Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Chinese Food Reconnaissance Part Three

To paraphrase Steve Martin, Litang is the kind of town where they spell trouble T-R-U-B-I-L, and if you try to correct that the overwhelmingly unnecessary numbers of Chinese military posted there probably kill you. Likely to be a brutal death too.

In the past the town has been the site of numerous armed resistances against Chinese rule; Litang being one of the most important Tibetan towns going, which explains the ridiculous-for-a-place-of-its-size military barracks on the outskirts. Even better, unlike in holy Lhasa, which is full of migrants, you're also pretty unlikely to meet any Han Chinese round these parts; everyone apart from army types seems to be old, wrinkled Tibetan women or cowboy alike men on motorbikes or kids with runny noses (all Tibetan kids seem to have runny noses). It's like stepping back three hundred years and into the wild west.

Surprisingly for all the repression and the altitude, Tibetan food is fantastic. Very few crops grow comfortably at this kind of height (Litang is 4,014 meters above sea level) so barley, yak and potatoes seem to be pretty much the main staples, and boy do the Tibetans like their yak. Yak yogurt, yak stew, yak dumplings, yak milk, yak butter tea (eurgh), yak fois gras and yak studded muesli are all probably regular features at the Tibetan dinner table.

Sadly I didn't eat that much food while i was on the Tibetan plateau but what i did have was great. They do a bloody good noodle soup with lots of vegetables and even more yak; much stodgier and more filling than the average Chinese fare. And apparently an ear stew (see picture below), though thankfully i didn't find any ear in mine.

Following Tibet we embarked on a perilous journey to the next province to the West; my main memories of this drive being bad Tibetan dance music (main lyrics, in accented English, "I'm tired of this bullshit"), very steep cliffs and sincerely sketchy driving. Got there in the end though.

Our first stop in Yunnan was Kunming, the regional capital and a lovely place. Compare it to most cities and it's the Chinese version of the garden of Eden. Tree lined streets, a quite nice (not baking hot) climate, easy enough to get around and not all the pushing and shoving common elsewhere - for China it's positively relaxed.

Weirdly for a country so famous for its tea, those Yunnaners (is that right? Yunnanese?) are big on coffee. In my hostel a guru-slash-English teacher (who was an all likelihood a German too, so already a difficult man to trust), informed me that the province's coffee would change my life. He didn't say this in a joke, ahaha, sort of way either, but in a very serious way, like a man reading the news or a politician making pledges. Once I'd hunted my cup down I was quite disappointed not to have had my life changed.

After my 'miracle' coffee we then journeyed on to Heijing, an ancient salt capital nestled down to the West of Kunming. As beginnings go this leg of the trip was absolutely stunning, cutting right through rural China and passing through paddy fields which are still obviously a big deal here. An area where it's still okay to wear a blue Mao cap and where maybe things haven't yet changed quite the way they have in China's big cities. It was nice. Once there we stayed at an old salt baron's house which was very swish. He'd got knocked off in the cultural revolution i think, for being a capitalist-salt-selling-pig-dog. Now his old pad is a guesthouse. Is that irony?

One of the main reasons we'd made it to Heijing was 'cause as well as being big on salt mining, they were big on salt cooking and sources had informed us that awesome salt cooked chicken was to be had here. We only had one meal here, and the chicken was salty but not quite amazing. Balls up. Probably went to the wrong place to eat it though.

Back in Kunming there was only one other meal i needed to try to fulfill this blog's reconnaissance mission. Crossing The Bridge Noodles is apparently Yunnan's most famous dish and so named for a scholar who worked in the middle of a lake. By the time his woman had managed to bring him his nightly noodle soup dinner it had gone cold; subsequently she had the bright idea to adding a layer of chicken fat to keep the heat in.

You can get the noodles at a chain place that seems to be everywhere in Kunming; I can't remember it's name but you can figure out the place cause each branch has two three foot plastic models of chefs looking like real goofs outside. They serve their noodles hot pot style with plates of stuff like peanuts or meat to slop in. It's definitely value for money with big old bowls of piping hot soup and unlike lots of food in China, it's fresh tasting too which is nice.

And this brings us to the end of my assignment uncovering the mysteries of Chinese cuisine. I've learnt much about this ancient, newly thriving culture - primarily the fact that we've been ripping them off for centuries, and on that subject i still haven't even touched on tea either. Robert Fortune on a similar mission to mine, but way back, traveled covertly to China to collect tea seeds and tea plants to be grown in British India. This was so we didn't have to rely on their exports and was purely in retaliation for the Chinese deciding to grow their own opium and stopping buying ours. In smashing their monopoly, we unwittingly set ourselves up to be the nation of tea lovers we are today.

Whatever. My main conclusion is that Chinese food is the best and most versatile kind of food ever invented. We stole everything from them; tea to tagliatelle. And now they're drinking mares milk wine and eating ears (apparently) and duck tongue. You read the future of Western food here first...

rory chineese menu

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