a plate of of 6-or-so; thin, bony, sad looking things laid out submissively and covered in a sweet gloop. They aren’t easy things to look at and subsequently eat; of all the bits of chicken, they’re probably the most anthropomorphic, resembling as they do tiny distorted, tortured hands. Once you get past all the unpleasantness of that, you remember that the knobbly thick skin can only be the foot coating of an animal that hasn’t yet evolved to develop and wear comfortable shoes.

Having once again done zero research,  I was a little surprised to find that there was no actual meat content. I’d expected them to be a little bit like chicken wings. Bony, but with little sections of tasty meat that you can search for and gleefully excavate as part of a meaty treasure hunt. Not so. The stuff you eat is just the thick skin. I found it a little bit like trying to eat a thick washing up glove that was wrapped around a bunch of broken Ikea pencils. So I reasoned that maybe the idea was that the bit you’re meant to eat was the sauce. The foot is to the sauce what a wooden stick is to an ice lolly, if you will. The sauce wasn’t great (like coagulated Irn Bru), so we just left it and enjoyed the rest of our Dim Sum.

While I sat there thinking that this was one of the most needless and wasteful food vehicles I’d had since the fruit corner yoghurt, I couldn’t escape the feeling that i’d missed the point. After all, they aren’t a cliche; people really do eat them.

The second time I ate them, in a hotel near Changshu, China, they’d been soaked in a spicy vinegar so had a bit of a kick. This helped as the taste was enough to keep me interested and I had a colleague with me who could explain how to eat them properly.

My colleague explained that the thick skin occurs in clumps around the joints of the foot, while in the ball of the foot is the ‘best bit’ – the thickest bit of skin, as well as some translucent white stuff that is a combination of fat, tendons and gelatin. The skin is actually a lot like slightly undercooked pasta, and the ‘best bit’ was like eating a tiny fatty dumpling.

chicken feet
This Chicken met it’s demise as it was attempting a Mr. Spock salute from Star Trek. Deserved.

I prefer it to the chicken skin you get on a breast, thigh or wing. The last 18 months in China has made me much more comfortable with eating things like skin and tendons, so the second time I actually enjoyed them a lot more than the first.

Apparently it’s common to pair chicken feet with a beer. Because a foot has a lot of bones in it, eating these can be quite fiddly, so people like to eat them as conversational foods to give them something interesting and complicated to nibble on while drinking a beer and to give them a welcome excuse to dip in and out of boring conversation. Like Pistachio nuts or a Kinder egg.

Verdict: Better on second tasting, not entirely unpleasant and i’d eat them if they were put in front of me – but there’d have to be something seriously wrong with the rest of the menu for me to order them. Perhaps best tried at a buffet.

Pig feet

image1
Pig feet. Good for your skin, but not much else.

I love pork in China. It’s comfortably the most commonly consumed meat. While I was in the UK, most of my encounters with pork were either as bacon or slices of dried out pork shoulder at a Sunday carvery (slightly re-hydrated by smearing it with sweet apple sauce). In China, it turns up in everything (even deserts and sweets) and although often quite fatty, is almost always delicious. Some of the appeal seems to be the fat in pork, which serves two purposes that make it well suited to Chinese diets.

1. Fat is an energy source, which takes on a greater significance when you consider that there are many people here who’ve lived through less plentiful times.

2. Fat is soft. I don’t yet know why (maybe it’s that dental care is expensive), but many people like soft foods that are easy to eat without chewing, so anything that melts in the mouth is a good thing.

One lunchtime I was late to the table at a Taiwanese restaurant with my team and as I sat down they announced that they’d already ordered a healthy meal: Bitter melon and pork belly soup, deep fried pork ribs with sticky orange sauce, some sauteed greens and 4 pig feet. My face obviously communicated that I needed an explanation of ‘healthy’…

My team: “The bitter melon is good for your digestion. Greens have lots of vitamins. The ribs are good because they have bone in.”

Me: “What about the pigs trotters? Are they just like chicken feet but with way more fat and skin and bone in them?”

My team: “Yes. Ladies like them. They are good for your skin”

Me: “OK.”

I decided that as they would be cooked Taiwanese style (usually a tasty combination of various sauces such as sesame oil, honey, rice wine) then would give them a go.

It turned out that I was right about the feet. They’re like a bigger version of chicken’s feet, albeit less scrawny and taste like pig rather than chicken. I didn’t like the skin, as it was far too rubbery in the way it’d been cooked and also highly fatty. Apparently the bit the ladies like (for skin purposes) is a bit of connective tissue in the middle of the trotter. If you imagine the trotter as a giant piggy whelk, and you aren’t eating the shell, but poking around with a toothpick for a mollusc inside the shell, that’s the basic idea (this tissue part actually tasted ok). The others were quite happy to chomp away on some of the gelatin too, but I prefer my gelatin in wine gum format.

 

Lamb feet

Emma’s blogged about the food in Xi’an. It is great, especially if you like lamb. We had many delicious meals here and on our last night we went to a place to try and revisit some of our favourites.

Fortunately, unlike many restaurants in Xi’an, they had an English menu.

Unfortunately, the English menu was about as helpful as the norovirus. It read:

  • Lamb – 25 RMB
  • Lamb – 30/52 RMB
  • Lamb – 20 RMB
  • Lamb (Spicy) – 18 RMB
  • Lamb – 30RMB
  • Sprite – 8 RMB

It reminded me of the classic Monty Python sketch:

 

  • “Egg and Bacon”
  • “Egg, Sausage and Bacon”
  • “Egg and Lamb”
  • “Egg, Bacon and Lamb”
  • “Egg, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Bacon, Sausage and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Egg, Lamb, Lamb, Bacon and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Egg and Lamb”
  • “Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Baked Beans, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb and Lamb”
  • “or Lobster Thermidor au Crevette with a Mornay sauce garnished with truffle pate, brandy and a fried egg on top and lamb”

Like the man in that skit, we quite like Lamb, so we played lamb roulette and pointed out few dishes.

The first thing to arrive was lamb kidneys skewered on a twig and covered in spices. Liked these a lot. Second, Jackpot, we got the delicious lamb & bread broth that Emma wrote about. Then came twig skewered chunks of succulent barbecued lamb meat. 3 wins out of 3. I was on a roll, eagerly awaiting the 4th success….

Then we got a plate of lamb feet.

IMG_5421
This is one of the only meals I’ve ever had that looks like someone else had already finished it.

I never knew lamb feet were a thing. Of course I know lamb have feet (they aren’t snakes) but I didn’t expect them to be a meal choice for humans at a relatively nice-looking restaurant. It felt a little bit like we’d been served the sub-prime mortgage derivative of the barbecue world – this restaurant had figured out a way to disguise a valueless byproduct of real food by covering it in sauce and sesame seeds, making the menu unclear, then selling it to unsuspecting consumers.

The good bit about lamb feet (compared to chicken and pig) is that there is a bit of lamb flavour to it. That’s pretty much it though, the rest of it is just tough skin, fat, gristle and gristly skin fat. On a stick. If you want lamb flavour, just get some lamb. I don’t know how much the feet were, but everything else was a better option. These were comfortably the worst feet of the three, with pig second. Having written this blog in this order and not bothered to edit it, I’ve now become nostalgic for the chicken feet by comparison and i’ll more than likely eat them again.

To close this blog, I thought i’d try something different and write a little poem.

Ah how I respect the noble foot or, plural, feet.

Designed to stop our legs from scraping along the street.

Of all the body parts the most discreet,

No matter how much abuse and how much we mistreat

They support us, daily, never missing a beat.

Yes I do respect them; but without deceit

I never thought i’d eat.

Feet.

As a treat.

There’s just so little meat.

My meal is not complete.

I have tasted de-feet.

 

Cheeses wept

Cheese is one of mine and Emma’s all-time favourite things. We love the stuff. But how to prove it?

  • Exhibit A: We hold an openly stated belief that a meal is not worthy of the title unless it contains one or more of the following: a shaving of parmesan, a wedge of cheddar, a dollop of brie, a melting of mozzarella or a crumbling of feta. A lack of the aforementioned would lead us to argue that it wasn’t a ‘meal’ at all; more a precursory snack before the real food arrives-  biscuits and cheese. We’ve refused to pay for meals that have not contained enough cheese.
  • Exhibit B: It’s so important that we have cheese in our diet/lives that if we’re counting the calories and can’t stretch to a bite, we will take a block of Wensleydale from the fridge and simply lick it for 15 minutes.
  • Exhibit C: When I’m feeling generous, or need to make up for something that I’ve done wrong  then my go-to act of penance would be call in at the supermarket and buy a couple of ‘danger cheeses’ to accompany some wine.

    ‘Hey Em. I’m sorry, I accidentally broke your favourite handbag. But to make up for it, I’ve got a present for you. I got you 100g of Blue Jersey, an ounce of Reeking Pontefract and a truckle of Bolivian Otter cheese’

  • Exhibit D: On our first Valentine’s day together, I told Emma I was going to get her a cheesy card. I bought the biggest card I could find, with the soppiest message on the front (it was a teddy bear saying ‘I wuv you’ or something); then inside the card I wrote down the name of every single cheese in the world, and stapled a few slices of plasticky American burger cheese in the middle. It took me around 4 hours. The burger cheese is still in perfectly edible condition, over 5 years later.
  • Exhibit E: If you cut us, we’d bleed runny Camembert and we call the withdrawal symptoms you get from a few days without cheese (bad temper, insomnia, heavy sweating) ‘Going Cold Tezacki’

Before I go on, I will admit that I made all of the above up, apart from one which is completely true. If you are reading this on a long car journey, why not crack open a wheel of Edam and see if you can guess which.

So, if like us you love to munch on a bit of manchego, how easy is it to get your cheese fix in China?

Cheese isn’t anywhere near to being a staple in China. Curiously, China is the 3rd largest milk producer in the world, but large numbers of the Chinese are allegedly lactose intolerant (no official figures exist but some studies show high numbers of Chinese adults suffer from lactose malabsorbtion), and locally-produced milk isn’t high on consumers’ preference lists (it’s perceived not to be as pure as imported milk ). Anecdotally, in a supermarket/store the milk you see is almost always imported from Japan, Korea, Australia or Wales (?!). Soy milk and yoghurt seem to be much more common than milk as a drink on its own – especially for breakfast.

Given the massive supply and the less than obvious demand, I have no idea where all that surplus milk goes (Thirsty cats?), but there’s little likelihood it’s going into cheese production.

Mostly, we keep our blood/cheese levels topped up by eating western foods like Pizza or boutique salads and sandwiches. That said, occasionally peoples’ lack of cheese-awareness shows through. I bought a Chicken & Parmesan sandwich from a normally capable local deli. The chef evidently had no idea that Parmesan (the firm salty Italian cheese) and Primula (a semi-liquid mild cheese packaged and designed to be squirted into the grooves of celery) were different.

You can buy cheese in it’s purest form in import stores and high-end supermarkets, but it can be eye-wateringly expensive. Feta is easily 5-6 GBP per 200g block – which makes it about the same price as copper; a good chunk of good cheddar can easily approach 8 GBP, while Buffalo Mozzarella is like white, creamy, melty, gold dust.

To summarise;

  • Cheese is available, but expensive
  • Chinese food doesn’t contain a lot of cheese
  • We like cheese

Without further ado, let’s look at some tasting notes….

Yunnanese Goats cheese

Yunnanese food is terrific, as mentioned in one of our earlier blogs. It’s where most of China’s fruit, veg and flowers come from and one of the only types of Chinese cuisine I’ve come across that has its own cheese. I found 2 types so far.

1: a slightly rubbery, salty cheese that is sliced up and shallow fried. It’s basically Halloumi, though very slightly fluffier than the Cypriot sheep cheese. A restaurant near us serves it with a Yunnanese jam made from roses. It’s essentially the cheese equivalent of one of those renowned juxtapositions of sweet and savoury, like sea salt & caramel, peanut butter & jam, Ivanka Trump.

cheese
Components of the dish; Top left, Rose Jam from Yunnan; Right, shallow fried goats cheese from Yunnan; Bottom left, curly Parsley garnish from the 1980s.
If you’ve completely lost all sense of value and perspective, in the store next to my favourite Yunnanese restaurant you can actually buy Halloumi, imported from Australia for 6GBP a pack. 

2. The second kind is more unusual. I don’t know what animal milk it’s from – let’s assume Goat. While warm it’s flattened into some large plates and then fried. It looked a little bit like a dog chew, but tasted like an Emmenthal flavoured Chewit, beaten into a thin sheet.  Imagine you were eating the tongue of your dress shoe but it was made of was made of crispy-fried cheesy toffee. Not at all bad if you can deal with the texture.

yuncheese2
True, it doesn’t look appetizing- like a poppadom used in some botched clinical trials. But you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover. Unless the cover is bound in the above leathery cheese material, in which case you should judge it delicious.

Cheese and Red Bean Ice Cream

I can and will write a whole blog on ice cream. This blog is about cheese. This was a

cheese bean
Cheese and Bean ice cream.  Think of tutti fruiti, but where there is only one fruit; and it’s not a fruit but a bean.
cream cheese style ice cream, studded with little red beans. Until I came to China, i’d never had beans as a dessert food. Until now, i’d never tasted cheese and beans together without them being on a baked potato.

It’s very common to get beans in dessert, but it’s still an acquired taste. You normally get either red or green beans and they really can appear on anything, with the result ranging from ‘delicious’, to ‘violating interntional human rights convention’.

 

My Cheese and bean ice cream was definitely in the former camp. It was very well balanced, the bean gave it some intrigue and texture, and the bean flavour didn’t overpower the subtle creamy cheesiness. Categorically a winner.

Unlike….

Cheese Fish Sausage

CFS.jpg

As soon as Em pointed this out to me in our local convenience store, it was inevitable I was going to buy a pack. I’ve missed the opportunity to have a local friend translate/explain the packaging, but my favourite part is the proclamation that it is ‘Cheese: 4.59%’. I have no idea what the remaining 95.41% was made from, but it seems a little misleading to lead with Cheese. Though, obviously they sold at least one pack (to me) so maybe that is the point.

This is one of the stranger foods I’ve had. I don’t really know why it exists, or what it’s meant to do. It was sausage shaped (about the size of a thin marker pen), and it was wrapped in celophane but with one of those little metal rings to seal it, like at the end of a Chorizo. You had to open it by snapping it in half, which squished the sausage a little as the texture was somewhere between a mild dutch cheese (like edam) and soft tofu. Firm enough not to disintegrate to the touch, but not hard enough to do some damage if it landed on your head after being dropped out of a plane.

It tasted ever so slightly of cheese, maybe 4.09% Dairylea, 0.5% mild Emmenthal. By far the strongest flavour was the fish (Mackerel? Sardine?). While uncommon, I know that you can mix cheese and fish (Tuna & Cheese Melt or Salmon & Cream-Cheese being two obvious examples) – but it’s not exactly a dead cert (though if a ‘cert’ was a kind of fish, this would taste like a dead cert). When I see a product like this, especially one that tastes like a by-product of cat food production, I like to imagine what kind of market research process they went through. What must the earlier versions have tasted like? What flavour combinations did they reject? Are the creators now in prison?

Cheese Tea

One day while exploring, I felt simultaneously adventurous, thirsty and peckish. At that precise moment, I passed a shop with this sign.

cheese
Red Tea with Cheese Milk Foam. Topped with little bits of actual cheese.

By now, you know I love cheese, but let me assure you, I also love tea. I really love tea. Had this company found a way to combine two delicious things, perhaps succeeding where Mr Cheese-Fish-Sausage was sadly found wanting?

I was telling this story to someone (let’s say Emma), and they (she) said:

‘That’s stupid. It sounds foul. Why would you assume it would taste anything other than stagnant pond water, that someone had thrown some cheese in once?’

‘Ah but’, my logic went, ‘I’m pretty sure that if you went back to medieval France and told them that it would be possible to combine cheese with cake, they’d have skipped the water trial and burnt you immediately as a witch. Nowadays, its’ commonplace to have cheesecake. What if CheeseTea will be the 26th century’s hottest drink? Do you want to be a leader or a sheep?”

Besides, I also reasoned that if a company was so confident in their product that they made it the subject of their biggest sign, then the odds are it will be good.

Sweet cheeses; I owe my tongue an apology. And Emma.

I’d expected a kind of sweet creamy foam and a mild, fruity tea. I wasn’t totally wrong about the tea, it was a redbush style – no issue there. I was totally wrong about the cheese foam. It was the flavour of welsh cave aged cheddar; tangy, salty, savoury and foamy. It would have been delicious on some mushroom soup, but it totally ruined the tea and made me almost vomit.

guy F
Above; Guidov’Guy’ Fawkes’ normal autograph, 1605.  Below; Guy Fawkes’ signature after drinking a cup of cheese tea
If i’d have been given a cup of builders tea with a stick of cave aged welsh cheddar stuck in it, i’d have been able to have removed the cheese, and enjoyed it separately. In foam format it covers the surface of the tea like japanese knotweed and every sip you take to the very end is ruined.

It was so unpleasant that the mere memory of it means I can’t think of a satisfactory way to finish this blog.

– Matt

“That’s a spicy meatbowl”

“Matt, we have ordered”, my team said as I arrived at the table.

“Great, what are we having?” I replied (I was feeling a little nutrient-depleted having been out for a few drinks the night before, and looking forward to lunch)

“Well we have ordered traditional sweet rice dumplings, a sour spicy beef dish and a healthy dish that is also a bit spicy. We hope you like spicy food”

“Mmm. I love spicy food, that will sort me out. What’s the healthy dish?”

“It’s not the outside meat of a pig”

“It’s not? What is it then?”

As this dish arrived, the team started to use translation apps to describe the food.

“This bit is “Guts”. This bit is “Lung”, this “Stomach”. We think this bit is from in here (pointing somewhere around the lower part of their rib cage). This is some kind of eel. This is pigs blood.”

I was about to politely decline, when a little voice in my head said: “Go on, eat it. At least you can blog about it”

And here we are. And the dish  is called Mao Xie Wang

maoxiewang
MaoXieWang

It’s fair to say that other than ‘Spicy pig brains’ this is probably one of the most testing dishes on the menu at this restaurant, primarily because of the ingredients*, but also because it’s madras hot. I love spicy food and find that if you can get over the idea of what you’re eating, it’s not bad at all. Being a Sichuan dish, it has both a burning heat and a kind of sour lingering spice from the sichuan pepper which I love. The offal and eel was all perfectly edible (nice even) and after a while you do forget what it is. The bit I wasn’t so sure about was the blood. It’s that dark brown stuff that looks a lot like liver in the picture above and it had a consistency of soft tofu (or somewhere in between set-yoghurt and feta cheese).

It’s not what i’d call an easy eat. The Chinese people love spicy food because it warms them up on a cool day, and on a hot day it makes them sweat which cools them down. So not only are you having a Guts Vindaloo in the middle of the day- with all of the associated consequences- but you get all sweaty and with the sheer numbers of spices in it (including garlic) your breath smells like a thousand year-old onion.

Would I eat it every day? No. Would I eat it again? Yes. In moderation. And not before a job interview.

*it’s worth remembering that in the UK you will often see challenging food given euphemistic names to make it seem more palatable; “Sweetbreads”, “Tripe”, “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, “Chicken McNuggets”. Here, you will just get the dictionary translation of a thing, so ‘guts’, ‘colon’, ‘uterus’ are not uncommon things to see on a menu.

Honeycomb tripe

image2
Honeycomb Tripe. Don’t know why it’s called ‘Honeycomb tripe’. ‘Flappy tripe’ might be a better name.

I’d only ever heard of tripe as an advertised ingredient in dog food. I knew it was basically stomach lining, but other than that I never expected to eat it myself. The above picture is of tripe in perhaps it’s most tripe-like state or appearance.

This dish was cooked in a semi-spicy, sour sauce. Taste-wise, the tripe is really inoffensive. It’s slightly meaty, but not so much as to make you certain it was meat. Consistency-wise it’s slightly chewy and about as tough as a firm mushroom or al dente pasta. It seems to be low fat/high protein, so I imagine (without doing even the most basic of research) that it’s reasonably good for you.

However, there are probably three main things that are difficult about tripe.

First, the name. Tripe, or Stomach lining, is about as unappetising a name as you can get. To me, the word just has ‘dog treat’ written all over it. Although I once read an anecdote that at Mars (who own Pedigree Chum), the employees eat the dog food on occasion because it is more than fit for human consumption, kind of like a meat stew. I’m not sure if that helps build the case for tripe, but it might for some of you.

Secondly, the appearance. Let’s not kid ourselves, no-one is looking at that picture thinking “Mmm! look at that! I’d quite happily tuck into that while i’m watching Coronation Street”. Most people are thinking “Good god, is that food? It looks like something out of that movie ‘The Fly’ where the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum tried to test his teleportation device out on a pig or a rabbit or something but got his maths wrong and ended up turning the pig or rabbit or something inside out. It was horrible. Matt, you could have warned us, I’m trying to watch Coronation Street”

And finally, the mouth-feel – especially in the above form. It’s nowhere near as unpleasant as cold jellyfish, but all those little sticky-out bits do sometimes make it feel like you’re chomping away on one of those chewable toothbrushes you can get in motorway service station toilets (I had the feeling that I was eating food and having some plaque removed at the same time).

So in summary, it’s probably not going to be most peoples’ first choice; though if you’re the sort of person who can cope with the name and appearance, and are already comfortable getting your tootbrush from a vending machine in a toilet; you might want to consider some tripe next time you see it on the menu. It’s, er, ok.

Matt

 

You are what you drink

One morning last week, feeling exhausted and faced with a full day of important meetings, I needed a pick-me-up to carry me through to lunch. There are 4 coffee shops in my building, and a further 3 in the mall next door; but I have been drinking a lot of coffee lately, and while the onset of coffee-boredom would usually prompt me to switch to a strong cup of tea, in China the tea doesn’t give you that strong caffeine uppercut that you need on such a day.

So I opted for an energy drink. You can get quite a lot of energy drinks here; normal sized red bull, the small phials of concentrated super red-bull that they use to resuscitate unconscious race-horses, and quite a lot of herbal alternatives containing Jujube fruit. Fortunately it’s impossible to buy those huge cans of Monster that you often see decorating bus-stops in the UK.

I chose this shiny silver bottle of energy:

image2

I was attracted by the possibility of experiencing the kind of hardcore, vibrant energy that you often see plants exhibiting. Plus, I understood that Maca was a kind of Peruvian plant root powder that you could add to smoothies if you wanted to make them more expensive.

I cracked it open hoping that it would be utterly disgusting. Somewhat disappointingly, it wasn’t. It tasted a lot like a flat red bull, but slightly less artificial.

Quenched, I then hopped on the tube to head in to work. It was fairly crowded and a few people bumped into me; quite normal for rush-hour in Shanghai. The bustle doesn’t normally bother me, but on this occasion I lost my cool. A middle aged gentleman backed into me, trod on my foot and in retaliation I lent over and bit him on the shoulder. As an angry mob started to gather, appalled at my behaviour, I quickly apologised and left the tube at the next station.

When I reached the office I got in the lift to go up to my floor. There was a woman insisting on holding the door open for others who kept arriving. Just as the door was about to close, she’d open it again for some other latecomer. It wasn’t good lift etiquette, so I showed her my frustration and bit her on the arm.

A little later in the day, I was in a meeting where we were attempting to agree our budget with the finance team. Things were pretty amicable, until we got onto the line item about stationery, where one of my colleagues really began to annoy me with his actions. I couldn’t contain my anger and so given he was in the vicinity, I bit him.

I was hauled into a room to explain myself by my boss who saw the whole thing. I said that it was the third time that day i’d bitten someone and that I didn’t know why I was doing it. I was told that it might be better if I went home to cool off.

Reflecting, I couldn’t believe i’d bitten another person, let alone three separate people. It wasn’t at all like me to do so; in fact i’d go so far as to say that it’s totally out of character.I started to think through what could possibly have caused it, and how that day was any different to any other day. The only thing I could think of was that i’d tried a new energy drink rather than my usual coffee. Maybe that had some kind of ingredient that caused this violent reaction in me. So I retrieved the bottle from the bin to see if that could be the case.

Then it all made perfect sense….

 

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A little something to wash it down?

There is really only one drink that is winning in China. By an absolute country mile the most popular drink here is tea. Now, if you are reading from England, you might think “Well, us Brits we also drink a lot of tea. I love a lovely mug of builders’ brew with my bacon sandwich in the morning, then at the weekend I love to have tea poured from a fine china pot while I choose between miniature battenburg cakes, chocolate eclairs and crustless cress sandwiches arranged pointlessly on a three tiered cake stand”.

Yes, it’s true. Us Brits do love a nice cup of tea. It solves all our problems.

Well in China, tea is more popular than water, coke, coffee, beer, milk and aperol spritz combined. Water is merely a means to tea. Everyone seems to drink it all the time, all different colours and leaf sizes. People will make a cup in the morning and drink it all day, merely topping up the hot water whenever the opportunity arises. Everyone seems to know a lot about it too. At home, I know people who wouldn’t be able to tell if you swapped out their favourite brand of tea bag with a sports sock full of iron filings, yet many Chinese people will be able to tell you not only the name of the tea they are drinking, but the location it was grown, the amount to use, how long to brew it and what kind of ailments it will address. Anyway, I know I’ve talked about tea, but I don’t want to. It really would warrant a whole blog post. I want to talk about stuff I’ve tried that’s a bit on the unusual side. Now the kind of things you get to drink aren’t quite as challenging to the sensibilities as some of the food, but they can be pretty fun.

Yak butter tea

Oh. I didn’t want to talk about tea, did I? Well i’ll start off this story by talking about coffee until my obvious lack of blog-structure-planning becomes less obvious. A few months back I was waiting in Leamington Spa while Emma had her hair cut. Bored, sat in the car, I thought i’d get myself a coffee to pass the time. The nearest place that I could go while still keeping my eye out for traffic wardens (Leamington can cost upwards of 20p to park your car these days) was a gym that sold health drinks and ‘Tibetan Butter Coffee’. I asked what on earth that was, and they said ‘It was inspired by the people of Tibet who use a brand of coffee that is grown on the side of the Himalayas. They brew it slowly and instead of using milk, they melt Yak butter into the coffee, the yak being fed of the grasses of that very same mountain. We don’t have yak butter so we use a special grass-fed butter. It produces a long lasting caffeine buzz. It’s five pounds a cup.’

‘Wow! That sounds amazing’ whirred my brain, forgetting that my cheapskate attempts to avoid spending 20p had now completely backfired.

After they spent about 10 minutes brewing this coffee and melting some Lurpak into it, I tried it. It tasted surprisingly creamy and it had the kind of caffeine buzz that you can feel as soon as you taste a mouthful. I was as high as a kite on caffeine. It was like every one of the hairs on my arms stood up on end and I had enough time and energy to give them all names. It’s surprising I didn’t resort to this, as it kept me wide awake until 4am.

So a few weeks ago, when I heard that one of the local delicacies in the Tibetan region was ‘Yak Butter Tea’, it was the above experience of over-stimulation that flashed through my mind. It was one of those drinks that some people said was a delicious local must-try, others kind of grimaced when they told you about it.

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The thoroughly Yakky one
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Tea-betan party

Well I had to order it the first place we had the chance. Apparently it is Pu-er tea (special Yunnanese tea and Victoria Beckham favourite) that is brewed, and then Yak butter is melted down and added to the tea. That’s basically it, and Tibetans will ordinarily drink it in the morning like a morning pick-me-up. You can customise it too. Most common is to add ground bulgar flour into it, or maybe even some salt or sugar.

First one I had wasn’t that easy to drink as it was hot, in a glass, and had quite a lot of salt and flour which had clumped together a little into a kind of crusty/gritty sediment. The butter also had a tendency to separate out into the oil and dairy components which wasn’t all that nice. It was a bit like someone had made an ice-cream float for me, but had kept it safe behind a radiator for a month.

However, the second one we had was delicious. This version – served in a proper tea set with Tibetan biscuits and yak yoghurt – meant we had the chance to add our own amount of bulgar flour (or eat it separately) which gave it quite a nice malty taste – a bit like Ovaltine. I really liked this one, though disappointingly the kick  wasn’t as strong as the Leamington coffee so I only had time to name several hundred of my arm hairs before I drifted into a deep sleep.

Yellow Wine

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An ancient Chinese booze cabinet

This one isn’t particularly weird, it’s just another drink where people seem to either recommend it or grimace at it’s very mention. If you’ve ever seen these dusty jars in a Chinese restaurant, they are barrels of ‘Huang Jiu’ or Yellow Wine. If you want to see how it’s made, Rick Stein did a short spot on it in a recent program and there’s loads on the internet. I couldn’t resist buying a 5 year old aged jar of the stuff when on a recent visit to a water town; mainly because I loved the little ceramic jar it comes in. Apparently the locals drink this warm in winter (which can get very cold here).

 

I had a glass as soon as I got it home. It’s about 15% abv (so like a strong-ish wine), looks like flat cola and smells like a sweet sherry that’s at work all day on the farm and needs a shower. Actually it tastes a lot like a sherry too, but with a slight hint of medicinal bitterness.

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A snifter of Huang Jiu

I decided that I really like it, and can see how it would be welcome warmed up in the winter too. There’s a bit of a mulled wine quality to it that wouldn’t be out of place at Birmingham Christmas Market (although the last time I went to BCM i’d gotten so drunk on Gluhwein that I now have an injunction against me talking about it or imagining it), so I’d better not imagine that then.

 

 

Er, what?

I went out to buy some milk yesterday, and on the shelf above it was the catchily named: ‘Bamboo Fungus and Tremella with Reconstituted Coconut Meat Juice Plant Protein Beverage’.

Three things ran through my mind when I read that.

  1. I hope they haven’t accidentally missed out some commas.
  2. The boys and girls in their marketing department definitely come from the ‘calling a spade a spade’ school of salesmanship.
  3. I might need a beer to wash this down. I don’t want to reconstitute it later.

 

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The following words are not appealing on a drinks carton. ‘Fungus’, ‘Tremella’, ‘Reconstituted’, ‘Meat’ and ‘Fook’

So this has 2 kinds of fungus in it, the Tremella (a kind of light, springy fungus) and the Bamboo, which you often find in soups. The drink itself was obviously some way of consuming a lot of protein on the go. Down the hatch!…

The thick liquid was slightly but not overly sweet coconut milk with  lots of ‘bits’ in it. Some of the bits were really quite large; big clumps of fungus I presume. Imagine you were taking a shower and you’d lathered yourself in thick milky coconut-scented shower gel using one of those small springy natural sponges that some people have hanging on a string around their shower heads. Then, you put the suddy loofah in your mouth and chewed it into little bits, swallowing as you go. Fair  play to the marketing boys and girls, they have captured the spongeyness quite well in the picture on the front of the bottle.

It was obviously one of those drinks that you might resort to if you were avoiding eating solids for a while but you were still somehow aiming to eat enough protein to bench-press a small speedboat. Maybe that’s it’s intended purpose…

Alternatively, if there’s a market for this kind of thing, maybe I could invest in a bulk-load of kitchen scourers and mash them up into some bottles of chocolate milk, making a tidy fortune in the process. Any takers??

This week, I have been mostly eating.. tubes

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.

fish

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’.

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Crystal elbow flowers. A bargain at 28 RMB

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

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Jellyfish. Not at all like Jelly, or fish.

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.

Chinese Finanzieri

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.

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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:

“Urrgghghgh……. Broccoli”

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.

Hashima is:

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

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Keep scrolling…

 

 

 

For those of you who guessed:

B – The fatty tissue surrounding the fallopian tubes of frogs.

Well done!

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!

Fake duck and fish heads

When we were last in Shanghai, one of the locals we talked to said that when the Shanghainese go abroad the thing they miss the most is the food. It’s estimated that there are over 20,000 restaurants in Shanghai, which means that you could eat at a different restaurant for around 55 years without needing to go back to the same place twice! Doing review posts would get really tedious and repetitive quickly – so I thought we could focus on some of the more adventurous things we’re eating and drinking as and when.

Fake Duck

Emma loves vegetarian food. Emma loves the food I make for her. Emma should love tofu. Emma did love tofu until I cooked it for her. I made a massive error with it when I tried to make a ramen with mushrooms and tofu. I just dropped the tofu in straight from the packet and it broke up into a horrible sludgy mess, the texture of which instantly made her vomit violently. Hitherto the mere mention of tofu would make her cheeks go green and puff up, looking a bit like a Buddha made of jade.

China is well known for being pretty good at faking things. A place we’ve found called ‘Godly’ lives up to that reputation by  copying the taste and texture of meat dishes, using tofu. This includes meals such as shredded ‘beef’, ‘eel’, ‘pork’, ‘sea cucumber’ and ‘duck’. It’s amazing, and even though the Jade Buddha made an appearance when I said we were ordering tofu, Emma’s a huge fan.

Check out the ‘duck’…. the ‘meat’ part was firm but soft; it absorbed the dipping sauce really well and contrasted really well with the crispy duck ‘skin’ coating.

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This is crispy fried duck. Made out of beans. BEANS!!!!!

Fish heads

Whenever I hear the words ‘fish heads’ I think of this….

So when I saw that fish heads was a special delicacy of the Hunan province of China there wasn’t a chance I wasn’t going to order them as soon as we found a Hunanese restaurant. (although I somehow manages to resist ordering the stir fried goose bowels…)

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Fish heads, they can’t play baseball and don’t wear sweaters.

This is a fish head split down the middle and butterflied out. It’s then covered in chilli and chives, and lots of oil, garlic and ginger. Hunan food is very spicy, in that most (if not all) of the dishes will have chilli in them. Compared to a standard Indian restaurant, you’re talking about everything being somewhere between a Jalfrezi and a Madras/Vindaloo – but not much outside of that spectrum.

The fish heads were actually very very tasty. If you’ve ever had cod cheeks or pig cheeks, you’ll know that cheek meat is really delicious – firm but not dry or chewy – and while you could taste the fish through the chilli it wasn’t over-powering. The appearance of the dish might put some off, but if you can cope with that it’s definitely worth a go. I even ate the eye – which wasn’t bad either.

I’ve never had Hunan food before yesterday, but i’ve got a soft spot for it. Maybe it’s because I love chilli and they serve it with gusto; or maybe it’s because a Hunanese restaurant is the first place I managed to say something in mandarin without them looking at me like I was standing naked in the middle of the street doing the macarena.

“Zhen hao chi” (This tastes delicious)

“Xiexie” (Thank you)

“Bu ke qi. Mei dan” (You’re welcome. Can I have the bill)

Seasoned coffee drinker

This is a latte with Agave nectar and topped with a healthy grind of black pepper. Made by a small chain of cafes called Coffee Architects, it’s one of the most interesting coffees i’ve had in ages – I loved the tingly spice from the pepper. At over £5 a pop you’d probably keep to less than 8 or 9 a day. In Italy they give you a shot glass of water to wash down your coffee (stops your teeth staining); Here that water is hot (most of the water you get served is hot – we think that is either because you’re not meant to drink tap water so heating it up might purify it, or something to do with keeping your internal systems balanced)

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Burns your tongue, then your top lip, then your tongue again when you wash it down. Tasty though!