Qingping traditional medicine market

I’d heard it said a few times that “In Guangdong they eat anything with four legs except the table”. Even that hadn’t prepared me for the Qingping market. There was the initial shock of the animal trade, but after that was a mysteriously multiplying menu of medicine.

I could identify beans and mushrooms in large varieties, but as I moved on I found dried tendons of deer, sun-dried penis of animals, huge bundles of dried starfish, sea horses and other marine products I could not put a name to. In the last 10 years there have been multiple studies of bacterial contamination of the dried sea food, and the results do say that some caution is called for.

The rows and rows of shops seems to have been here for more years than you can count. Guide books talk of a big clean up after the 2003 SARS outbreak. But the four story building in the middle of this sprawling road, which houses as many shops as the street outside, was completed in 1979. The rental for space here apparently is a percentage of the sales. It seemed to me that most of the shops inside the building concentrate on wholesale, whereas the ones outside are clearly more interested in the retail trade. I found it confusing in detail, but the general ambience was very familiar from markets in India.

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Food heaven in Guangzhou

Casting about for one, just one, place to spend a few days in China, we decided on Guangzhou for one simple reason: the food. When you look at lists of Michelin starred restaurants in China, about half of them feature Cantonese food. The food of Guangdong is famous even inside China. Normally I do all the reading about food and restaurants, but this time The Family spent some time looking at descriptions and reviews of restaurants. I left Mumbai with notes on about ten restaurants which we might like to visit.

We found a hotel in the Liwan district of Guangzhou and were surprised to find that several of our top choices were within walking distance. Our first lunch was in the restaurant named after the city, Guangzhou, on the Shangxiajiu pedestrian street. This is a very popular place. A soon as we entered, we were asked whether we wanted lunch or dim sum. We opted for lunch and were given a table on the ground floor. We struggled with the enormous menu, flipping back and forth, until a couple at a neighbouring table offered to help.

The photo above shows the excellent goose that we took on their advise. They spoke excellent English, and turned out to be residents of Hong Kong. They were in Guangzhou for a lunch to celebrate their anniversary. Since the train between Hong Kong and Guangzhou takes only an hour, this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. That someone would come from Hong Kong specially to this restaurant for their anniversary was as good a recommendation as you could get.

One of the things I like about Cantonese food is the freshness of the ingredients. The sauces are not heavy, and they allow the meat to speak for itself. I also like the huge variety of vegetables that one can get. We went back to this restaurant again the same night. In the absence of our serendepitious guide, an English speaking waiter came to help us. When we had finished ordering he asked whether we might want some vegetables. Of course. We quickly added a plate of steamed cabbage to the order (photo above).

The dish of the night was the tofu and shrimp dish which you see above. This has entered our personal history, when we sigh sadly about food that we would like to eat, but we cannot, this is the dish that we talk about now. It was a surprise, because this is not a combination that I could have predicted that I would like. Food in Guangzhou restaurant is not the kind you find in a Michelin starred place; it is not heavy on presentation. Whatever we ate seemed like old favourites. They should be, since the restaurant has become somewhat of an institution since it opened its doors in 1935. There are now many branches of this restaurant but this three story place is where it started.

I seriously thought of having every one of my meals in this restaurant, but The Family was quite stern about trying more places on our list. So I had to leave with a few photos of its famous indoor pool. The one you see above was taken from the third floor.

Food and drink in Anhui

Anhui province is more famous for its Yellow Mountain than for its food. But even unknown food can be quite interesting. The most interesting thing I ate in Anhui was a fried stinky tofu. Ever since I met Menschterkaas in my formative years, I don’t pass up a chance to have a new stinky cheese. Anhui’s stinky fried tofu is something special. Its furry appearance, the wonderful mouthful of aroma it releases on first bite, and its creamy texture make for a delightful snack. Unfortunately I was so involved in this plate of mixed grilled and fried hairy tofu that I completely forgot to take photos. I will have to refer you to another source for images.

This was the first time I let go of the life raft of sausages and bread, and sank into a sea of Chinese breakfast. On my first day I loaded my plate with a mixture of Chinese vegetables and more familiar sausages and eggs. The mushrooms, beans, and cabbage were so tasty that I struck out into the deep waters of yam, runner beans and noodle soups. Yoghurt came out of a machine, runny enough to be drunk out of a bowl. Melons, watermelon, oranges and pineapple were breakfast staples, wonderfully juicy and sweet.

Working lunches in China tend to be large, and I had to learn to control my tendency to eat everything that I see, so that I could be in tune with The Family’s needs for dinner. We found a lot of variety. Mandarin fish is an Anhui specialty, and I found it excellent. I like the presentation of fish in China. A braised fish is opened out on to a plate to make it easy to pick at it with chopsticks. The Family had brought a fork and a spoon in her checked baggage, but forgot to ever slip them into her handbag. Instead she resorted to manipulating a soup spoon in one hand and using a chopstick as a knife in the other. I chickened out of this bold experiment and practiced the traditional Chinese eating style.

Eating Chinese food in the rest of the world does not prepare you for the variety and amount of vegetables eaten in China with every meal. If we ever ordered a couple of proteins and rice for a meal, the waitress would always remind us to choose vegetables. Ever since we consciously decided to increase the amount of fiber in our daily food, The Family and I have begun to take special notice of the vegetables we eat. China was an eye-opener. Perhaps it was because we were new to it, but we liked the variety of vegetables available at every restaurant. I don’t know whether the plate you see in the photo above is a regional specialty, but it does give you an idea of how vegetables are usually prepared.

Chicken can be surprising when it is served. It is common to serve the whole animal; I’d noticed this earlier with fish, duck, and pigeon. Our order of chicken came with the full chicken deconstructed on the plate: the crackly skin served on the side of the plate with the meat in the center, and most surprisingly, the head standing upright.

Although China is not famous for its desserts, we found that a wide variety of imports have become regular parts of menus. We really liked the caramel custard which you see in the featured photo. It was served on a bed of frozen milk. That’s a combination I’ve never seen before, but one which I would like to try out again. The key seems to be freezing it very fast before it crystallizes. Did that need liquid nitrogen, or was a blast chiller good enough?

“Ancient well palace drink” is a specialty of Anhui province. Apparently brewed from sorghum using the famously sweet water of an ancient well, the drink was sent as a tribute to the last Han emperor Xian. Since this history is from the 2nd century CE, the well must have long gone dry, and the recipe must have been modified in the intervening two millennia. A bottle opened in the middle of a dinner can often result in an extended evening. I tried a fifteen year old version, but found that I liked the smoothness of the twenty six year old much better. The difference in price is not inconsiderable, but it is well worth the investment.

Dinnertime in the old market

When we got out of the Temple of the City God in Shanghai, it was about 5 in the evening. This is about the time that a typical person in China would be thinking of dinner. It was our first evening in China, and our bodies were still two hours behind. We decided to go with the body clock and treat this as tea time. Our plane would leave at 11 at night, giving us a clear six hours more to finish our dinner.

We walked through the spectacular food market (gallery above) peering at the food on display in various stalls. I always think that it must be extremely tiring to man these little stalls of food. It must take a wonderful person to keep one’s smile while serving hundreds in an evening. I did catch the tiredness on the faces of people behind the counters, but I was distracted by the variety of food on display. Many things were familiar, but the plates of desserts threw me. I saw something like a custard tart, a Portuguese Pasteis de Nata. I had one later in the trip; it was comparable to the ones I’d eaten in Belem and Sintra. The Family and I chose something that we had no referents for, the green and pink blocks which you see when you click on the photos of the desserts. They were wonderful; very mildly sweet like all desserts in China, made of rice and beans. We had to choose one out of all the things on display, and we did not regret our choice.

Wild walnut cake

After lunch we wanted something sweet, and a box of walnut cake seemed to be just the thing. Between the two of us, The Family and I polished off a neat dozen of these little cakes. The machine which made them was quite as fascinating as the cakes themselves.

Was the machine as old as the shop? I couldn’t get that question across. If you took Hans Christian Andersen as a historical source, then you would believe that automation in China is very old. Blind faith in fairy tales may be dangerous, though. This robot looked like a Rube Goldberg device, but actually got the job done quite efficiently.

I also liked the sales patter from the man who attends to the machine, and the sing-song patter that you can hear on the soundtrack. That came from another worker in the same establishment.

Chinese food (of sorts)

If you noticed that my responses to comments was a little late and terse recently and wondered why, here’s the answer. I spent a couple of weeks traveling in China. The Family and I reached Shanghai late at night. By the time we checked into the hotel, there was only one dinner option which did not involve much walking. You may not think of a trio of sausages with sauerkraut as Chinese food, but I temporarily went by the principle that any food which you find in China is Chinese food.

Looking through the menu I found a beer on tap called Goose Island. I hadn’t tasted this before. It turned out to have an interesting bitter and sweet taste. A quick scamper through a tunnel in the great firewall showed that it is brewed in Chicago. Gulp! The Family, busy with a mushroom soup and garlic bread, asked “This is comfort food for you, isn’t it?” Strangely enough, it is.

It was late. We were tired and sleepy. But this was Shanghai. Even though the night temperature would have been unbearably cold in Mumbai, we took a stroll through the deserted streets of a city which we don’t mind going back to. A few people hurried by, hands deep in pockets. We stopped in front of a kiosk selling sour plum soup. “Maybe tomorrow”, The Family murmured. We walked back to the hotel. The next day was going to be long.

Goodbye to Madurai

Madurai shares with cities like Patna, Banaras, Ujjain and Mathura, the distinction of being among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. I use the word city quite deliberately here, because in every era, starting about 2700 to 2500 years ago, when travelers describe these places, they are called cities.

Although I’d spent a while living in Chennai, I’d not explored Tamil Nadu much. The heart of the Tamil cultural landscape, Madurai, was a whole new experience, and one that I realized I could grow to love. Some of the reasons are the food you get in Madurai. I’ve written about Chettinad food already. Here is another example: a signboard that might be hard to find in Chennai, and, increasingly, in the rest of India: “Sri Balaji Evening Mutton Stall”.

The street food of Madurai has to be tasted to be believed. The Family and I have fond memories of idli and vada with sambar and three kinds of chutney in a little hole in the wall in the old town called “Murugan’s Ildi Shop”, laddu and murukku from a stall inside the Meenakshi temple, coffee and biscuits at numerous stalls across the city, not to mention two wonderful lunches at two different “messes”. In the photo above you see a place where Sathiamoorthy took us to taste Tirunalveli halwa, a mildly sweet and oily halwa wrapped in banana leaves. Many blogs advised us not to miss this, and we are happy to pass on the recommendation.

Part of the fun in Madurai was having Sathiamoorthy drive us up to places we would not have thought to try eating in. We have seldom had the luck to travel with a driver like him.

Friendly food stalls

Walking about Madurai, I found that people notice you with a camera. Although Madurai is a big draw for tourists, most people are not as blase about tourists as people from south Mumbai. I spotted this trio chatting as they manned a fruit stall and thought I would take a photo quietly. Not possible. They turned their attention to me. It makes for a nice photo, but I can’t decide whether the other photo would have been better.

Nearby was this bakery. I caught this man unawares, but now I’m not sure that this has come out well. I’m a little puzzled by the establishments called bakeries in Tamil Nadu. They are shops which do not seem to be attached to a place where someone bakes. About half the stock is usually unbranded material that a bakery would produce, but the other half is packed biscuits and cakes.

Earlier in the day I’d come across this friendly coffee shop, where several people turned to smile at my camera. I had to be friendly back, so I bought a cup of coffee. It was good.

A fruit market

My first encounter with trigonometry had left me completely at sea. A person whose day job was to run a wholesale fruit business was found to be a suitable tutor by my family. I spent a couple of days in his shop, listening to his explanations, while crates of fruit were loaded and unloaded around me. Although he never complained about his job, it was clear that he loved maths. He also explained it well. This turned out to be a very fruitful time for me, so to say. Angles and distances have never bothered me since then. I also understood that among the scores of boxes of fruits, one or two pieces would be bruised, and over ripe. They would fill the surroundings with a heady smell.

I took a walk through Simmakkal fruit market in Madurai with my phone at the ready, and recognized this smell of ripening oranges and pineapples. I saw people picking out and separating these fruits, just as my erstwhile tutor would. Most people were busy but friendly, and smiled at the camera if they noticed me. Just one turned her face away. Now looking at these photos as I edit them, I wonder whether there are people here whose hearts and minds are not in the business they are engaged in. Could there be secret mathematicians, novelists or sculptors among the people I saw in this fruit market?

Quick breakfasts

We had a long breakfast before starting, but The Family proposed a short break for a filter coffee. I thought it was a wonderful idea. But 10:30 in the morning turns out to be a little late for coffee in Madurai. Most of the wonderful little holes in the wall declared that it was too late.

Satghiamoorthy was not a person who gave up easily. He found a promising place within a few hundred meters. We crossed the road and went up to the stall to check, and found we were in luck. While we had our long coffee we saw that there was still a trickle of people coming in for their elevenses.

There were plates of pakoras laid out next to the cashier. At a counter inside idlis and vadas were piled high. This is what is called tiffin in Tamil Nadu, the small snacks which you can find all day. The previous night we did not want a large meal for dinner, and found a little shop where we had a serving of idlis. I’m sure most places make competent idlis in Madurai, just as they make competent coffee. We finished our competent coffee and were ready to start the day.