The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin 1755-1826
Friday, October 24, 2008
NI HAO! While I am travelling around in China I won't be doing any cooking, and its hard to rant in Mandarin, so for the next blog or two The 3rs will be covering Reading, Relaxing & Restaurants. Normal service will resume when I get back to Blighty.
READING: If anyone had told me that I would be absolutely absorbed by a book about playing cricket in America I would never have believed it as I am not very interested in sports of any kind. However Netherland by Joseph O'Neill hooked me from the first page. Netherland was on the Booker long list this year and I think it should have been short listed.The book is narrated by Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman who is an analyst with the Wall Street office of a British bank. His English wife Rachel is a solicitor and they live intrendy TriBeCa in downtown Manhattan with their baby son Jake. After the horrors of 9/11 the couple have to leave their appartment and move temporarily to the bohemian environment of the Chelsea Hotel. Rachel is very traumatised by the attacks on the World Trade Centre, and eventually return to what she perceives as the safety of London, taking Jake with her. Hans is left on his own. Being at a loose end at weekends, he starts playing cricket - a childhood passion of his; cricket in NY is played in the public parks of unfashionable suburban areas, and the players are the immigrants who have drifted to America from Britain's ex-colonies. West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans all come together to play, eat and socialize. Hans is one of the very few white players.Through playing cricket he meets Chuck Ramkissoon, a street-wise Trinidadian with the gift of the gab, who fancies himself as an entrepreneur - one of his most successful ventures being a Kosher Sushi bar - who runs an old fashioned (and illegal) gambling game called 'weh weh' on the side.Chuck has big plans, he dreams of building a state-of-the-art cricket ground in NY, he tells Hans that cricket was played in the USA long before baseball, "I'm saying that people, all people, Americans, whoever, are at their most civilised when they're playing cricket. What's the first thing that happens when Pakistan and India make peace? They play a cricket match. Cricket is instructive, Hans. It has a moral angle. I really believe this. Everybody who plays the game benefits from it . So I say, why not Americans?" Hans is very much a bystander, observing the city in which he is living, but not really engaged with it. His marriage is breaking down and he seems to be accepting it with detatched passivity. On the pretext of giving him driving practice so that he can get a US license, Chuck gets Hans to drive him all over the suburbs, stopping frequently for Chuck to conduct mysterious transactions. Eventually it dawns on Hans that he is being used in some way, and that Chuck's business is shady to say the least.Finally Hans decides to return to London and try to resurrect his marriage, and it is there, some years later that he gets a call to say that Chuck's body has been found rotting in a canal where it had been for a year or so. This triggers memories of their short friendship, Hans's time in NY, and also of his childhood in Holland.Joseph O'Neill is a wonderful writer, and the descriptions are so precise, so evocative that the city of New York comes alive to the reader, and in Chuck Ramkissoon he has created a character in the mould of Gatsby, or even of Babbitt. This book is destined to be a classic I am sure. Do read Netherland, even if, like me, you don't have any interest in cricket!
One of the most fabulous, sociable and inexpensive things you can do when in China is have a foot massage. It is SO relaxing and afterwards you feel as though you are walking on air. Before dinner last night the DH, BJBF and I went off to one of the best places for this (Lianzgzi has 400 salons all over China, employing over 20,000 trained staff) and after being shown into one of their many, very luxurious, foot massage rooms we were ensconced side by side in huge electrically adjustable arm chairs. Drinks orders were taken, the enormous plasma screen TV/DVD player was switched on, and a bevy of uniformed assistants arrived with special wooden buckets of hot water full of herbs into which our tired feet were plunged. There they soaked for five minutes whilst our three masseurs rubbed every part of them. Then they were removed, spritzed with more herbal liquids and gently pummelled before going back into the warm water. Stage three was when they were removed from the water dried and oiled before the massage proper began. Whilst one foot was being done, the other was wrapped in a warm damp towel. By now the DH had sunk into a torpor, and eventually a gentle snore or two could be heard coming from the depths of his chair, which he had adjusted to practically horizontal! BJBF and I were chatting away 19 to the dozen, catching up on all the news since we last met up...we discussed the Chinese milk scandal, our children, the Beijing Olympics and what Londoners really felt about the British 8 minute handover section of the closing ceremony, Madonna's divorce, the new vehicle restrictions in Beijing - how were they working? Every so often a waiter would come in with refills of green tea, and in this way nearly two hours passed in a flash.
My only moment of disquiet was when the young man , who was massaging my right foot at the time, said sternly (BFBJ translated for me) that my "points" were blocked, the Chi was not moving properly - he felt I wasn't getting enough sleep or drinking enough water, my body was too "hot", I must be sure to eat "cooling" foods. By the time we were all done, my calves had been beaten into submission, every toe was tingling with new life and vigour and I practically skipped out of the salon like a spring lamb.
I'm thinking of writing to the big boss of Liangzi to suggest he opens a branch in London - I'd be their first customer.
In the five days we have been in Beijing we have had the most amazing dining experiences, all different, but I thought I'd kick off with the only time the DH and I have snatched a meal together on our own. On our first full day here we rushed off to the Yashou Clothing Market in Sanlitun to order a new suit for the DH. An excellent tailors shop he has used in the past is based there. After being measured up we had 40 minutes to grab a quick lunch before the next round of meetings. Right behind the market there is a great little place which serves Shanghai dumplings, xiaolongbao - I know, it seems crazy to eat Shanghai dumplings in Beijing, but we both love them so what the hell.Xiaolongbao are quite different from Beijing jiaozi; they are round, always steamed, and contain a stuffing of minced pork plus another ingredient, usually some form of seafood. We ordered a round of pork+ shrimp, and a round of pork + crab. The kitchen is open so you can watch your dumplings being made, unless you prefer to watch the huge TV screen on the wall, which seems to be permenantly tuned to some kind of crazy physical game show rather like a Chinese version of 'It's A Knockout'. All the locals were engrossed, loudly egging on the contestants and sighing with sympathy when they were eliminated.When our dumplings arrived at the table, stacked in the ubiquitous bamboo steamers, they required careful chopstick technique, as in addition to the stuffing, each dumpling contains some meaty broth which is extremely hot. The correct method is to pick one up, bite away a small amount of the outer dumpling, suck out the broth with a loud slurp, and then dip the rest into the dish of vinegar and slivered ginger before eating it. For those who like a bit of spice there is a pot of chilli sauce which can be mixed with the vinegar. Each steamer contained 8 dumplings, and together with three beers the meal cost the grand sum of 39RMB which is about £3.25p. Cheap, filling and delicious, this is what fast food should be about.