Open Sesame!

I walk into food stores whenever I can. There’s no better way to figure out, for example, that sesame candy is a big thing in China. Now sesame was domesticated first in India, sugar was first refined in India, and it makes sense that the two would have been put together in India. Since it is widely available across India, I never gave it a second thought. But as I began to travel in east Asia, I noticed that Koreans and Chinese also think of exactly the same sweet as their own. I bought a few packets of this Chinese tilgud as a novelty to be handed to various people in India. Every one had the same reaction, “Oh they eat it too! What do they call it?”

The Chinese name is the same as the Hindi name: 芝麻糖, to be pronounced zhīma táng. If you don’t know Hindi or Chinese, you could say sesame sweet instead; it would also mean the same. The sweet has travelled both east and west, and is now found right across Asia. It is also conspicuous by its historic absence in the west; the Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets fails to mention sesame even once. Whatever its origin, I hope some historian sits down and tries to figure out how it travelled. It must be a fascinating story.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

When I first left the town that I still think of as home, I would sometimes be overcome by nostalgia about the unlikeliest of things: a little corner shop which would take ages to serve samosas, impassable traffic on roads which would even force bicyclists to take alternative routes, a bunch of quarreling labourers who would spend an hour before dinner drinking and playing cards in a little alley, a shop which would stock all the treasures of a school kid’s life (scented erasers, fidget toys, Phantom comics). Walking along the roads of Nanjing I found the streets familiar in a strange way: if I’d grown up here I could miss it horribly. A simple dumpling soup? Of course I could become nostalgic about it.

The streets were not as crowded as those of my childhood, but China has managed its infrastructure to expand with its growth. There are still traffic jams in the large cities, but the traffic does flow. The one parallel with the ancient imperial city I grew up in was the inability of different kinds of traffic to stay away from each other. The lady in the scooter jacket was talking to her very young daughter, who was riding pillion. As I took this photo the child turned and was hidden completely. I realized at that moment that the pillion rider does not need a jacket.

I took a photo of this shop window in passing. Sometimes when I’m chasing the light, as I was doing on this walk, I don’t have the time to stop and examine things which look interesting, so I keep taking photos with my phone. I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to describe to The Family the atmosphere of streets in Paris and Geneva when I was an impecunious young man. Nowadays, photos serve better. When I showed her this photo I realized that it was an artists’ shop: the bowls hold paint and the kites are painted. I would love to go back, it looks like a magic shop of my youth.

These two young men on the sidewalk trying to figure out some card game could well be the kind of unlikely thing that sticks in one’s memory. I’ve tried to develop a method of stealth shooting with my phone. It needs some work. Sometimes I get a good shot when you take an unobtrusive photo on your phone as you walk past a group of people, but the composition is totally unpredictable.

Back in India the next weekend, I was having dinner with a colleague and a good friend, who turned out to have gone to school in Nanjing. The Family and I encouraged his nostalgia (we are incorrigible tourists) and I was happy to find parallels to my memories of growing up in a smaller town. Discovering a common humanity is part of the fun about travelling: in two culturally disparate countries, divided by the wall of Himalayas, our personal experiences ran parallel.

Food street, not for tourists

I love walking through the food streets of China. There is always something interesting to see and taste. That’s why I was looking forward to the food street near the Confucius Temple of Nanjing. But I was in for a rude shock. It seems that they took payment only through your phone app: Alipay or WeChat. As far as I can tell, these are connected to your Chinese salary accounts, and therefore closed to tourists. The Chinese are great business-people and hate to lose customers, but either the crowds or the language barrier prevented the shopkeepers from telling me how to pay.

Disappointing in one way, of course. But the sight of a food street always perks me up. So I had great fun walking around, examining things, looking at people, and taking photos. You can see the results in the gallery above. As always, click on any image to get to a slide show.

Just outside the street was a booth with a robot waiting for someone to pay for an ice cream. There was a crowd pressed up against the glass of the booth clicking away as avidly as me. Eventually one lady decided that she wanted a frozen yogurt and paid for it, so that I could take the video I’d wanted to take.

I wasn’t left hungry, of course. I walked into a lane full of sit-down restaurants and one of them had both the Duck’s blood and vermicelli soup and the pot stickers which are some of the specialties of the Nanjing style of food. For those of you who are sitting on the edge of your bar stool, no the liquid in the soup is not blood. The duck’s blood is used to make blood sausages pieces of which you can see floating in the soup in the photo above. Having had blood sausages half way across the world, I found this rather less than exciting.

Seeking comfort food in China

I find that I can eat healthy in China. I can pile a breakfast plate full of steamed and sauteed vegetables, select a couple of dumplings, and add a few pieces of tofu for extra bite. When I feel like eating some more protein, there is often some yogurt at hand. The food is not deep fried or full of rice like a lot of Indian breakfast. Nor is it full of sugars and starch and highly processed like most western breakfast. I like this breakfast, but it is not comfort food.

After all I am hardly likely to get khichdi in China. But usually I can find a bowl of rice topped with sauteed vegetables and fried meat. This extremely common Chinese combination (I don’t know whether it has a name) is close enough to my childhood comfort food to keep me happy. This time around, after a day spent walking across the Purple Mountains of Nanjing, I was unable to find a simple bowl of rice. After some search I found instead a plate of roasted pork knuckles and sauteed vegetables. Accompanied by a large bottle of cold Tsingtao beer this came close to a second style of comfort food. On cold evenings in Germany I’d learnt to seek out comfortable kneipers’ which could serve a large schweinshaxe with potato and gave you a half liter of beer to go with it. The effect of this Chinese combination was strangely similar. The bowls of soya sauce and a spicy powder also made it reasonably close in taste to modern Indian food.

An untimely dinner

After buying my train tickets I found that I was quite hungry. It was about 5 PM local time, but my body was probably still two and a half hours behind. Maybe it was a late lunch that I needed. The first day in China could be a little confusing for one’s metabolism. I’d eaten a large breakfast before catching my flight out of Shanghai, and then skipped lunch. Whatever the reason, I was famished, and there was a food street I could walk through. I looked at the various things on display and my eyes snagged on some seafood.

The shrimps with Szechuan peppers looked very inviting. What crab was that next to it? Not the Shanghai hairy crab, I thought when I looked at it closely. That would have been good, but I wouldn’t mind other crabs. Next to it was a trayful of large lobsters, cooked in Szechuan style. Some gestural language established that I could take a mixture of things, and pay by weight.

While buying the food it struck me that eating crab and lobster with chopsticks would be a challenge. Fortunately this is a challenge for the locals as well, so you get a bunch of plastic gloves as well. Between chopsticks and gloved hands it was not at all difficult to work my way through a bowlful of mixed seafood.

Nanjing notes

An old China hand put the thought of visiting Nanjing into my head. I’d never thought seriously about it. The first thing to decide is when to go. Nanjing’s municipal corporation gives some help in deciding. They also have a page with suggestions for what to do if you visit for three days. I guess I’ll have only a short weekend in this town, between meetings, so I’ll have to be even more selective. Another website for travel to China which I’ve found useful over the years calls itself Travel China Guide. Its page on Nanjing is informative and deep, and roughly agrees with what the city suggests.

Nanjing seemed to drop out of history after the Ming Yongle emperor moved the capital to Beijing in 1420 CE. But it has played an important role in the rebuilding of modern China. One may trace the beginning of the end of Imperial China to the very unequal Treaty of Nanjing imposed on China by Britain in 1842 CE. The end of Imperial China came with the Wuchang uprising in 1911, and Nanjing became the capital of Republican China. It was captured by Japan, and over 6 weeks in 1937, between 40,000 and 300,000 civilians were massacred. During the Civil War, Communist forces captured Nanjing in 1949, since when it has been the capital of Jiangsu province.

Jiangnan, land of excellence and beauty;
Jinling, province of both emperors and kings!
In graceful curves are its surrounding jade-green waters
Gleaming in the distance, its ascending crimson towers.
Soaring gables flank the Causeway;
Drooping willows shade the Imperial Moat.

—“Air on entering the court” by Xie Tiao (464-499 CE)

Places to see

It’s hard to make a core list of things that I don’t want to miss in a short trip to Nanjing. After some consideration of how much I can walk at a stretch, and how often I need to look for food, I decided to break up my trip into a series of walks. I can be flexible about how many of these I do. One walk would take me from the Zhonghua Gate to the Confucius Temple. Another walk would take me to the ruins of the Ming Imperial palace and the Nanjing Museum. A third walk would be to the Purple mountain area where the tomb of the first Ming emperor is. Walk number four is would be around the Gulou area (the Drum Tower) and the Xuanwu lake, and the fifth would be in the downtown area of Xinjiekou.

Eating

I’m quite sure that in my walk around the temple area I’ll get to taste some of the sesame buns that Nanjing is famous for. I guess I’ll just mark some popular Tangbao places on my map, so that when I walk around I can pop into one or two to taste this specialty. I really want to compare it with Shanghai’s Xiaolongbao. Duck in brine (Yánshuǐ yā, 盐水鸭) and Duck’s blood vermicelli soup (Yā xiě fěnsī tāng, 鸭血粉丝汤) are definitely on the menu, and the web sites that I’ve browsed give me some idea of where to go looking for them. The seasonal delicacy at this time is hairy crab, and I guess I’ll just have to figure where to look for them.

Eritrean coffee

Since Kenya grows its own coffee, I would finish a meal with coffee without giving the order much thought. I should have paid more attention when I ordered one in an Eritrean place. After all Eritrea or Ethiopia are the place where coffee was first domesticated, and it stands to reason that serving coffee will be an elaborate tradition. It caught me by surprise, but it shouldn’t have. This being a restaurant, the initial process of roasting and grinding was done before the coffee came to the table. My first inkling that this would be different when a procession of three people approached the table. One put the cup and sugar bowl in front of me, and another arranged a serving table. The woman then spooned the coffee ground into a little earthen pot, filled it with water and heated it on a flame.

As she poured the coffee into the cup I could get the aroma of good Eritrean coffee wafting from the stream of brown liquid. I admired the elegant earthenware pot, the ebena, from which the coffee was being served. The service ended with an incense holder being placed on the table. My saucer had a little biscuit on it; I later realized that the traditional accompaniment, the himbasha, is not very different. I tasted the coffee, very aromatic and not as bitter as an espresso roast would make it. No sugar was needed, although adding sugar is said to be traditional. I declined a refill, although tradition would have demanded two refills. A nice ceremonial coffee can really round off a trip to Kenya.

Eating crocodile

Kenya was once known for its restaurants which served “bush meat”. I’d heard stories from people who’d eaten zebra steaks, or compared the tastes of the many antelopes that roam Africa. I suppose that when wildlife was abundant it made sense to eat what could be hunted or gathered from the wild. Across the world, recipes from a couple of hundred years ago contain ingredients which seem exotic to us. But with dwindling forests and wildlife, the practice either disappears, or is regulated. Kenya has taken the route of regulation.

It was a bit of a surprise for us when we went for dinner to one of Nairobi’s well-known restaurants and found an exotic meat on the menu. We had to try out the crocodile. When it arrived, the plating looked great. The mango and mustard sauce was perfect. The line of chili and masala sufficient. The crocodile bhajia was white meat, an interesting flavour, like a gamy chicken. Surprised, I asked about the cut. It seems that the bhajia uses the tail.

Food of the Wabenzi

Evening in Nairobi is coffee time. Niece Tatu had thoughtfully provided me with a list of her favourite cafes in town after telling me in a long phone conversation how much she misses them. So one evening, when FONT piled all of us in the car and drove to a cafe which was number two on his daughter’s list, I was a little undecided about whether to send her photos. On one hand she loved the place, on the other, she missed it.

I looked at the display of the cakes on offer. We had developed confidence in the bakers of Nairobi right from our first experience in a cafe. So I was quite tempted by the tarts and macaroons. Lunch had been heavy and a little late, so did I dare?

I did not. The craving for something sweet was easily satisfied by a pain au chocolat with my coffee. I’ve had a soft spot for these flaky delights ever since the days when I learnt to knock, very late after a long night, on the back window of a bakery in Geneva and pay for an illegal pain au chocolat (illegal, because bakeries are not allowed to transact business out of hours) even as the morning’s batches of croissants and PaC were being baked. I’m sure that bit of illegality has been stopped decisively long ago in rule-bound Switzerland, but my love of this breakfast pastry has extended right across the day.

I asked for a few of the nicer looking pastries to be packed up for breakfast. They certainly explained why this cafe was high on Niece Tatu’s list. I was happy that I did not have too many days in Nairobi, because I was going to put on a few kilos if I was to explore her full list.

Little Swahili eats

Kaimati was not a food term I’d come across before I came across the deep-fried delights. These little balls of sweetened flour were crisp outside and fluffy and airy inside. What a pleasant surprise. Where did it come from? A little asking told me that this was coastal food. The East African coast has seen Indian Ocean trade for over a millennium, so it could have come from anywhere. In the far west of Kenya, where I ate this, I was also told it was Swahili food. That fits, because the Swahili are Arab speakers who diffused inland from the coast. Later, searching the web I found that it is a local version of the middle eastern Lugmat or Luqaimat. On the coast of Kenya it is known as Iftari food, something to have when you have your big meal at night after breaking your fast during the month of Ramazan. It is also said to be Iftair food in Muscat and Oman. That gives credence to the theory that it was carried along the western coast of the Indian Ocean by traders.

The basketful of samosas with minced meat got over awfully fast, and had to be refilled very often. I think of samosas as Indian food, but it seems that it comes out of Turkey. Trade brought it to India, where it changed. (Why not? Even the Big Mac changed, but it is a long and complicated tale which is best left to another post.) The Turkish version is filled with meat, but today the commonest variety in India has a spicy potato filling. You have to hunt for other fillings (two of my favourites are the spicy minced meat filling, and one which is filled with a mixture of lentils). In Kenya it is known as coastal food, so clearly brought here by trade. Did this come straight from Turkey, or from India? The spicy meat filling was redolent of an Indian influence. A toast to trade: raise your favourite tipple, whether it is made of wheat, sugar, potato, corn, or anything else which trade carried across the world.