Tonight I’m cooking roast chicken for dinner. The raw bird I bought earlier in Metro says ‘Roast Chicken’ in English on the packaging which means that it comes without its head, neck and feet, in other words, specially prepared for westerners who can’t face the full animal. After 18 months of surviving with only the two fiercesome gas rings on our hob, we gave in and bought a table top electric oven, (Red Tomato brand) so that we could occasionally indulge in those foods we miss, roast meats among them.
Last weekend I prepared another western style meal for the dozen or so friends who came round to celebrate my graduation. The main event was steamed salmon and I was amused to watch the reaction of the Chinese people who were among the guests. They ate a small piece politely, but I could tell they didn’t think much of it. I asked my Chinese teacher a couple of days later what she thought of it. It’s expensive, she remarked, and we find it a bit ‘dan’淡. The word she used translates as weak, insipid or bland. Another problem is that the lack of bones which makes salmon so appealing to the western palate is exactly why Chinese people find it so boring. It lacks ‘mouthfeel’ (i.e. bones and crunchiness). Still, she said, encouragingly, it’s always good to try out different foods. (She had only just survived the shock of tasting gorgonzola, a bit of an ask for someone who has never eaten cheese before I suppose). I think another problem was that as my teacher comes to our flat three times a week she had observed the preparations for the party and was secretly horrified that the salmon was cooked a day in advance. Freshness is all in Chinese cuisine and everything is cooked pretty much just before it is eaten.
We have been invited to my Chinese teacher’s wedding next weekend and I will be very interested to see what we are given to eat. We are only attending the first lunch party at the bride’s family’s village, about 90 minutes away in the mountains outside Ningbo. The meal will be in the ancestral hall and we have been warned to wear warm clothing as there will be no heating.
On the other hand my friend from the Faroe Islands was very pleased with the party menu as the salmon came from her native land. I know this because as a cash and carry Metro sells whole salmon which lie on their bed of ice with a ticket through their gills which proclaims their origin. Apparently, the export of Faroe Islands salmon has much increased since the Chinese fell out with the Norwegians over the awarding of the Nobel prize to a Chinese dissident.
Straight after my graduation ceremony, and the ritual of the group photograph outside in the sunshine, complete with throwing our mortarboards into the air, we went to have lunch in the student canteen on campus. Our friend, another Dean, joined us. Although also a secondee from Nottingham, he is a fluent Chinese speaker and his job is to read out the names at the ceremony, something from which Fintan is exempt. My name didn’t cause him much trouble, he told us. Although every Chinese student has an English name which they use every day at UNNC, come graduation their parents want to hear their child’s Chinese name. This means the person reading them out must practise hundreds of different names, each with three characters. Each character could have one of four tones.
I have to admit that this was the first time I’d ever ventured into a student canteen (there are three). The serried ranks of electric steamers which sterilised the chopsticks especially intrigued me. Any time I’d wanted a snack or coffee over the last two years I’d always gone to Aroma, the café set up in the basement of the main admin building for westerners (staff and students) desperate for a cappuccino and a sandwich. The food on offer in the canteen was apparently better than usual, the more to impress visiting parents, and a huge buffet was on offer. Lots of mouthfeel, especially from the different kinds of fish, but my chopstick skills still haven’t improved sufficiently for me to relish filleting a small flat fish and managing to get most of the flesh into my mouth without embarrassment. I much prefer salmon.