Wednesday, June 22, 2011

eating whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatttt?!?!?!?!?

I write to you now having finished a few small things. Most recently, I finished a cup of tea and some cherries and a sweet bun. Before that, I finished class and then finished a wokful of stirfry with a steamed bun and eggs. I had just finished class, before which I had finished a whole pawpaw and finished the last of my oats and yoghurt. Six hours before that breakfast, I finished a book.

The book is the important thing I finished. Why? Not simply because it wasn’t twilight or even Palahniuck (come on you know it’s just as trashy), but because it was a book about Chinese food and living in China and Chinese culture and China. It’s the first book about China I have really read apart from my lonely planet and I think this says something about the age we live in, and how much information I get from the internet, but it also made me realise something about my own tastes. When it comes to that imperative balance between current-book-being-read and current-life-situation, I prefer that the two not be too intertwined. A good book or television show or movie can have a particularly profound effect on me, and so I have found, that over the years, I cannot read a book about a student when I am studying, nor a drunkard when I am on holidays, nor a traveler whilst I am travelling – the two worlds become too confusingly co-reliant. My reality might pale and the fiction might flame up to the point that it breaches my perceptions of the here and now. My experiences from one influence my expectations on the other, and then vice versa. My sense of self is almost always lost as I battle between my own consciousness and that of the protagonist.

I had made the decision whilst still living in Australia that I would not read too much about China before coming here. Of course I researched into the practicalities of climate and expense and such, but I was keen to experience everything as though it were purely new. I deliberately steered clear of any blogs or biographies of Chinese or expatriates living in China. I am glad I did, because it meant I had nobody else’s expectations sitting in my mind. There were no little creatures in my conscience reminding me of situations or Michael Palin-induced-prophecies which needed to be fulfilled. I also had no dreads or worries of things that might lurk around the next corner. Each time I have walked into mishap here in China, I have done so proudly, with my head held high and a genuine look of shock plastered on my face as it is being slapped.

About a month ago, on the recommendation of a good friend, I began reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. The book seems to break the rules I have made for myself. Firstly I currently living and eating in China and so perhaps should stay away from books talking about those exact things, and secondly, I didn’t really want to hear of other people’s accounts of China so that I could make my own. What changed my mind? The same thing that troubles me now. I am experiencing a deep inner conflict.

Ok it’s not that deep.
Well, it’s pretty deep.
It’s about as deep as my stomach. That’s pretty deep – right?
Well it feels deep, so I’m just gonna keep on going.

I am a vegetarian, and on my birthday this year, I will have been vegetarian for six years. Sure, it makes me a little bit proud – but mostly it just makes me groan. It makes my family groan too. It also baffles them. I was, after all, a passionate omnivore (read: Ilovedmeatsohardcore) up until the fortnight before I decided to stop eating it all together. I’m not a vegan, so I don’t really deserve any true kudos, (dude, come on, cheese is so damn good) and unlike my luckier vegetarian comrades, the idea of meat doesn’t sicken me. I’m not ‘wierded out’ by the blood, nor am I ‘turned off’ by the scent of fresh sizzling bacon (I think perhaps it’s humanly impossible to not love that smell) nor am I ‘repulsed’ by the action of chewing the meat from a big old hunk o’ T-bone.


When I smell a lamb roast, my mouth waters in the most natural possible way an individual’s saliva glands could react. It doesn’t matter that nobody knows what’s inside a hotdog sausage, what I do know is that when you wrap it in a soft white bun, cover it with tomato sauce, add mustard, and maybe a little fried onion, you have yourself an almost orgasmically-tasty, and pleasantly portable meal. Chicken skewers with peanut satay sauce pretty much make me cry with appreciation of their beauty. When you have some spaghetti, and then you but some bolognaise sauce on it, and then you eat it, it’s like the gods of the aesthetics of the universe open their plush lips and sing the praises of humans and their ingenious recipes.

I could go like this forever. In a melancholic state of bittersweet remembrance of the meat-eating days, but it’s not really the point of this post, which to be honest, I have severely digressed from.

And so, what I mean to say, is that one of the reasons I decided to read this book about Chinese food, is because for the first time in a long time, I genuinely feel like I am missing out. I can remember what all the western foods taste like with frightening accuracy. There is no excuse to eat them. Here, however, things are entirely different. My lonely planet has a special glossy section for no other topic than Chinese food, with a list of must-visit places for food lovers. I have been to four out of these six places, and have not been able to eat the ‘specialties’ of any of them. Of course, I eat my slightly modified versions, but I think it’s kind of silly to presume that Gongbao Chicken is just as good without the chicken. Then it’s just Gongbao.

That’s what I get. Everywhere I go. The Gongbao without the chicken. 

I don’t even know what that means.

When I came to China I vowed that I would experience as much as I possibly could. I wanted to see all the sides of the country, I wanted to live in several different places and catch trains in between them. I wanted to trek and to ride and to talk and laugh here. Truly. I feel I have done everything I possibly could have so far. If you are a faithful reader of this blog, I hope that you will agree with me. But being in a country like China, where culture and meaning are associated so strongly with food, I cannot help but feel like I am missing a big part of the experience that everybody else takes away from this awesome nation. Chinese people say that “food is the heaven for the people”. Seriously. It’s a big saying. Everybody knows it. It’s probably even true. The sharing of a meal between people is so important. Every step of preparation is as precise and crucial as you would find in French cuisine. It is also one of the most affordable ways to enjoy your time here. I didn’t, and couldn’t have, understood any of this until I arrived and lived here for several months.

To make matters more intense, every region in China has a specific type of cuisine with distinctly different flavours, characteristics and base ingredients. One example is the simple fact that people from the north eat wheat products such as noodles and buns, whereas the southerners eat rice. An entirely different example is that Sichuan food is intensely flavoursome (made famous by Sichuan pepper) with rich sauces and multitudinous spices designed to almost assault the mouth with awesomeness, and yet food from Yangzhou focuses entirely on the natural flavours that fresh ingredients bring to the dish by themselves. Once you have travelled around China, you realise that there is no such thing as ‘Chinese food’ – such a term is a gross generalization of what could essentially mount up to enough different cuisines for multiple nations.

I am at a crossroads. The road in front of me is dusty and barren, stretching out to the horizon. It is a morally correct road of vegetarianism, and it stretches out behind me to show how far I’ve come. (Ok the analogy just got a bit lame, but bear with me. It might help if I look a bit more like Indiana Jones when I’m walking along this road, so lets visualize me in khaki with a wicked hat and pistol and whip.) So that’s the Y axis for this Cartesian square-of-a-crossroads-analogy… the x axis? It’s hustling and bustling like the hutongs in spring. If I stand too close to it I can smell the dumplings, and it’s like a new year’s celebration of colour and life and fireworks and chatter and music. So full of potential and adventure and possibility, I envy how these people indulge themselves on such a daily basis. I reach my hand just into this new territory and the fanfare immediately stops. The fireworks disappear and the music shrinks into silence. I know for sure, that the only way to get into the X axis of China is to jump in. You can’t reach a hand in or take a picture or even one forkful. Now is the time when I either plunge headfirst into this new endeavor, or be happy with the straight and narrow. I am almost exactly halfway through my time here. Decisions need to be made.

Fuschia Dunlop is a well published food writer who speaks mandarin and famously vows to “eat everything she is offered”. The book I just finished is a memoir of her travels around this country and the process of writing her cookbooks. She talks with incredible understanding of the link between food and the Chinese people. She explains how the famines of communism and the Cultural Revolution have imprinted within these people, a desire to eat all that they can at every opportunity. She talks about the elements of Chinese cuisine that appear almost barbaric to the Western world. It is a book I would recommend to anyone who has any interest in China, but also any interest in food.

What I did not appreciate, however, was the sheer amount of meat she consumed, and the number of endangered animals she consumed. In her “eat everything” slogan, she has excused herself from any moral qualms that might (and do) arise when it comes to controversial consumption. To make matters worse she will, on occasion, remark on how eating such immoral food makes her feel bad – and then continue to enlighten the reader on the texture and flavour of her serious crime. Sometimes it’s literally a crime – these animals are on endangered species’ lists. For example, one of the most famous examples of controversial Chinese delicacies is shark fin, and she eats it and then proceeds to talk about the brutal shark finning techniques as though they weren’t her problem. Many times in this book I became furious at her greed and waste. By the end of the book her conscience is catching up on her, and she eats less meat, but still has to “suffer through banquets”. That’s a direct quote. The poor thing has to suffer through plates full of food being offered to her then wasted.

So in this way, I am again presented with a conundrum. Her book has exploded my mind to what I am missing out on by not being able to immerse myself in Chinese food, and yet her own behavior as a saleswoman for the cuisine, is abhorrent to me.

I am utterly and entirely unsure of what to do. If I go back to Australia without ever having tasted a few real Chinese meals, I’m so sure I’ll regret it. Opportunities in my life so far have presented themselves to taste alligator, ostrich, ox testicles and dog. I tried one mouthful of each, and am very glad I did. I have such strong memories of the exact taste of each of those bites, and each was such an unforgettable experience! However, I was never the reason the meal was purchased. If the plate had not already been bought by another individual in an entirely autonomous action, I would not have eaten the meat. In each of those situations, my actions had literally no affect on the meat industry. Go ahead and call the vegetarian police, I’m not justifying it for you, I’m being realistic.

 A possibility might be to undertake a week of meat-eating and see how I feel after seven days. It is entirely likely that I will be violently ill.  It is a little bit likely that I will be revolted with myself. It is highly unlikely, however, that I would regret the expedition. I would almost rejoice in a re-invigoration of my passion to not eat animals. If I did indeed hate myself for taking part in that week long mean-eating streak, I would almost definitely be cured of my lusting of meat for at least another six months, probably a year.

The flipside of that coin, however, is that I might go darkside. I’m talking Vader levels of darkside here. If the chewy tasty bloody fleshiness touches my tongue, there is every possibility that it will evoke within me a hungry beast that has been starved too long. If it escapes, I am not sure I will be able to reign it back in. 6 years is a long time to abstain from something so good… you know what I mean. What if I can’t go back after I get a taste of what I’m missing?

I need some guidance here, guys. Times like this I wish I believed in a God or had some other kind of imaginary friend who told me what to do. Or at least one that would let me absolve my guilty spirit after a week of meat-eating simply by sitting in a box telling a random dude I was truly sorry. Unfortunately, however, we must all actually live with our actions. Let me know if you have any bright ideas.

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