Monday, 9 November 2009

Chinese Food Reconnaissance, Part One.

Charlie and Rory's Food has recently been informed that Britain's prime takeaway choice has controversially switched over from ex-crown colony India's to China's. Intrigued we sent a correspondent on a fact-finding mission to the motherland of this tantalising chow. Our intrepid journalist criss-crossed throughout the entire, vast swathes of land occupied by this great, ancient civilisation - not in search of the perfect sweet & sour pork dish, but the very heart and soul of Chinese cuisine.
Touching down in Beijing and despairing of the crappy (and a bit expensive) tourist trap restaurants crowding our hostel's vicinity (a favourite was one with a big billboard outside offering "Nice Food. Nice Price", the price's weren't cheap, but we never found out about the food) we immediately ventured further afield.

Luckily we didn't have far to go. Wandering down a local Hutong (Mandarin for alley..) we stumbled upon an innovation in dining; one jolly Chinese lady offering pick'n'mix stew in her front room. For 3RMB or about 30p you could choose a bunch of ingredients such as bamboo, fish balls, dog treats and Chinese cabbage and then have it all knocked up into a spicy peanut-y stew. Maybe this'll catch on in Britain?
Our second meal of note was the obligatory Peking duck. Now, I'm not really sure if its possible to make crispy duck, pancakes and Hoisin sauce taste bad. Anything that crispy, fatty and sweet is as much of a shoe-in for deliciousness as a pickled pigs trotter isn't. So, already the benchmark was fairly high. Sadly our bona fide Peking duck didn't live up to the hype. It wasn't really any better than anything you can buy at a supermarket in Britain and roast yourself; quite disappointing!
Following a quick relocation we found ourselves in Inner Mongolia. Regaled with tales of mare's milk wine, hot pot boiled up in soldier's helmets and yak butter tea, all from readings of Marco Polo's memoirs, expectations were high.
Almost as soon as we got to dusty, run-down regional capital Hohhot we decided to make tracks on to the flabbergasting hectare upon hectare of nothingness, dubbed the 'grasslands'. We went there to watch 'Nadaam', a festival dedicated to the three manly sports of horse-riding, archery and wrestling.
Immediately on arriving the massive popularity of 'meat on a stick' became apparent (we thought the concept might just be a 'Beijing thing'). In the snack shop near the venue were absolutely tons of shrink wrapped meat parcels, all tastefully skewered, and horrible tasting. In an effort to ingratiate myself with new friends I found an abandoned barbecue and set up shop, using my terrible Mandarin to pass on my wares. If my medicine degree falls through I now at least know I'm perfectly capable of opening a moderately successful kebab joint in China..
Aside from this adventure in genorosity and altruism, we managed to bag an invitation to a corporate feast and booze up with the Inner Mongolian police force. Sergeant Wong, who somewhat worryingly illustrated his job by miming gunfire, noticed a couple of nervous and scrawny looking gweilos (foreigner or ghost people, in, i think, Cantonese) and sorted us out with a pity invite.
And we were happy. And hungry. And we ate so heartily that we were almost embarrassed. Whilst everyone else picked at the food like spoonbills on a barren beach, but seemed far more keen on declaring toasts of bajiao, (a fairly opprobrious clear rice liquor), we were there vigorously stuffing our faces.

At one point they brought out a whole roasted goat and had a nice little ritual involving the first cut, but pretty soon everyone just got back to knocking back the fiery booze. The actual food was phenomenal though - mellow roast goat (including the guts and liver and everything), cheese-meaty-croutons, numerous stir-fried vegetable dishes and lots of other stuff too.
Later on i attempt to munch on some leaves arranged as a garnish on the side of one plate of food. My hand was quickly slapped and i was told; "those aren't supposed to be eaten!!". 'Perhaps the Chinese attitude to salad is what makes their cuisine so beloved' i jot down in my notepad...

to be continued...

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