Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chewing a Walking Stick.

Today, February 21st …

The Rotary Club of Nottingham, England held a dinner on this day in 1927, and the club members were addressed by a past president of the Sheffield Rotary Club. It appears that Mr. A. Peters had visited China, for he regaled them with some details of a banquet at which the food seemed most strange to those most English of gentlemen. The address was reported in the newspaper the following day:

‘The following menu of a banquet in China was given … thousand year old eggs, mussels in custard, slugs and seaweed, sharks’ fins, ducks’ giblets, and bamboo sprouts. … Regarding the eggs, Mr. Peters said they might have been only 100, 50, or 10 years old, but that was their title, and they were black. Eating bamboo sprouts was like chewing a walking-stick.’

‘Eating bamboo sprouts was like chewing a walking-stick’ – did Mr. Peters actually attend this banquet? Or, more to the point, did he attend but avoid the bamboo sprouts? Or was he simply telling English gentlemen what they wanted to hear - that Oriental gentlemen really had some odd eating (and presumably other) habits, which clearly indicated a strange (and inferior) culture?

Perhaps Mr. Peters hadn’t the faintest idea what bamboo was, and read up the Oxford English Dictionary beforehand? If he did, he would have discovered that it was ‘A genus of giant-grasses (genus Bambusa), numerous species of which are common throughout the tropics. Also the stem of any of these used as a stick, or as material’. ‘What a good line!’ he may have thought ‘Those strange Chinese eat what we use as walking sticks’.

The first reference to bamboo as a culinary item in the OED is as late as 1889, and it is from none other than Rudyard Kipling, who travelled widely and it appears with an open mind. In Sea to Sea, he describes a meal that includes bamboo-shoots – although this takes place in Japan, not China.

‘After raw fish and mustard-sauce came some other sort of fish cooked with pickled radishes, and very slippery on the chopsticks. The girls knelt in a semicircle and shrieked with delight at the Professor’s clumsiness, for indeed it was not I that nearly upset the dinner table in a vain attempt’ to recline gracefully. After the bamboo-shoots came a basin of white beans in sweet sauce—very tasty indeed. Try to convey beans to your mouth with a pair of wooden knitting-needles and see what happens. Some chicken cunningly boiled with turnips, and a bowlful of snow-white boneless fish and a pile of rice, concluded the meal. I have forgotten one or two of the courses, but when O-Toyo handed me the tiny lacquered Japanese pipe full of hay-like tobacco, I counted nine dishes in the lacquer stand—each dish representing a course. Then O-Toyo and I smoked by alternate pipefuls.

My very respectable friends at all the clubs and messes, have you ever after a good tiffin lolled on cushions and smoked, with one pretty girl to fill your pipe and four to admire you in an unknown tongue? You do not know what life is. I looked round me at that faultless room, at the dwarf pines and creamy cherry blossoms without, at O-Toyo bubbling with laughter because I blew smoke through my nose, and at the ring of Mikado maidens over against the golden-brown bearskin rug. Here was colour, form, food, comfort, and beauty enough for half a year’s contemplation.’


America appears to have been far more broad-minded about Chinese cuisine than the English – probably because of it had a significant Chinese population. There were even a few cookbooks featuring Chinese recipes published in the early part of the twentieth century. In 1914 the Chinese-Japanese Cook Book was published in America. The authors acknowledged that the recipes were modifications of ‘native dishes’, so that they would appeal to the Western palate – which pretty well excluded recipes for thousand-year old eggs it seems, for there are none in the book. There is however a very elegant and elegantly-named recipe for stuffed eggs, which I give below. American palates were also clearly not intimidated by edible walking sticks, and several recipes include bamboo shoots.

Tamago Bolan (Peony Eggs)
Boil five eggs hard. Place in cold water. Remove shells carefully, so as not to blemish whites. Carefully cut off top with thread, one end between teeth, the other between fingers, drawing thread through egg. Remove the yolks. Boil a small pink snapper (fish) in hot water for ten minutes, or steam for thirty. Remove all bones and fins, and chop together until fine. Mix with finely mashed miso, pepper, and salt. Chop yolks daintily and fluffily, and mix with fish meat. Fill the whites with this mixture. Now place the filled whites in center of a lettuce head and arrange fine strips of udo shoots round it. To fix lettuce head properly, all the leaves should be carefully adjusted and separated, washed, and then put back into shape again. It looks now like a bouquet, and is held together with toothpicks.

[UPDATE: Helen in Japan informs me "thought you'd like to know that the Japanese for peony is "botan" rather than "bolan". Worn type in an old book could easily produce a misreading, even supposing it got into the original source correctly! I'm not familiar with this particular dish, though the minced fish sounds very similar to an Edo period recipe I have for "strawberries" in soup - the strawberries are formed from a paste of minced prawns and served in clear soup with a few greens at the top of each strawberry. In the order, "Botan Tamago" the name is more commonly given these days to an egg poached in a paper cocotte or fried so that the white forms soft "petals" around the yolk."

Thanks to Helen for this. I have checked the online cookbook at the Feeding America site, and it does say "bolan" - so a typo, OCR error or translation error? ]

Fried Bamboo Shoots.
Take one can of bamboo shoots and drain off all water. Wipe the bamboo shoots dry, and slice in long thin strips. Have ready boiling peanut oil, and toss the shoots into that. Cook until crisp. Delicious. Must be eaten hot.

Tomorrow’s Story …

Grapefruit with Oysters?

On this Topic …

The Chinese-Japanese Cook Book can be found online at the Feeding America site. We have considered ‘Chop Suey’ in an earlier story, in which we included several other recipes from this interesting cookbook.

A Previous Story for this Day …

We discussed the Shrove Tuesday tradition of the Pancake Race on this day last year.

Quotation for the Day …

You don't sew with a fork, so I see no reason to eat with knitting needles. Miss Piggy, on eating Chinese Food.

1 comment:

Nene Adams said...

It's my understanding that 'thousand-year eggs' take about 100 days to produce (the raw eggs are cured in a mixture of alkaline clay, salt, water and other things as I recall), and taste somewhat like avocado. They're pretty odd looking. BTW, the myth that thousand-year eggs are produced by soaking them in horse urine is totally false.