Across a very narrow strait from the downtown waterfront of Xiamen (廈門) sits the island of Gulangyu (鼓浪嶼), a hilly outcrop smaller than Central Park in New York City and dotted with colonial-era European style buildings. Warren and I took the short five-minute ferry ride to this island last month while we were in Xiamen. Gulangyu occupies a very special place in my heart because my father spent his formative years there attending the Anglo-Chinese Middle School in the 1930’s.
Growing up in Singapore I often chatted with my grandfather about Jinjiang (晉江), our ancestral hometown in Fujian (福建) province of China. The stories he told painted a picture of a fishing village with a thriving commercial center where our ancestors lived and worked as merchants and traders. So imagine my surprise when I learned that Jinjiang is now a city with a population of one million.
Still a busy fishing port, Jinjiang has become the largest center of underwear and swimsuit production in all of China, and by extension the whole world. That is the product of economic liberalization over the last three decades. But what interested me the most was investigating the local foodways. Would I be able to find the comfort foods of my youth in Jinjiang? Would the different kinds of flavored rice, fish balls, angel hair noodles and fresh spring rolls be the same?
Two weeks ago Warren and I left Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport bound for Xiamen (廈門), a major southern port city of Fujian (福建) province where my ancestors are from. The first thing I noticed onboard our Xiamen Airlines airplane was that the pre-flight announcement was in the Southern Min (閩南) dialect that I spoke with my grandparents. During my travels in China over the last decade I’ve never heard any local dialects used in such official announcements. So this was surprising to me since China’s central government pretty much dictates people’s life including the language used for official or business purposes. I knew then that I was about to witness a very different independent minded part of China. This spirit probably helps explain their unique culture and cooking customs as well.
Mention Beijing cuisine and Peking duck immediately comes to mind. It conjures the image of sumptuous palace fare and complex cooking techniques. This dish is considered the ultimate of Chinese cooking wisdom and knowhow. Perfectly roasted duck with a lacquer-like glaze covering the skin is the definitive Beijing delicacy prized by connoisseurs. But one would be hard pressed to find another dish from Beijing cuisine that stands out like the duck.
There is a mystical allure about the Chinese province of Sichuan (四川) that fascinates me. I’m in awe of its endangered pandas and abundant bamboo forests. The stunning scenery at Jiuzhaigou (九寨溝) dazzles me. And I worship the sophisticated, spicy Sichuan cooking. So you can imagine my excitement when I was offered the opportunity to visit Chengdu (成都), the capital of Sichuan, to observe a cooking lesson offered by the Cooking School in China program.
I first encountered sea intestine (海腸) last January while dining at the M & T Restaurant in Flushing, a section of Queens in New York. The owner, James Tang, a native of Qingdao, was not able to articulate exactly what sea intestine is. I’d simply assumed it to be some sort of sea animal and thought it best to leave it at that. Little did I know it was to be such an integral part of modern Qingdao cooking.
My flight arrived late last Wednesday night into Qingdao (青島) over a crisp clear autumn sky. The brightly lit skyline of Qingdao, a city in the northeastern Chinese province of Shandong (山東), appeared over a dark coastline of the Yellow Sea (黃海). I was very glad to be sitting on the right side of the cabin as it offered a full view of Qingdao city through my window. My excitement increased as we descended into Qingdao Liuting International Airport. I was about to visit the hometown of the legendary Tsingtao beer.
One of my favorite activities when traveling is to visit local food markets. Last week, while wandering through the produce section of a wet market in Shanghai, I found something I’d never seen before. A large unmarked basket was full of miniature bright red fruits freckled with light brown dots that resembled crabapples. They had long green stems attached, and visible sepal crowns at the bottom. According to the friendly wrinkled-faced vendor I had stumbled upon haw fruit.