How does a scorpion taste
Scorpio to sea cucumber: this is how I ate China
After what felt like the fifth, but actually only the third time "Ganbei!", My counterpart is finally satisfied, bows briefly and says: "Thank you very much!" I also bow, mumble "You are welcome" and praise the Chinese Friendliness. Immediately afterwards, I also think to myself that we are far too seldom thanked for having just drunk three glasses of schnapps.
Kerosene with chloroform, 70 percent
Well, Maotai, which can have up to 70 percent thanks to multiple distillation, is not just any schnapps either. The wheat and millet schnapps taste like kerosene (supposedly said by Henry Kissinger) mixed with chloroform (I mean). "Ganbei", on the other hand, is the most important word that I will learn on my first trip to the heart of the Middle Kingdom. It means something like "to drink up completely" or in puberty Austrian "ex or asshole". Ganbei and Maotai will be the two constant companions on this banquet tour through China.
To be more precise, the trail of food led across Henan. This is a Chinese province south of Beijing, twice the size of Austria, with just under 100 million inhabitants. Henan is also considered to be the cultural cradle of China: the Chinese writing was invented there as well as Zen Buddhism and Shaolin Kung Fu. Confucius lived in the area and so did Laotse. The I Ching also comes from the area.
Water banquet in 24 courses
And then there are also a few culinary inventions such as the water banquet. This is particularly popular in the metropolis of Luoyang, the international center of peony cultivation. The water banquet consists of a total of 24 courses (for the 24 years in which Luoyang was the capital of the empire) and is so named for several reasons: First, the dishes are served in a continuous flow one after the other on the rotating round table. Then almost everything is prepared with steam. Or as a soup. And there is almost always a carp (preferably in soy sauce) with them.
Apart from the round turntable, the literally unbelievable amount of food (a book about the region has the excellent advice to invite eight friends and not to eat everything yourself), the fish served as a whole is another typical characteristic of Chinese cuisine: During where the original carcass is made as invisible as possible by filleting and other techniques, people in China like to remember what it was that they were eating.
Chicken head and leg salad
In the case of the chicken salad, for which the megacity of Anyang, a little further north, is famous, the parts of the animal are arranged on the serving plate in such a way that the bird becomes visible: the wing pieces on the side, the legs in the back - and in the front at the top of the easily recognizable one Chicken head. Marinated, the elegantly arranged pile of chicken pieces is very economical, and it really tastes delicious.
It is said that in China you eat everything that has four legs (except a table and armchair), what flies (except airplanes) and swims (except submarines). I cannot confirm this, but I cannot rule it out completely either. Because it is not always clear what is on the turntable with mayors and other officials at the at least lunchtime and evening banquets (once with around 30 breakfast-like dishes for our palates) with mayors and other officials.
For example, the roughly chopped frogs that were in a large saucepan with chilli sauce might also have been fishy chicken. After all: dogs and similar animals were never mentioned. Which means nothing, because communication is a real problem. After all, we found out afterwards that the meat, marinated with lots of peppers, came from the donkey. With the pig's foot, on the other hand, it was easy to see what it was all about. The thing looks so real, of course, that one hesitates again.
Since hospitality is very important in China, the official journalist delegation can enjoy the finest, best and most expensive - at least for the Chinese from Henan. The problem for us is that the price of the food correlates very strongly with what we perceive to be, well, rather unusual. And so there was always a good swallow not only because of the abundance of food on offer and the Maotai ("Ganbei!").
For example the fried scorpions on Reisberg. The specimens, which are probably rather young, are not much larger than grasshoppers and look pretty much alive. Good for the knee, says our head of delegation at the table. Yes then: let's get down with it. The animals essentially turn out to be somewhat fishy, airy, and crispy. They are of course eaten whole. And after the third scorpion (accompanied by Maotai, Ganbei!) One wonders if that might not also be useful as a TV snack.
Gummy cucumber from the sea
When it comes to unusual things from the sea, I have the dubious enjoyment of several sea cucumbers, which for the Chinese are among the most expensive and healthiest things the kitchen has to offer. I say clearly: Well. First, the rubbery consistency of the dog-rubble-sized thing takes getting used to. And the fact that it's served in a kind of gravy doesn't make things much better, but probably doesn't make things worse either. The fact that the whole thing is served in half a hollowed-out papaya is at least very nice to look at.
The way of serving abalone was similarly peculiar, i.e. the thing that is also known as abalone or sea snail and is not a shell, although it looks like it at first glance. There wasn't much left to taste from the sea. The East Asian specialty came double-boiled in a more than intense oxtail soup.
Shark stomach & hot cola
Another specialty from the sea was served at another banquet in the megacity of Kaifeng: shark stomachs. I missed dinner, of course, because I had ruined mine for a short time - probably with water that had been contaminated with bacteria.
Which brings me to the practical tip. At the strict order of our Chinese tour guide, I was able to enjoy a special medicinal drink that does not correspond to the very traditional Chinese medicine, but which I can recommend here: hot cola with a good portion of ginger and probably some cardamom.
This not only helped me acutely, but also the whole group in terms of prevention. She had to take the drink regularly at the banquets as an aperitif, so to speak. The amazing thing: even notorious fans of a cold German Pils could make friends with the hot cola, which makes and keeps you healthy.
In an emergency, of course, there is always a glass of Maotai in between, which is of course associated with a problem. The not very expensive Maotai evokes violent belching, even hours afterwards. And every airy echo from the stomach tastes and is allowed to be just like Maotai, i.e. like a mixture of kerosene and chloroform. I bet the burps are highly flammable and can cause serious explosions.
Amazingly little burps
Speaking of burps. Surprisingly little was heard from the hosts. However, sitting right next to a Chinese man sipping a soup or a whole fried egg poses a certain challenge acoustically. But "Ganbei!", Which you cannot avoid at official meals, helps here too.
For the hosts, it is common practice to circle the table at least once and toast with all the guests. So if you want to make a difference in Chinese politics, you need appropriate drinkability. The further up, the higher the alcohol tolerance, an insider explains.
Handkerchief? Does not send itself
Conversely, there are of course a few things that the Chinese find extremely horrible about us. Blowing your nose in a handkerchief at the table and putting it back in again is pretty much the worst faux pas you can ever commit. In the Middle Kingdom, people prefer to suck up the slime and spit it out - of course not at the table.
Which, however, does not protect against certain nose problems. Just recently, a 73-year-old Chinese man, who was probably only teasing, was pulled out of the nose by the doctor - and that was not invented - a ten-centimeter-long leech, which had spread undisturbed there. But that's another story entirely.
More travel impressions from Henan soon in the "Travel" section.
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