Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Number 63 With Rice


Colin Thubron

(from “Behind the Wall” – an account of a journey through China)


   One of these multi-tiered restaurants specialises in snakes. I found them heaped up live in its windows while a gourmet selected his supper, greedily pointing out a yellow-green water-snake. From the rustling tangle of coils, its tiny head stared back indifferently. Other snakes dangled from the warm striplights like tattered electrical fittings.
   Inside, the menu listed snake stuffed with shrimps, cobra biscuits, snake and cat soup. The party beside me had ordered serpent-gall liqueur. A posse of waiters arrived with a circular basket from which they pulled out several three-foot snakes. An expert foot was placed on the head and tail of each, and their gall-bladders slit open. From each incision a hard black pellet of bile was plucked out, then the snakes thrown back live into the basket to grow new gall. At the tale, meanwhile, the party chatted amiably together. Then the bitter nuggets were dissolved in phials of distilled rice wine, eager hands grasped them, and they were drowned in a riot of toasting.
   In Cantonese cooking, nothing edible is sacred. It reflects an old Chinese mercilessness towards their surroundings. Every part of every animal – pig stomach, lynx breast, whole bamboo rats and salamanders – is consumed. No Hindu cows or Muslim pigs escape into immunity by taboo. It is the cuisine of the very poor, driven to tortuous invention. Most Chinese still eat only fourteen pounds of meat a year, and may survive at little above subsistence level.
   In the rowdy, proletarian Wild Game restaurant, I interrogated the waitress for anything I could bear to eat. But she incanted remorselessly from the menu: Steamed Cat, Braised Guinea-Pig (whole) with Mashed Shrimps, Grainy Dog Meat with Chilli and Scallion in Soya Sauce, Shredded Cat Thick Soup, Fried Grainy Mud-Puppy (“It’s a fish”, she said) with Olive Kernels, Braised Python with Mushrooms…
   If I wanted the Steamed Mountain Turtle, she said, I’d have to wait an hour. And Bear’s paws, she regretted, were off.
   I vacillated. I had turned suddenly vegetarian. I played for time by ordering python broth, then glanced furtively round at the main courses on nearby tables, hoping for escape; but their occupants were bent over opaque stews where dappled fragments floated anonymously. Around us the windows were glazed with pretty pictures of the animals concerned: deer and cats wearing necklaces.
   The waitress tried to be helpful. “What about Dog meat Ready to be Cooked Earthen Pot over Charcoal Stove on Table?”
   I guessed in desperation: “It’s too expensive.”
   “Then I recommend Braised Wildcat.”
   “Well…” I glanced at a domestic tabby squatting on the verandah beside me.
   The waitress followed my gaze. “It’s not that.”

   She tried to explain it. It had nothing to do with real cats, she said. She wrote down the Chinese character for it, which I couldn’t read. In the end, hoping that it was a fancy name for something innocuous, I heard myself say: “One braised wildcat please.” 

   But the soup was a meal in itself. It came in a python-sized bowl, and beneath its brown liquid lurked a sediment of what appeared to be muscular white chicken meat. It tasted fishy. The darker flecks might have been skin. I excused myself by reflecting that pythons (although I had never known one) were less endearing than lambs, which I had eaten often.
   The tabby had squirmed under my table. It looked scrawny but dangerously edible. In fact I had the impression that almost everything here was in peril. When somebody brought a warm flannel for my hands, I was half-prepared to munch it. What else was nutritional, I wondered? The mosquitoes? The curtains? It occurred to me that, should I fall from the fourth-floor stair-well…
   The cat was still under my table when its braised compatriot arrived. I lifted the lid to reveal a mahogany-coloured flotsam of mushrooms and indistinguishable flesh. A pair of fragile ribs floated accusingly on the surface. I ate the mushrooms first, with relief, but even they were suffused by the dark, gamey tang of whatever-it-was. The meat was full of delicate, friable bones. I did not know if my faint nausea arose from the thing’s richness or from my mind. Several times my chopsticks hit rounded, meat-encircled fragments, like miniature rolling-pins, which resembled legs. I smuggled them to the cat under the table, as a melancholy atonement.
   “You don’t like your wildcat?” The waitress was peering into the bowl, disappointed.
   “I’m rather full,” I said feebly, picking the python out of my teeth. But she seemed to understand my diffidence, and stooped down to sketch me an exonerating picture of the whatever-it-was. She drew what looked like the illustration of an Edward Lear limerick: a lugubrious, four-legged ellipse, with a face either cross or upset. But it was too late: I had already eaten it. And when later I showed an English-speaking Cantonese the word which she had written, he translated it “elephant-cat” or “cat-fox”, and shook his head, non-plussed.
   Under my table, the tabby’s country cousin had been reduced to a puddle of broth.


   Great writing does not have to be fictional, nor do we have to read only to escape from reality into unreality. Travel, and travel writing, are both forms of escape from one kind of reality into another kind of reality, though very often "another" turns out to be remarkably similar, perhaps only because neither time nor people vary all that much. Marco Polo travelled to China long before Colin Thubron, though ibn Battuta's journey there conveys a rather more authentic reality, to the degree that Marco Polo's are now accused of being fictional. Does it even matter if they are? They aroused a fascination with China across Europe, and more importantly they introduced bamboo wheat in the form of noodles, without which there would never have been spaghetti. Fiction, non-fiction, virtual reality or fact, the China that you visit is not the China that I visit, even if we are on the same tour, staying in the same hotels, visiting the same locations; because each of us experiences it differently. So too a book, whether fiction or non-fiction; the page is subject to the personality and experience of its reader, and what I read may well be very different from what the writer thought he wrote.

   Any form of exploration – literary or scientific, spiritual, mental or physical – must perforce also be a journey inwards to the hinterland of the self, and any good account of such a voyage should tell us as much about the explorer as the explored. So with Thubron. To the Cantonese, after all, this whole passage is merely a hyperbolic gloss upon a perfectly ordinary menu (how would a Chinese Thubron respond to the theory of Toad-In-The-Hole, or the reality of Sweetmeats or Haggis or Frogs’ Legs or Garlic Snails or that modern American fantasy-dish Buffalo Wings?); and might reasonably accuse the writer of displaying racial prejudice. Yet the irony gives away the truth. Thubron is less quiver-struck by the foodstuffs than by his own reaction to them. After all, if lamb is acceptable, why not cat; if eel, why not python; if blood, why not gall? It is cultural prejudice itself, and the narrowness of our experience which renders us fearful of experiences that we have not had, that Thubron is gently satirising. 


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