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Archive for April 14th, 2008

My accommodating hosts have been showing me around this weekend, so I have more than enough to talk about, but I will start (and likely end) of course, with food. This week, we enjoyed the cuisine of Shanghai, one of the 8 to 10 major cuisines of China, the names of which I will not bore you with since I intend to eat my way through them all anyway, even if yak, mutton and donkey are part of the menu. So you will get to sample them all, vicariously. Shanghai is known for assertive seasoning, and sweet and sour flavours, the sweet supplied by sugar, balanced by soy sauce and rice wine vinegar. The result is surprisingly savory rather than sweet. We enjoyed sweet and sour spareribs, which once you got past the sauce of an alarming neon orange colour, were delicious and falling off the bone tender. We had a large beef meatball, about the size of a baseball, called a Lions Head I believe: lions are meant to ward off evil and so stand guard outside the doors of all temples and other important buildings. The flavor was delicate and the meat toothsome and gelatinous in texture. It was likely the most sophisticated meat loaf I have ever had. Preserved and salted vegetables are also a Shanghai specialty: we had a salted cucumber salad that was positively addictive. In the same way some folks have sushi just to have the picked ginger condiment,(OK, I include myself in this group) I would have a Shanghai meal again just for this side dish. Another delicate and flavourful dish was shredded mushroom in sautéed bean curd – think crispy bean curd quesadilla. Shanghai is famous for its steamed soup dumplings: a pork ball in broth is contained by a rice flour pastry which bursts in your mouth when you sink your teeth in. How do they do that? Again, the meal for 3, with a few other dishes and beverages came to just under 300 Yuan or the equivalent of $43Cdn (I just checked the exchange because I still find it hard to believe how inexpensive dining out is – it is hardly worth it to find out how to turn on the range and cook at home!) And to be clear, this meal was not taken in a little hole in the wall down a darkened alley with chipped cutlery and spotty glasses: this was a grand 2 storey restaurant, decorated not unlike Toronto’s downtown temple of haute Chinese cuisine, Lai Wah Heen. Here, I was advised to be wary when ordering tea: tea is worthy of its own posting, which I will likely do at a later date: it is an integral and important part of Chinese culture. Like wine, it has many nuances, and like wine, the price can range from the cheap and cheerful to the astonishing. For example, in this restaurant, there was tea on offer from 5Yuan to 5000- that’s 75cents to over $700 per pot.

One question that has lurked in some minds (well in mine actually) was the question of dog. As in, do they still eat dog in China? I remember being told years ago of an expatriate father indulging his little girl who had begged incessantly for a puppy playmate and he had finally acquiesced. They negotiated the price with a puppy vendor and then skipped off to finish their market shopping. On their return, as you could predict, the little dog was handed over wrapped in brown butcher paper. So, the answer to the question is that dog has been officially banned as a food group – but I gather that this rule, like some, is not always followed 100%, particularly in other regions of China, and in the countryside. In fact, everywhere in Beijing, I see doting dog owners. Within the City, only small dogs, less than 30cm high, are permitted. So you see lots of cosseted Pekingese, Pugs, Shih Tzu, and Boston Terriers, being carried around, chauffeured in the bicycle basket and let run amok on sidewalks and in garden. Perhaps it has to do with the 1 child rule and parents looking for additional “children” to indulge. Imagine, this is the second generation of 1 child families having 1 child (there are exceptions to that rule too: nothing is completely straightforward in China it seems). It does not take an expert in Alderian birth order psychology to figure out that there might be some issues with having all of this investment, emotionally and tangibly, in one child per household. Across 2 generations. The expression here for the indulged children of indulged parents is “little emperors and little princesses”, and I have seen that sense of well, imperiousness, played out several times in the parks and streets of Beijing.

Well, I would like to finish with the rich and riotous experience of street food in Beijing, but I have frankly, more eating to do!

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