China, what we ate and what we may never eat again
To say that I was excited to attend a traditional Chinese wedding of our friends’ in Nantong, China would be an understatement. I was looking forward to observing the cultural aspects of the ceremony but even more so, I was thrilled at the prospect of trying real Chinese food.
When the groom asked us how we were with trying new things, Mr Chipconnoisseur put it this way: “when it comes to food, on a scale of timid to adventurous, I’m like a tortoise, Martyna is like Bear Grylls“. So while Mr Chipconnoisseur was already imagining eating such delicacies as chicken feet and live snakes, and I got extremely excited.
We began our 10 day long wedding trip adventure in Hong Kong. Arriving on an overnight flight from Melbourne (Mr Chipconnoisseur from the Philippines a few hours later) meant that our first stop was an overdue breakfast.
Bellies grumbling, we headed down to one of the small noodle houses on Wellington Street at the edge of the Gage St wet market in Central, which judging by the lack of seating was a popular breakfast spot with the locals. Its name was written in Chinese, as was the menu and no one spoke English so I can’t really tell you what this place was called…
We ordered our sour noodle and dumpling soup (27HKD) by pointing to the picture on the board and waited for our number to be called. Or rather, waited for 2 bowls of soup ‘to have here’ to appear on the kitchen counter – obviously we wouldn’t have understood the number calling. The soup was delicious, dumplings divine and portions huge – one bowl would have been plenty to share between two people.
Satisfied with our breakfast choice I went exploring the markets.
I was on the look out for fish, but not just any kind. Penelope Beveridge mentioned to me just before I left that she had seen filleted fish at the markets there which while in pieces still had their hearts beating… and I found them! I’m guessing that’s what you call fresh! It was a little macabre but since it was so close to Halloween, perhaps the sight was a little fitting?
As a last attempt at having something Western after arrival in Shanghai – groom’s home town, Mr Chipconnoisseur and I wandered down to Bar Rouge on the Bund to have a drink and enjoy some bar snack foods. But even the chicken nuggets at this popular rooftop bar with uninterrupted views of the river and Pudong were salt and pepper flavoured, and garnished with fresh Asian herbs…
From now on in we knew we were in for an all Asian culinary adventure, almost of the once in a lifetime kind.
As we explored the historical French Concession area of Luwan the next day, we enjoyed a Thai feast at Tai Thai. Housed within an old multi-storey terrace, the restuarant was cosy and the food was great, especially the green papaya salad, lemongrass squid and green chicken curry – since I was craving a good curry I thoroughly enjoyed it. During lunch we learnt that mint is quite expensive in China, but being the observant foodie that I am I noticed that the restaurant had its own little herb garden on one of the patios with fresh mint, basil, coriander and limes in plentiful supply. Thrifty.
Later that evening we headed out to Asia’s largest indoor go-kart racing track Stampede Karting for a few adrenalin-pumped laps and a few drinks at the upstairs bar turn nightclub. While there is a zero alcohol tolerance on the roads, there seems to be no such rule on the track – beers are included in the karting package.
Since we were all quite full from an over-catered lunch, after the race the bride and groom have decided to treat us to a Shanghainese version of the “midnight kebab”, the lamb skewer at MAO (corner of Wulumuqi Lu and Yuyuan Access Lu). The place was packed but at 2RMB per skewer I am not surprised why. The meat was cooked on an open chargrill dowstairs and fragrant with the far west (for China) spices of paprika and cumin. Very tender tasty and moreish indeed.
By now we have pretty much realised that Chinese hospitality is all about food. And on the last day in Shanghai we were in for a real “treat”. A friend of the groom’s father owns a restaurant and we were all invited to share a meal with the groom’s parents there. All the food at the restaurant was very fresh – fish tanks and containers with live seafood lined the entrance wall, there were even live rabbits in a cage in case anyone left like something different.
Mr Chipconnoisseur stuck with his ususal safe order of cucumber salad and corned beef, while my reputation got me trying, wait for it, live drunken prawns – yes still moving, and another local delicacy marinated cold duck tongues.
The prawns were soaked in a rich wine sauce to get them drunk and slightly passed out. For the first 10 minutes they seemed to wiggle quite a lot in the bowl and splatter the sauce everywhere. They tasted ok, like prawn sashimi with a spicy sauce, but the idea was to put the entire unpeeled prawn in your mouth and suck the meat out.
While I might have been called a Bear Grylls of the food world, THAT was an experience I will never forget nor will I be going out to try again anytime soon. It might have also been the point at which I had decided we should probably go vegetarian a few days a week.
Having said that the steamed fish in spicy sauce was to die for – I just couldn’t get enough of the sauce. So much so that the owner ordered another fish to be brought out toward the end of the lunch. I was soooo full.
The wedding day had finally arrived and we were eager for the celebrations to begin. The Australian guest contingent consisted of about 10, but only three of us had the “Westerner” appearance. This caused a bit of a stir in Nantong, where the bride is originally from. The town, located on the Northern bank of the Yangtze River is about the size of Newcastle and home to around 2 million people in the urban district.
The celebrations started off by the wedding party going to the bride’s house with the groom and some of his closest firends. The girls were getting ready there and it was his job to convince the bride of his worthiness to be her husband by playing a number of guessing games and bribing her with “red pockets” full of money.
Once he suceeded it was time for a tea ceremony with the bride’s parents to ask them for permission to call them mum and dad from now on. Up until now, both have been calling the others’ parents aunt and uncle. Since Mr Chipconnoisseur was giving a speech at the wedding and was considered a guest of honour, we were chosen to join the bride and groom along with their wedding party at the table and treated to a traditional sweet soup with glutinous rice balls and fruit to “celebrate” the beginning of their new life. After this we all went over to the groom’s parents’ place for the bride to present his parents with tea.
Lunch was served shortly after and consisted of a very similar spread as dinner the night before and lunch the day before that. Jelly fish salad, corned beef, garlic cucumbers, caramelised pork, steamed fish in a spicy sauce, stir fry beef, noodle mushroom salad, prawns – cooked this time, sweet buns and fruit. Plus some of the highly potent 52% Wu Liang Ye spirit synonymous with big celebrations such as this.
There are many traditions in China and weddings have plenty of their own. There were 6 cars to take us around, only an even number of passengers was allowed in each car. We were picked up for our first trip at 9:18am and arrived at the bride’s house at 9:48. The cars could never travel backwards or go down on the same road so the route had to be chosen very carefully. The speeches too had to be written out on red paper.
Staying true to traditions, guests were asked to arrive at the wedding venue at 6:18pm for the ceremony to take place at 6:58pm. Our table was adorned with a flower centrepiece which featured Australian flowers and I believe it was the only table in the room to have been given cutlery in additio to chopsticks. There was also red wine by Penfolds which the newlyweds brought in especially for the occassion from Australia as the aforementioned 52% Wu Liang Ye is s a more traditional drink of choice at weddings. In hindsight, considering how strong it is I am not surprised that the reception concluded by 9:30pm.
After the formalities of the ceremony were over, and the newlyweds got busy attending to all of the 300 guests, we were presented with an impressive spread of dishes. Cold starters of jelly fish salad, spicy broadbean and peanuts, mushroom noodle salad, cucumber, corned beef, Peking style duck and marinated plums of some sort preceeded a delicious hot banquet.
My favourite of the evening had to be the caramelised pork hock with spinach and of course braised duck in sticky sweet sauce. There was also black chicken soup, steamed whole fish, lobster, prawns, chicken mushroom soup and hairy crabs. I’d never had a hairy crab before so I was eager to try it, although its hairy legs reminded me a lot of creepy crawlies. All the crabs were tagged for authenticity as there is only one lake in the area that produces “certified” hairy crab. The meat was sweet and succulent but to be honest I have found the crabs to yield too little meat for a lot of effort. There was no wedding cake at the wedding, but instead we were treated to a refreshing platter of fruit to finish off the meal.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed trying almost everything and loved most of the food, I have to admit I was quite pleased to order a Western breakfast of 2 poached eggs with mushrooms, tomato and toast the next morning. But it didn’t take long for my Asian food cravings to come back. By the time we got on the plane home, I was already craving more Asian flavours and opted for the tea smoked duck entree and braised pork belly on Shanghai noodles main on board our Qantas flight home.
On a culinary and cultural front, the trip was a great experience, and one I will never forget.
While Mr Chipconnoisseur enjoyed the same main for his dinner and did really well trying some new foods while away, he asked if for the next week we could just stick with salads, pasta and pizza… I did feel a similar yearning for Western food and have respected his wish, but I can assure you I will be cooking a few dishes inspired by the trip soon. No live praws, though, I promise!