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Another Chinese Gastronomic Experience by Lynley Smith

05 October 2012


Hi again everyone from that distant and mysterious land in the Orient - now supposedly opened up in Real Time by the wonderful digital revolution, but actually no closer to the comprehension of the western mind than it was in the days of the silk trade.

Talking of silk reminds me of my latest gastronomic experience - and as you already know, these are of exceptional quality, meaning and diversity here in China.

Now, the expression "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear" obviously has its roots in China. Yes I know Bible scholars will dispute this, but I have irrefutable proof of this blasphemous statement.

Here I am in China, currently 'living on the pig's back" with a wonderful homestay arrangement 5 nights a week with a generous and wealthy Chinese family, for the small price of speaking some English with them (hardly an imposition), while they help me with my very basic level Chinese. This same family, which has given me the use of the best and biggest bedroom in their apartment here in Rizhao, Shandong Province, complete with en suite and under floor heating (very important!), and lifts to and from my work at the polytechnic in their shining BMW, also takes me out to restaurants often to eat.

Now wait for the connection.... On Thursday night Lily, my hostess, decided to take me and Eric, her five year old boy, out to a 'Western' restaurant. Very nice! I leapt at the chance. We were ushered upstairs to sit on comfy but far too low couches at our table and served the requisite glass of hot water (with lemon, just as I like it - how did they know?) Next the food began to arrive ... first we had what I would describe as something resembling in looks a runny blueberry instant pudding. I later found out it was purple coloured sweet potato, laced with sugar and very sweet. I set that aside as dessert.

Next came the fresh salad, which mixed tomatoes and cucumbers with apples and pears and good old Western mayonnaise. Not sure whether to make that a dessert or a side dish to my main course, I picked out the veg component and consumed that, leaving the fruit to go with my 'instant pud'.

Lily had recommended steak for my main, and of course I jumped at that suggestion too - steaks are a rarity here in China. It duly arrived, accompanied by a fresh sweet bread roll. My eyes eagerly devoured the two medium sized steaks, not sure what type but thin and definitely well done, and I poured over lashings of peppy pepper sauce. Other veg plates arrived - you never know when they are going to stop coming at a Chinese restaurant, but they did stop once the table was already overfull with plates of food, including little Eric's waffles with (mock) cream, which he ate between mouthfuls of steak.

I turned my attention to the closest veg plate and enquired about its contents.

"That is pigs' ears," Lily told me. I didn't believe her. After all, who would eat pigs' ears? But being the intrepid traveller that I am and this being yet another opportunity for a not-to-be-found in New Zealand cultural experience, I volunteered to try a bit.

Sure enough, it was pigs’ ears! Absolutely saturated in salt, but definitely thinly sliced pigs' ears! They tasted exactly like I would imagine leather drenched in salt to taste. Eric loved them, and added them to his menu of steak and waffles.

That completed our repast and though the Chinese are incredibly resourceful in making tasty dishes out of the most unlikely ingredients, this experience sealed forever my suspicion of the veracity of the saying "You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear".

So much for Western restaurants in Rizhao!!

Lynley Smith

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