Sunday, January 23, 2011

Global food

Two of the most common questions I have been getting over the last four years since I started coming to China regularly, are: Can you get used to eating this? And How come you know how to use chopsticks? Both questions always come with just the right amount of naiveté, pride, and disbelief. In a country where many people are still yet to "see a foreigner," it is warranted that some Chinese people still remain in the dark about the cultures and ways of the rest of the world. For a country, that heralds its raising profile to become the next super power, its people sure are still bugged down with antiquated stereotypes about different cultures. I write this not to complain or with anti-Chinese sentiment, but rather from the perspective of a person less mesmerized by economic indicators.

How I normally respond to those questions is: this food is not that different from stuff we get in Mexico or the US, and we sometimes also use chopsticks to eat. Every time, I answered annoyed and not thinking much about the implications of the questions. However, a couple of days ago that all changed and I finally understood why these foods taste familiar and some of the assumptions of people about the "west."

Just after a month of eating only Chinese food, we went to a German inspired Brazilian-rodizio style microbrewery and buffet to have Mexican meat. In the US and Mexico, I try to maintain vegetarian mostly for ecological reasons. China is different, because there is no real concept of vegetarianism amongst the non-religious population and therefore everything is made with some type of meat or its stock. Buddhist Chinese who keep vegetarian eat at home or at special restaurants near temples. Xi'an is unique, in the sense that it has a large Muslim population and therefore Hallal restaurants abound but they also serve meat, mostly lamb. The idea of going to a grill sounded horrible at first, but I could not decline, as it was an invitation by a friend. She had made a point of finding a restaurant that would serve something Mexican, so I would not miss home. She imagined that a month without my own food would have me ready to leave China; she had experienced a similar frustration over a four-month visit to Baltimore eating only "American" food.

Now, after understanding a couple of things that was one of the most interesting cultural experiences I have had in China. But before I start Orientalizing my hosts, let me paint a scene for you of this "western" style restaurant for you. A disclaimer, the term "western" refers to food from Europe and the US. Basically anything not considered Asia. Chinese describe everything this way and pose their own culture vis-a-vis assumptions about what the "west" is like. My question is always if Mexico is considered part of the west, and while sometimes it is also described as such, most times it is not. Mexico is mostly known for its immigration problem and spicy food, both cultural references popularized in US media.

The place is called Golden Hans Restaurant and the logo of this chain steak grill is a caricature of a Bavarian German dressed in traditional attire. The restaurant is in a two story-high building on the east of city inside of the Xi'an Wall. The place houses two brewing thanks and they serve a lager and a dark beer on tap. The service is a buffet of mainly Chinese dishes like noodles, rice, cooked vegetables, fish skins, soups, and a very large dessert table full of little cakes and muffins. The meat is all done with spades, like giant skewers, that are grilled and you can get 32 different types of meats, including chicken hearts, beef tongue, Canadian bacon, and small sausages. The Mexican meat was a pork sausage that was partially smoked before it was grilled.

We arrived around 7pm and got pints of dark beer. The first thing I notice was that the table setting had a fork and a knife instead of chopsticks and no cups for tea. The place was filled with families and groups of young guys out for the night. My friend's husband and I could not communicate with each other as he only speaks Chinese and I still don't speak the language, so we decided to let the others talk without constantly translating and head over to the buffet table. There, I picked everything that looked "western" and my friend everything that looked Chinese. I went for kidney beans, fried rice, spaghetti, and slices of watermelon. He went for fish skins, lotus roots, aspic, and noodles. Once back at the table, my plate was full of small pieces of meat that the guys with the spades had been cutting and serving. The entire feeling of the place was like a Brazilian rodizio, but we had no signs to stop service of the meat. Since, my friends didn't like the dark beer, we ordered a large pitcher of lager and starting eating. As the conversation started being all in Chinese, I had time to get distracted and look around at the other tables. The table next to us had two young couples and they also had gotten the dark beer, but the pints remained untouched after the first sip. Also they were not using their fork and knife to eat, they had asked the server for chopsticks. I quickly turner around and looked at my friends and asked my husband to translate: How come you know how to use a fork and knife? After the normal delay for the translation, they all laughed as they realized how the opposite question sounds to me.

This turned the conversation into the differences between Chinese and western restaurants. They wanted to know if this place was like restaurants in the US or in Mexico. We explained that this was a mix of many styles of restaurants and describe the parts that felt specific to each place. The Brazilian rodizio, the American buffet, the Canadian microbrewery, the German attires, the French desserts and how it all together felt like an amusement park. On the way back home, I kept thinking about the foods that I miss. Hummus, frijoles refritos, salsa verde, grits, samosa chat and obviously cheese are on the top of my list. When I'm in the US or in Mexico, I always miss proper dumplings, hand made noodles, and buns. They too have become part of the foods that I normally eat and now consider my cuisine. For as much as I like to eat only local and seasonal, there is something about global flavors that is very attractive. I guess this exposes how bougie I am and won't try to apologize for it. I just know that when the food revolution comes, I will still try to replicate the flavors of my adoptive countries.

The picture on top is of an Ice Peak orange soda. It is made in Xi'an and it is everywhere, you can read more about it here.

There is a wonderful academic essay on the use of chopsticks and enjoyment of food. Here is the reference: Roland Barthes, “Chopsticks,” from Empire of Signs. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982).

Also, as promised, here are some pics of various foods: Xi'an restaurants. Since there is no access in China to twitter from my mobile device, I have been using foursquare to tag the restaurants we normally eat at and I recommend. You can check those updates by following me on twitter @CarlosYescas

On other news. I am happy to inform that I have been approached by the Cheese Slices program to film an episode about Mexican traditional cheese-making. I will keep you posted on that, but until then, please let us know what cheeses from Mexico you would like to see featured. Here are some of the ones that I have reviewed: Quesillo o Queso de Hebra,
 Queso de Bola de Ocosingo,
 Queso de Cuadro Doble Crema, and
 Queso tipo Manchego.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Cheese of the Week: Yellow Valley Gouda style

The label reads "Traditional Dutch Farmhouse," but it is made in Shanxi Province in China. So what does it mean to be traditional Dutch? and how about being a Gouda? The true is that this Chinese cheese should not be considered either, but rather a very good example of the what is possible to produce with good milk, salt and cheesemaking expertise.

The cheese (original flavor) is yogurty, more like an American Brick than a Dutch Gouda, with a good amount of salt coming from the rind. It has small eyes in the paste resembling a semi-hard rather than a hard cheese and the aroma is fragrant but a little sterile. Marc de Ruiter the cheesemaker, prides himself of a very clean production and definitely the cheese did not give any off smells from unwelcome bacteria. I also tried the 'italian" flavor, which has tomato and other spices, while it was less salty it was a little dryer making more a grating cheese than a table cheese. Overall, Yellow Valley is a good cheese that could use less salt and should be eaten a young age. It melts fast, making it a great option to add tor a "western" style meal (pasta, sandwiches, mashed potatoes) and if in China you should look for it.

The story of Yellow Valley is easy, you can read it in their website, a Dutchman move to China to support local sustainable farming and had a passion for Goudas of his native land. He started making cheese from an old recipe, pays above market prices for milk, and takes care of the people and animals who have decided to join him in producing this cheese. The story feels familiar because most cheeses of the Americas have a similar story. What is truly unique about this cheese is that its market depends almost a 100% percent on it being consumed by foreigners in a country with no cheese eating culture. Therefore the production is small, but the opportunity for expansion is huge if ever more Chinese people start incorporating cheese into their diets. Here a video about that potential posted by The Cheese Goddess from Chinese english TV.

However, what interested me about Yellow Valley is less about its market potential and more about an interesting way of approaching a common problem. Increasingly, the lifestyles of small farmers around the world are being eliminated by our reliance on the production of food by conglomerates. This means that the small guy is pushed out because of unfair competition from large corporations receiving large subsidies in the form of tax incentives, artificial low oil prices for production and transportation, and unlimited access to high-interest credit for consumers.

The story of Marc de Ruiter is similar to that of other in the cheese world who have moved around the world to help small dairy farmers develop a better market for their milk and have turned into cheesemaking as a real possibility. To mind comes Joseph Dubach, who taught Bill Hogan (West Cork Natural Cheese Company) maker of Desmond and Gabriel in Ireland to make cheese in Costa Rica. Other stories are those documented by The What Took You So Long Foundation in Africa about camel cheesemaking.

I hope to visit Marc soon and learn more about his work, but for now I have three wheels of his cheese which are great for snacking and taking a break from noodles and other Chinese food.