I was in Guizhou around the time that the Great British Horsemeat Scandal kicked off. On my first afternoon in the countryside, I came across a group of men butchering pigs on the side of the street for a wedding the next day. Feeling slightly queasy, I took some photos and later showed them to my friend, Mr Lu. Besides being amused that I thought it unusual, he raised some good questions: “Who else is going to do it for us? Where else is there to do it? The hospital?!” (The little hospital is the only vaguely shiny place in town.) In a small, fairly remote village, if you or your neighbours don’t grow it or kill it, nobody else is going to supply fresh food for you.
The contrast between what I have read in the British media about how indirect the food supply chain has become in much of Europe, and how very direct it is in Zhaoxing was startling. China has suffered more than its fair share of food safety problems, but perhaps those problems have occurred more frequently in cities, where city-dwellers no longer grow, raise (or often even cook) their own food. The increasing popularity of allotments – or rooftop vegetable plots à la Hong Kong – demonstrates that many of us urbanites do want to become more closely involved with producing the food that we eat.
On the last night before I left Zhaoxing for Guiyang, I ate dinner with a family who lived in the hills above the village. The family’s adult son told me, “We don’t put any pesticides on our vegetables – why would we? The chemicals make the food taste terrible.” I’d never considered the impact of pesticides on flavour before, but he was right – their cabbage was absolutely delicious; fresh, crunchy and a tiny bit sweet. Maybe it’s time to deal with my resolutely un-green fingers…
Mr Lu’s Chicken Stew
I was a little unfair to Dong cuisine in my last post – it’s not all pig’s blood and old fish! I was served this fragrant chicken dish at a family meal in Zhaoxing, and loved the flavour from the dried whole spices and zingy chilli-spiked sauce. This is a typical Dong dish, using dried chillies that have been rehydrated and the classic Chinese trio of spring onions, garlic and fresh ginger. Serve with stir-fried greens and steamed rice – or sticky rice, if you want to enjoy an authentic Dong-style dinner for two.
4 chicken thighs (with bone)
5-10 grams whole dried red chilli peppers (vary depending on how spicy your peppers are and whether you like it hot, or not)
5 garlic cloves
A thumb-length piece of fresh ginger
4 spring onions
4 whole cloves
2 whole black cardamom pods (草果 in Chinese)
1 litre chicken stock
3 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp salt
1) Soak the dried chilli peppers in hot water for 20-30 minutes, or until they’re soft. Drain and chop roughly, seeds and all.
2) Mince the garlic and ginger. Mix them together with the chopped chillies and mash together with a fork until everything is covered in the juice from the chillies.
3) Heat the oil over a medium flame. Fry the garlic-ginger-chilli paste until it becomes fragrant, and then add the chicken, salt, cloves and black cardamom. Stir occasionally while you bring your stock to the boil (in my case, this meant putting the kettle on once the chicken started sautéing).
4) Add enough water to cover the chicken, give everything a good stir and bring to the boil. Then let it simmer gently for 30-40 minutes with the lid off to reduce and concentrate the liquid. In the last five minutes of the cooking time, slice the spring onions into 1cm lengths, and add to the pan. Taste to see if you need to add more salt.
5) When the dish comes off the heat, strip the meat from the bone with a fork – it ought to fall away quite easily, stir the dish well and let sit for five minutes before serving.