The 10th February 2013 marked Chinese New Year and the beginning of the year of the snake. I am not (as far as I know) Chinese and had absolutely no reason to hi-jack their celebrations other than it seemed like a great excuse to make and share some Chinese food.
I’m not much of a fan of an MSG takeaway but I do like home cooked Chinese food. A few years back my friend Joy and I signed up for a charity trek along the Great Wall so I have eaten Chinese food in China but the food we ate was variable, to say the least.
We had an amazing trip where we met some lovely people and explored stunning scenery. Each night we stayed in a different place at the end of a day’s treking. The first night was in a smart hotel in Beijing and we had the opportunity to explore Tiananmen Square and the forbidden city but we were so tired and jet lagged from the 36 hour journey that I don’t even remember eating that night – although some members of the group did go to MacDonalds!
The rest of the nights were spent in a variety of guest houses ranging from a draughty old army barracks to an elegant place set in formal gardens and complete with a karaoke bar. My favourite place was a simple farm house up in the mountains, a tiny place which grew a little corn and kept a few pigs.
The food, as I have said, was variable. Breakfasts mostly consisted of leftovers from the previous night’s dinner along with steamed dumplings and cucumber – there was always cucumber for breakfast. This was served with piping hot, fragrant jasmine tea as was every other meal we ate.
We took packed lunches with us on our walks each day and our hosts had made some attempt to provide westernised food for us so it usually consisted of sandwiches made on sweetened, sliced white bread which was somewhere between Mother’s Pride and brioche in taste and texture. The fillings were a rotating combination of Spam, cheese or jam and on one memorable occasion we had Spam, cheese and jam all on the same sandwich.
These sandwiches were accompanied by tubes of some kind of processed meat paste. I had a real dilemma – I really wanted to be the kind of person who travels and explores local customs and cuisine with enthusiasm and an open mind- but I also like to know what I am eating – so I drew the line at the unidentified meat paste (and also at the 100 year old eggs I am ashamed to say).
Dinner was invariably a banquet of multiple dishes which mostly tasted fine but which contained a whole range of unidentifiable ingredients. I do know there was chicken, a lot of chicken, and tofu, and vegetables I had never seen before seasoned with spices I had never tasted before. When one of the group had a birthday (which happened around three times on the trip) an eleaborate birthday cake would be produced. This was made of layers of a steamed sponge, whose texture was likened to that of a cot mattress, covered in multi-coloured icing – sweet, enormous and virtually inedible – we were at least touched by our hosts efforts and generosity.
The night we stayed at the mountain farm the farmer came home from his truck driving job, fed his pigs and headed inside to cook our dinner with very little sign of hand washing. He served us up a simple meal of spiced pork and we sat outside, round a fire, drinking beers and chatting – just perfect. Bed that night was a concrete platform shared by five of us. One end of the platform was open to the family fire so we were incredibly cosy and warm and the platform was surprisingly comfortable.
Next morning the farmer really came into his own when he served us porridge and instant coffee – I could have hugged him. There is only so much cucumber and jasmine tea a girl can take.
On our final night, back in Beijing, we went to a vast restaurant which was famous for one dish and one dish only; Peking Duck. It was delicious, crisp and spiced and generally rather wonderful. A perfect end to our trip.
I’m pleased to say that Joy and I have stayed in touch with some of the friends we made in China, Adam (who would only eat the strange tubes of meat paste and collected them from the rest of the trekkers each day) lives in Devon and visits from time to time, Mickey, whose wicked humour still makes me smile through our Facebook contact and Emily, who has now moved to sunnier climes in Australia, and I raised a glass to them all at The Unseen Restaurant.
The food I served was not inspired by my visit to China – and in the interests of food awareness here are the recipes – so you know exactly what you are eating! I hope you enjoy them.