Chinese Cookery Class

For our second day in Dandong Elisabeth and I gave a less than enthusiastic response to the suggestion that we might like to visit a power plant and instead pressed our guide for the opportunity to either see some handicraft production or sample a taste of village life. David seemed unsure what to offer us but, after thinking for a while, shyly suggested a visit to his great aunt out in the nearby countryside.

So this morning we bought flowers and set off to meet Mrs Leo, who seems to have spent the whole morning shopping and cooking up a magnificent feast for us. Matt and Elliot (the two Australian boys) you had better read no further. We were so sorry that we didn’t have you along to help but, without a doubt it was the best meal of the trip, perhaps even of all our travels in the Far East.

What made the visit even more interesting was the cookery Masterclass that went along with it: we were allowed to see how each dish was prepared, ask as many questions about ingredients as we liked and take copious photographs. All the while David translated the difficult items with his mobile phone app but I’m sure that our hostess must have thought that we were quite crazy to be showing so much enthusiasm over what to her was a perfectly normal family meal.

In the kitchen a huge wok is built in to the cooking surface with a space for a fire to be lit underneath. Various vegetable dishes were stirred around in it with little snippets of meat or shellfish while big golden corn cakes were placed around the edge to cook. Chicken and duck eggs were served separately as was some very tasty roast chicken. When I asked about seasoning I was told that it was just a bit of salt so that particular chicken must have seasoned itself as it pecked around the yard because it tasted absolutely delicious.

We had some difficulty with the translation of the type of fish that we were eating but I was amazed to discover that it was Yalu River carp: quite a contrast to the horrible, muddy flavoured Yellow River carp I had eaten in Gansu province a few years before.  This fish had obviously led a privileged life for there was a deep layer of fat under the skin which caused it to crisp up beautifully. Again, I asked about spices and Mrs Leo laughed and told me that it had been cooked in a pan coated with left over scraps from the other dishes. David proudly explained that that was why we would never get such a good meal in any restaurant.

Yes, there were fried grubs on the table. And yes, as they were obviously such an important delicacy I was compelled to try them. The taste was similar to anything deep fried in salt and garlic but Chinese people value texture at least as much as flavour and that was something very special indeed. The chitinous shell crunched between my teeth as the feathery little legs and antennae tickled my palate but that was only the beginning of the experience.

There is a reason that insect larvae are so highly prized by aboriginal people and eccentric survival writers for their nutritional value and it probably has something to do with the little fat ball which literally bursts in the mouth once the carapace has been penetrated. Fortunately for us, our driver Mr Wang was an aficionado and he soon reached across to swap the bowl of grubs for my favourite dish. Mushrooms. These were a variety of agaric (non-poisonous, of course), all black and rubbery with circles on the underside of their caps which almost resembled octopus suckers.

Mrs Leo uses only “five spice” seasoning and she doesn’t mind buying it ready prepared. This contrasts starkly to the methods employed by the Indian ladies that I know, who love to have a whole drawer of seasoning ingredients and mix them up to a very personal taste. An absolute essential in Chinese cooking, however, is the flavour enhancing crystals that are added to everything. What is this? Monosodium glutamate? I’m not sure and I will definitely need better translation services and internet access to find out for certain but we stopped off at the Dandong branch of Tesco (the world gets smaller every day) for two big sachets before getting on the train tonight.

All the ingredients of our meal were either grown or bought locally and, however luxurious they may have seemed (especially by North Korean standards) a selection of such dishes regularly served at family meals amongst ordinary country people in this part of China. Indeed, we saw a whole variety being grown nearby when we set off for our much needed after lunch stroll around the village. This is a gallery of pictures that I am really looking forward to posting.

Postscript: Grahame has managed to translate the characters on the flavouriser packet (no mean feat even with the aid of a computer) and it is indeed MSG: a substance which, despite modern reservations, has been used in cooking for centuries. it is a protein extract, recovered mainly from such foodstuffs as animal bone and seaweed but now produced artificially.  

Categories: China, Far East

1 Comment

  • Sandy says:

    Yes, clear crystals would be Monosodium Glutamate–sometimes it comes from rotted fish in the sun which would make more sense in the way of flavors for sure! I doubt she would use chemicals.
    Great job getting a homecooked meal!! The guide should include the group everytime–what a treat!!!

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