Friday, 5 July 2013

Taste the difference…

The notion of food is somewhat looser in China, than in the West – it pretty much includes everything that was at some point (or still is) alive. Here in Guangzhou there’s a saying: ‘They eat everything that has legs, but it’s not a table, and everything that has wings, but it’s not a plane”. That sums up nicely the Chinese approach to the dualistic division of the world into edible and non-edible things. The second group is virtually non-existent.

One of the first things I’ve done in China was to go to a supermarket - the experience has scarred me for life. There were deep-frozen starfish, dried seahorses, pre-packed chicken feet (they eat it as candy here, yumm), sea cucumbers, live eels and frogs, and a whole galaxy of slimy swamp beasts of every ungodly shape and colour. Things, not even Bear Grylls would ever consider to eat. And this wasn’t even in a sketchy back-alley market, but in an ultramodern, state of the art shopping mall! This doesn’t mean of course that you can’t find the same things on the street as well. Every morning on my daily trip to the office, I have to pass a couple of vendor’s who are in the live turtle business. The cleaver and the thick cutting board are there to ensure that they don’t stay alive for long (the turtles, not the vendors). I had the “pleasure” to see how the little fellas are being liberated from their shells, and I have to say, it’s a rather messy procedure. Not exactly surgical, but various tools are involved as well. To spare those with weaker constitution, I won’t share the details - but if you imagine going to the dentist, who starts to work on your skull with a rusty screwdriver, you wouldn’t be far from what it was like.

(Un)lucky stars

Dogs, however are not on the menu in Guangzhou – they actually take care of their pets with such fervor, that it’s bordering on the perverse – unlike in other parts of China, where puppies go right in the pot. Along with the rats, who are roaming freely on the streets of Guangzhou in large packs, apparently carefree and well fed - their only nemesis being the massive hairy spider, which we found in our building the other day. Insects are also not very popular around here, but I heard that they sometimes eat deep-fried bees. They are crunchy I’ve been told, divine with a bit of honey.

The only insect I’ve seen being sold in large quantities is, in fact, not consumed as food, but rather as aphrodisiac. It’s also, coincidentally, the weirdest shit, I have ever had the luck to come across with. It’s the Chong Cao, or the Winter Worm, which is a sort of parasitic fungus that gets into the living larvae of the ghost moth, kills it and mummifies the poor sod. Then from its forehead out the little fungus comes, like a twig. These little charmers are sold for a sky-high price, and actually have some scientifically proven benefits. Can’t imagine what those benefits might be, but they have to at least grow back limbs for me to ever try this delicacy.

Worming up

And there’s the deal with the heads. They always leave the head of the birds on, let it be chicken, duck, goose or even pigeon. The main thing about a bird’s featherless head is that it’s absolutely hideous. It’s got bones sticking out of it, gaping holes all over and beady little purple eyes staring into nothing – in short, not something I would consider an appetizing addition to my plate. The Chinese also have the tendency to ruin a perfectly good chicken by simply boiling it in whole, and thus turning it into something that looks like a drowned heroin addict. It goes without saying, that no organ or intestine can avoid its dark fate of being eaten – my favourite dish that I will neverever try is ‘boiled goose miscellaneous’.

I’m being unfair; however, as Guangzhou is what every foodie imagines how heaven must be like! Being relatively close to Hong-Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and more or less to Japan – one can find everything that Asian cuisine has to offer! Anything that happens not to be completely freaking weird is actually so delicious, that you can’t wait for the next meal to come. It’s like a culinary swinger party full of swimsuit models, with the occasional creep skulking around the corner. Curry, seafood, sushi, noodles you name it, they make it ten times better than at the sad little take-away at the end of your street. It’s cheap too, so cheap that I would spend more if I cooked for myself. This means that I’ll have quite an extensive knowledge of the local gastronomy by the end of my stay, possibly filling a couple of more posts.

 Mr. Eel is having a bad day

Speaking of which: as we more or less covered what they eat here, we are yet to talk about the second half of the story – namely, how they eat! Fear not, it’s at least as bewildering as a big fat winter worm, so bear with me as I unravel the mysteries of the East in the posts to come!

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