Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Chinese Bill of Fare.

I have another traveller’s tale for you today. It is from Five Years in China: From 1842 to 1847, by Frederick Edwyn Forbes. Forbes was a British Naval Officer famous for the rescue of an orphaned child princess who was intended as a human sacrifice by West African slave-raiders, in the kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin.)  Forbes gave the child the name Sara Forbes Bonetta (the last name after his ship of the time.) Forbes persuaded the King of Dahomey to present the child to Queen Victoria as “a gift from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.”

Before his stint in Dahomey, Forbes spent several years in China, hence the lengthy memoir which is to be our source for the day. On the subject of food in the country, he wrote:

The Chinese bill of fare may be said to include everything animal and vegetable that nature will digest, together with some few items of minerals, with the exception of milk and its preparations. It is only for the use of foreigners that cows and goats are ever milked, but otherwise no part of the animal is lost; but when one is killed the blood is carefully collected, the hair is removed, and the skin, and offal, apportioned in lots and sold.
Poultry, game, and fish, all kinds of grains, vegetables, fruits, are to be had in the different parts of the empire, abundant in quantity and excellent in quality. Some, together with the dishes made from them, were new to me; such, for instance, was the King of Cabbages, indigenous to the Shangtung province, which would form a splendid acquisition in England to the cattle grazier; it is a thick-set cabbage, perfectly white, and so close that when required to be kept, removing an outside leaf or two about once a week, will make it last for many months; it has found its way I hear to Paris, where it is known as the "Chou de Nankin.'' It is used as a simple vegetable cooked or "au naturel," or in winter a most excellent mild salad, and the Chinese salt and pickle both this and other cabbages, and make a kind of sour krout. It frequently weighs twenty pounds. In the south is a species of orange called the Kin-kengh, or Kum-kwat, very small and of very high flavour; in size and shape it resembles a pigeon'segg, it is eaten, skin and all, and when preserved makes a very fine marmalade. In the Fu-kien province is the hand citron somewhat resembling a hand, with a multitude of fingers. The Loquat, a yellow fruit, with a most velvet skin, has four or more stones, and a most peculiar flavour which an acquired taste only can admire. The Liche is a most delicious melting mouthful, the outside shell must be burst first, it grows in clusters, and is not unlike a strawberry in appearance but in nothing else. Most European and tropical fruits flourish in different parts of the country, according to the climate, and a large trade in fruits is carried on by means of junks, these are mostly preserved in different modes, moist and dry, whole and in shreds, with vinegar or sugar, which latter, in the province of Fo-kien, and the island of Formosa, is grown and manufactured in high perfection, but is never used to sweeten tea. Honey is abundant, oils are extracted from the olive, sesame, cotton-seed, several kinds of cabbage, pork-fat, and fish, which, together with the castoroil, are all used for culinary purposes; the use of the latter for any purpose other than a medicine, is, I should suppose, peculiar to the Chinese; it is expressed through a cullender, and when fresh has not the aroma that it afterwards acquires. Ducks'eggs are in great requisition, and in order to meet the demand for them great numbers are kept on all the navigable rivers and canals, in floating poultry houses. They are under very remarkable discipline, they go out to feed, and return home with wonderful expedition, and at a word from their masters will do almost anything that can be required of them; he stands meanwhile at the entrance, and flogs the straggler, and rewards the foremost. They are never allowed to hatch their own eggs, almost all towns having ovens for that purpose. The eggs of all birds are used, but those of the ducks are salted in the shells, as is the flesh also, for sea stores. Considerable quantities of fish are salted and dried; the collared eel is very fine, but none are thrown away, blubber even is eaten, as are water snakes, frogs, toads, shell-fish of every species, tortoises, snails, gelatinous worms, and lizards.
The various grains are used in making unleavened bread, not unlike a muffin in appearance, cooked on the side of a portable oven, and generally by steam, together with pastry of divers sorts, among which are some very similar to European, as wafers, sponge-cakes, &c, which would be palatable enough were it not for the introduction of a lump of pork fat, discoverable only by the uninitiated, at a most disagreeable period. The introduction of pork-fat into these articles of Chinese gastronomy is universal and disgusting.
Imported are Ginseng, a kind of liquorice, which was formerly a royal monopoly, and could only be grown on the Emperor's property in the north, but has latterly been introduced from Canada, and some parts of the United States; and birds'-nests of the sea-swallow, a transparent substance, in appearance somewhat resembling a gum, reckoned a great delicacy, and sold at very high prices. I have seen four or five when very clear, weighing only three or four ounces each, sell for thirty dollars. They are brought from the islands of the Eastern Archipelago, as likewise are Beches-de-mer, or sea-slugs, brown looking snails about six or seven inches long. They are an expensive luxury as are  the exotic dainties of roes, sounds, tripe, fins, and tails of sharks. In fact, a Chinaman will eat everything but his own father. Great art is shewn in dressing all these delicacies; the cookery is perhaps a little richer than most English palates would relish, but some of the stews, soups, and made dishes are excellent, and a good dinner may be eaten and relished if no questions be asked.

Forbes’ recollections and insights will be continued tomorrow.

As our recipe for the day, I give you something really nasty which shows how the concept of  “Chinese Food” was interpreted in the West in the nineteenth century:

Chop Sin (Chinese)
Take chickens’ and ducks’ livers, gizzards, and hearts, and cut them into dice; some fried fresh pork, celery, asparagus tops, bamboo shoots, dried mushrooms, and greens, and cut them up into convenient-sized pieces; pour over it some good gravy, then put it in a spider and fry it.

National Viands a la Mode (1895) by Mrs De Salis.

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