A Bit of Nostalgia
I humbly admit that I am perhaps the worst candidate to write a consistent and up-to-date string of blog entries for a nationally acclaimed news website. But with the daily task of trying to discern which pair of my already reused underwear are suitable enough to wear, finding hole-in-the-wall internet cafes with snail's pace connections has not been at the top of the to-do list. So what is it that has drawn me back to the keyboard? I miss China. Granted, it's only been a month since I left Beijing on a rickety Ethiopian Airlines plane that could have easily dated back to the reign of Hailee Selassie, but I miss the damn place. So for those of you who stumbled upon this "blog" expecting a review of the last Black Keys concert, here instead for your reading pleasure is the final chapter of my China Game instead.
The Panda Express: Chinese Food in Sichuan & Beyond
Rolling back those everyday low prices at Trust Mart; a Wal Mart subsidiary.
For the Chinese, food is everything. I have never seen a nation so passionate about food and that is with Italy and France taken into account. It is no wonder why Wal Mart has enjoyed such huge success in China, with its many mega stores offering everything from frogs and turtles ready for the wok, to Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. A friend of mine summarized the Chinese culinary experience by explaining that there is not one homogeneous cuisine but that one will find that, "...there are many cuisines of China." To be specific, the Chinese claim four distinct styles. We had already sampled the subtly flavored offerings of the Southeastern Cantonese style, and the often exotic but mostly fresh vegetable laden style of the Tibetan influenced Southwest. But the style of cooking I had most eagerly anticipated was that of Sichuan. Sichuan cuisine is world renowned for its distinctive use of chilies--which only arrived from the Americas during the 17-18th centuries, and it was with the quintessential Sichuan chili experience that we first dove into food in this fertile region. You experience Sichuan hot pot twice. First, you feel a rush of endorphins as your tongue is set ablaze by the dried chili broth that coats every inch of the beef, mushroom or bok choy you have just consumed. As sweat rolls off of your forehead, stinging your eyes, and your nose runs like a faucet you bite down on a crunchy pellet that makes you think you've just eaten a table spoon full of comet. The flavor is pure chemical, and it has mouth numbing properties. All panic is averted however, when you realize that the cook hasn't accidentally dropped moth balls into your Chinese style fondue, but bunches and bunches of Sichuan peppercorns. They look like the peppers you have in your trendy pepper grinder back at home, but they certainly don't taste like them. Now because this is a family show, I'll leave it up to the reader to imply just how it is that the hot pot experience is relived, but Westerners can rest assured that Sichuan locals have not developed any immunities to this fiery hell broth spectacle. In fact, the motto for most Sichuan locals seems to be "no pain, no gain." A hot pot meal, and the sweat it induces is supposed to rid the moisture from one's body and bring down body temperature in the Summer months. My hot pot experience in the Sichuan capital Chengdu proved to be a great introduction to Sichuan cuisine, despite the permanent scar I acquired as a parting gift courtesy of a splatter of hot oil (for more on hotpot click here). Although much of Sichuan cuisine consists of farm fresh veg work fried with chilli oil, milder dishes are also on offer, although mild wasn't really in our lexicon when traveling through Sichaun.
Sichuan hot pot will assault your taste buds, digestive track & any skin left exposed.
After Sichuan, I thought that I would never be able to taste again, so the mild flavors of Muslim food--believe it or not--came as a welcome respite when we arrived in Xi'an. Western China actually has a rather large Muslim population, and in Xi'an's Muslim Quarter we had the opportunity to sample all that was on offer (i.e. mutton and bread dumpling soup, lamb kebabs and Muslim flat breads).
Preparing Muslim food in Xi'an, Shanxi.
In Beijing, which boasts the nation's fourth cooking style, which is in reality just a hybrid of all of the other styles, we had the obligatory Peking duck meal. It takes three days to prepare a Peking duck. The bird did not die, take repeated baths in boiling salt water, then hang out to dry in vain because I have never had duck prepared like that.
Hung out to dry. A cook preparing labor intensive Peking ducks.
The typical joke is that the Chinese will eat anything. Well, that is a bit of an overstatement, but the Chinese will certainly indulge in some things that are taboo in the Western world, bugs, star fish, turtles, bullfrogs and dog chief amongst them. While some of these exotic delicacies must just be chalked up to differing palates, the voracious Chinese appetite also threatens a number of endangered species. As a result, the Chinese government and the World Wild Life Fund have recently enlisted Yao Ming to help in a campaign aimed at protecting threatened species.
A recent ad campaign has been aimed at tempering the Chinese appetite for the exotic and threatened.
"Don't know much about history..."
Those who pride themselves on their historical acumen can certainly chose to correct me, but I would say that learning Chinese history from beginning to end is just about as hard as learning the entirety of European history from beginning to end. I won't pretend to be a history teacher so a quick reference list of the many Chinese dynasties might help. What is important to remember is that the Qin, Tang and Qing dynasties are perhaps the most pivotal to the course of Chinese History. In Xi'an, the splendor of the Qin and Tang dynasties are both on show. Emperor Qin Shi Huang consolidated the warring states of China in the 3rd century B.C.E. He codified laws, instituted a uniform written language, built infrastructure, connected already existing city walls to form the Great Wall of China and ruled with an iron fist. The name China is derived from the Qin dynasty, pronounced "Chin." Before his death he commissioned the building of a massive clay army that would help him continue his conquests in the afterlife. The army, which adheres to traditional battle formations and soldier ranks of the time, was buried in rural Xi'an until it's discovery by farmers digging a well in the late 1970's.
One of emperor Qin Shi Huang's 2,000 year-old terracotta generals.
The Tang Dynasty was known less for it's brutal rule and more for it's patronage of the arts. The Tang, who ruled form the first to ninth centuries A.D commissioned hundreds of poems that are the equivalent of Shakespeare's sonnets.
The Goose Pagoda. A testament to the might and accomplishments of the Tang Dynasty, a dynasty known for its patronage of the arts and literature. Xi'an, Shanxi.
The Qing dynasty who ruled China from Beijing's forbidden city from the early 17th to the early 20th century were the dynasty that allowed Western influence into a previously isolationist country. It was the Qing dynasties inability to handle the influence of English Opium traders that set the stage for the Opium Wars, Boxer Rebellion and Mao Zedong's eventual rise to power.
The Forbidden City.
I may have been a bit harsh on China at times throughout my writings. No doubt I will continue to be critical of the Chinese government's human rights record. But my criticism is only borne out of an affection for a country that I wish to see more improved. It is well known that China has not been communist since the free market reforms of Deng Xiaoping. Communist dogma is merely a vehicle for oppression in China. It must be said however, that in a country of 1.3 billion, poverty, pollution and resource exhaustion are inevitable and I was surprised to find that despite the government's shortcomings they have been exceedingly efficient at employing the masses and maintaining a standard of living that is at times quite high; how the government manages to do this, and whether or not it is sustainable, are different issues. Nevertheless the people, who are the true face of the nation, are what make it great. At first glance they will elbow you out of the way to get their seat or train ticket first. But, that very same person that nabbed your seat or ticket will also help you find your way to your hostel. The Chinese people endeared themselves to me and their ostensible stoicism is only belied by their constant desire for a photo with the latest Western tourist. Some are nice and ask for a photo with you, while others jump out of subway entrance stairwells like savvy paparazzi to snap a blinding close up.
One of many photo opportunities with our Chinese counterparts.