Monday, January 25, 2016

Why Chinese Food is So Addicting

Reports out of China this week indicate that 35 restaurants are suspected of illegally lacing their food with opium poppy powder. Why? Presumably because the powder might provide a mild narcotic effect, and potentially even get the patrons addicted to that restaurant's food. (Apparently it's not clear how effective it actually is, but that's the goal.) It all becomes so clear always was hard to put down those persimmon cakes in Xi'an...

Friday, January 22, 2016

The East-West Flavor Divide

I've written several times about my distaste for classifying unfamiliar (to you) foods as "bizarre" or "exotic," as it tends to say more about the classifier's world than about the food itself. It suggests too narrow a cultural framework, and typically carries some uncomfortable Western-centric (often even Caucasian-centric) baggage. That being said, I do get it. I can understand why somebody who grew up in one culture would find some foods from another culture a bit odd (rabbit heads, for instance). It's not how I would normally choose to classify foods, but of course it makes sense that others might.

With all that in mind, it was with great interest that I read this article on PUNCH (an "online magazine focused on narrative journalism—both written and visual—about wine, spirits and cocktails") that talks about baijiu (the biggest Chinese spirit), the different ways Chinese folks and Westerners feel about it, and the different language they use to describe it.

Baijiu photo by Wikimedia user Badagnani

The article is fascinating, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. To whet your appetite, as it were, here are three quotes from the article:
"What the Chinese prize most [in baijiu] is fragrance: its intensity, complexity and duration. Ditto for strength—the stronger the better. Incidentally these are also the two qualities that outsiders find most objectionable in baijiu."
"It’s not simply that we can’t agree on the language we use to describe flavors, it’s that we don’t even agree which flavors are desirable." 
"If it follows wine’s lead [in entering the Chinese market] in the West, baijiu must take the path of the wandering missionary: Adapt to local custom, convert the natives and arm them with the tools they need to create more converts. Proselytizers must seek common ground and embrace local substitutes. Foreign drinkers might grasp a baijiu’s pineapple notes, but perhaps grassiness is more intelligible than Chinese medicine, fruit leather better than dried dates. Admittedly, this approach does little to bring us closer together. So long as we lack a common international language with which to describe flavors, we are left largely where we started: in a segregated barroom, enjoying the same beverage at a distance from one another. They cannot participate in our discussions, nor can we in theirs."
If all of this is true for baijiu, then it is likely true for street food as well. I wrote my book for a Western audience; perhaps I would need to use entirely different words if I were writing for a Chinese audience. We don't share the same language when talking about food and, like baijiu, we can't always agree on what tastes "good." This is the kind of cultural divide that, although fascinating to me, is worth bridging. By eating local foods that don't fall into the categories that you've come to expect as "good," you come to understand the local mindset a little better. Just as the author of the article transitioned from thinking baijiu tasted like paint thinner to being a connoisseur, so can everybody learn to appreciate different standards of quality. There will always be differences in taste and differences in language, but it's well worth one's time to seek opportunities to better understand those differences (and, if you're lucky (like me), you can learn to love the unfamiliar flavors).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why Do They Use Metal Chopsticks in Korea?

Admittedly this has only a tangential relationship to both China and street food, but I thought this article was interesting and wanted to pass it along. The question: why do Korean people (apparently) use metal chopsticks, when most of the chopstick-using world favors wooden or bamboo chopsticks?

Here's a helpful graphic from the article.

One theory proposed by the article:
One major theory is that royalty during the Baekje period began using silver chopsticks as a way of protecting themselves from being poisoned by their enemies, as the silver would change color when in contact with a poisonous chemical. 

Interesting thought. The article also lists several other theories, all of which seem to have a reasonable level of plausibility. I wouldn't want to steal all their thunder (and page clicks), so I'll avoid sharing those other theories and let you click on over to read more on your own. Just some fun stuff to file away in the "you learn something new every day" category.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Four Year Update

In a pleasant little confluence of events, the very same day I left for China to conduct research for my book, some of our favorite friends had their second child. Earlier this week, that child turned four. Unbelievably, this means it has been four full years since I embarked on my big China journey. I never imagined it would take so long to get this book out into the world, and yet here we are.  Some delays have been worthwhile and some haven't, but all have contributed to the long process. 

All that being said, you may be asking where things stand with the book right now. Well, here's the good news: earlier this week I sent my last bit of text to the publisher! What a lovely feeling to have that off my plate. Now the publisher is working on layout and design. Once that's complete, I think we'll be pretty close to publication. Stay tuned here for updates in the coming months.

In the meantime, thanks for your continued readership and interest. I'm grateful to every set of eyes that has skimmed through this page.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Street Food in the Michelin Guide

Good news! Hong Kong street food is going to be featured in the Michelin Guide for the first time. According to this article 23 different street vendors will be reviewed in the storied guide. Does this matter? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it adds some legitimacy to street food as an important world cuisine; perhaps it takes some of the fun out of the "street" part of street food. I'm optimistic, so I'll lean towards the former. In any case, there are thousands of street vendors in Hong Kong, and it's nice to know that some of them are getting some recognition.

Hong Kong's famous egg pancake

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Cleaver Quarterly

Apologies are in order. I try to share press coverage on this site as soon as it comes out, but I am a little bit late on this one. It's worth the wait, though, I promise. Today I am happy to finally share with you, dear reader, this article I wrote for the excellent, print-only, Chinese-food-focused magazine The Cleaver Quarterly. My topic: street food head to toe (and everything in between).

If you want to look at the whole magazine (and you's a beautifully assembled magazine with loads of interesting content), you'll need to buy it either from a physical location or from their online shop. That being said, I've been granted permission to share the proof of my own article here. I've embedded the PDF below, and I've linked directly to it here.

If you look at nothing else, I'd encourage you to check out the illustration that forms the centerpiece of the article. It's a magnificent street food chimera based on the foods in my article. Many thanks to Ru Brown for this fantastic visual accompaniment.

Outstanding, right?  Anyway, without further ado, here's the embedded article. Thanks to The Cleaver Quarterly for inviting me to contribute this article, and thanks to you for reading.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Sea Worm Jelly

Though it may sound unappetizing, most translators end up calling Xiamen's 土笋冻 (tŭ sŭn dòng) “sea worm jelly.” Perhaps you think this is a colorful euphemism, or a lost-in-translation moment. In fact, sea worm jelly is exactly what this is.

The primary ingredients are sipunculid worms harvested from shallow water and muddy beaches on the coast of Fujian.

Here's what they look like. Photo credit: Wikimedia User:Vmenkov

A bunch of these worms are boiled, which releases a slimy collagen into the water that functions similarly to pectin. As the water cools, it is poured into small molds to set like gelatin. A short while later you’ve got small, firm, wiggly mounds of cloudy yellow-gray gelatin in which are suspended long, white worm carcasses. Before you receive a bowl of tŭ sŭn dòng, the vendor will cover it with some combination of chili sauce, mustard, wasabi, soy sauce, vinegar, and cilantro to give it some strong flavors. So what does sea worm jelly taste like, I hear you asking? Frankly, not too much on its own. It tastes and feels like cool, smooth, unflavored (albeit mildly sour and briny) gelatin with some slightly chunkier textures within. The real flavor comes from the sauces on top, which can give it a powerful, sinus-clearing kick. One of the joys of street food is finding truly novel things to eat, and a gelatin made from boiled worms dug up from beach mud is likely to be mightily novel for most people. For a uniquely local street food experience, you really can’t go wrong with tŭ sŭn dòng.