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Chinese Gastronomic Experience by Lynley Smith

05 October 2012

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It had to happen sometime and now it has!!!  I have eaten my first cicada!

Living in a land where the people eat anything that moves and also most things that don't, I guess it is quite amazing that I haven't faced this daunting experience before now, but I had adroitly avoided any such unappetising behaviours as munching on creepy crawlies.

Today I went to a middle school and with much trepidation, took on the job of speaking to two lots of 13 and 14 year olds, in their huge plush school hall. There were about 350 students in each group, so it was microphone and powerpoint presentations. The kids had only two years of English, which meant they could say Good afternoon, How are you? I'm fine thank you, and you? Like robots, but didn't understand much else.

I was supposed to be talking about how to learn English - ha ha!

Fortunately I had my Chinese friend and English teacher from the Polytechnic, Barbara, with me, who I lined up as my translator, and the sessions went really well. I bribed the kids unashamedly with lollies as prizes - otherwise the chances of them taking any notice of me at all would have been very slim. In the end they couldn't wait to get a chance to be up on stage taking part in my 'quiz' with the chance of a bag of lollies to follow!

After the talks, as is the Chinese custom, some senior people at the school (this time two directors and the deputy principal) took myself and Barbara and a couple of English speaking lady teachers from the school out to dinner. The guys spoke no English but the ladies spoke some, and Barbara was a faithful translator.

In China, some men tend to drink a lot - which means a lot! Anyway we had a really lovely meal, which included the cicadas. This dish appeared early on and of course all eyes were on me to see if I would have one. It is actually a delicacy here, and so they would have ordered it especially for me! So I simply had to try.....

As you can see, I survived the experience. In fact the buggies, which are deep fried alive, actually taste something like very mild almond flavoured potato, if you can imagine that. But they are a bit crunchy as they are cooked whole - head, eyes, spiky legs, innards and all.

We dined and the men wined solidly with more and more food appearing. We started with what we Westerners would call desert (apple cooked in a really nice sugary syrup) followed by the dreaded cicadas, several varieties of fish which were delicious, a chicken dish which meant small chicken? Bones with no meat on them and hot chillies, an onion and various things dish which was nice, and a few other things. A salad appeared next. Chinese don't really eat salad so that was probably for me too. Lastly the carb course arrived - also tradition. When we have our desert, the Chinese are tucking into their carbs, despite the fact that by now everyone feels totally stuffed, having consumed countless glasses of delicious watermelon juice, or wine or beer, and of course countless cups of green tea.

The reason (excuse) for all the drinking is that a dinner cannot continue without an endless string of toasts, most of which are simply repetitions of the last one, but are the epitome of good manners.

We had noodles and dumplings for our carbs, but you could have mantou (which is steamed bread rolls) or rice (really only eaten in southern China). I was told the noodles were eaten last as their length represented the longevity of the friendship diners have with each other. I don't know what that implies for dumplings, which are by nature, very short!

Fortunately for me (my stomach had expanded to its maximum) the meal came to a reasonably early conclusion. The Chinese traditionally don't like to stay up late at night - cramps their style for getting up at the crack of dawn the next day to get about the daily work of watering/planting/harvesting their garden, and clamouring onto their old three wheeled tractors which have been converted into little trucks or 3 wheeled taxis or other odd looking vehicles, and chugging very loudly and very slowly down the road to wherever they go at the crack of dawn.

None of the men ended up legless. They wafted off, probably to get taxis, while we sober ladies were driven home by one of the woman teachers.

There is no doubt that the Chinese are the masters of mealtime pomp and ceremony. No-one, not even the French, can challenge them in their gourmandise coupled with quaint customs; such as the Shandong custom of diners cleaning out their already clean cup and soup bowl before the meal by tipping some hot tea from the handy thermos into them, swishing it around and then tipping the tea into a nearby rubbish bin!!

If you don't come to China for anything else, come to eat!!

I think you have the picture now of my latest gastronomic experience. All I can say is Vive la difference!

Lynley Smith

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