I awoke to the sound of strange, ritual chanting in a language that I did not understand. Nasal vowels, muted consonants, multiple tones — all of these elements combined into a clearly-ritual chant that transported me back to ancient China, perhaps in the court of the Emperor. But what I heard was real. I arose to find my girlfriend’s mother kneeling at the shrine of her household god, burning ghost money and chanting in Haifeng — a dialect of Min Nan Chinese. This would serve as my introduction to a week of being transported back to old China, the traditional China, to a Chinese New Year and Spring Festival that would forever change me and the way I understand China, Chinese people, and the world.
I was in Shanwei, Guangdong for Chinese New Year and Spring Festival. I spent most of the week dodging tuk tuks and visiting my girlfriend’s family, who treated me with such grace and hospitality, and welcomed me as one of their own to such a degree, that I felt almost embarrassed. All week I was regaled with enormous feasts and fine cognac. Shanwei is on the sea, so much of the food was fresh seafood. I had fish, mantis shrimp, sea urchin, oysters, clams, and many other treasures from the salty sea.
One particular meal that I will always remember was a seafood hotpot at the home of one my girlfriend’s relatives. This was a very special meal for many reasons — the hospitality, the friendliness, the drinking, and of course the food. Where I am from in South Louisiana, we have access to lots of fresh seafood. Likewise, Shanwei is on the South China Sea, and so seafood is a staple for the people who live there. When I saw the table, filled with dish after dish of fresh seafood (the mantis shrimp were still alive!), I knew I was in for a treat.
Hotpot consists of briefly cooking raw food in a seasoned, boiling broth. The broth was very simply seasoned with some ginger slices and a little salt, as the focus in Cantonese cuisine is to highlight the natural flavor of the food, rather than adding lots of other flavors. Into this broth we dipped a plethora of fresh seafood. All of it had been swimming that very morning, and each piece burst in your mouth with the saltiness of the ocean. The seafood consisted of two kinds of fish, one bonier and one very tender; squid; large oysters; two kinds of fishballs; and mantis shrimp, which were so fresh that they were still thrashing around when they plunged to their untimely deaths in the boiling broth.
The fish included one meatier, bonier variety, and one softer, more fleshy variety. Both had a very oceany (is that word?) flavor, along with that fresh, crisp flavor that you find in high-quality fish. After boiling, the more tender fish became almost like eating clouds, so soft was its flesh. As with all Chinese fish, both were served on the bone, because bones impart more flavor to protein.
The squid was very fresh and cut into thin, bite-sized strips to accomodate chopsticks. Much of the squid available in the US is previously-frozen. When you freeze a protein, its molecules are changed, and it never tastes the same or has the same texture. Also, many cooks overcook squid: it only takes a moment to cook, but if it is overdone, it becomes tough and rubbery. This squid was fresh from the sea, not frozen, and it was cooked just long enough to be tender and crisp.
The oysters were out of this world. In Louisiana, we eat lots of raw oysters, so I feel that I am qualified to judge them. These were plump and giant, and when I bit into them, they burst with briny ocean water. They were outstanding, and they were filled with that subtle grassy, mineral flavor that you find in the best oysters.
When most people think of fishballs, they think of processed balls of mystery meat with preservatives and chemicals, that you find frozen in bags in the cheap section of an Asian supermarket. But these were locally-made, special fishballs from Shanwei. They are made from fish that were just caught. The fish are immediately cleaned, the meat is mashed, and they are formed into balls without any sort of chemicals or preservatives. They are to normal fishballs what a nice, homemade, juicy cheeseburger is to McDonald’s. They were fresh and had the crisp fishy flavor that I love.
I had not had mantis shrimp before this trip. They look like some sort of trilobite that roamed the primeval seas millions of years ago. They resemble shrimp, but are flat with wider heads. These mantis shrimp were still alive at the time of cooking. You cannot get any fresher than alive! Although mantis resemble shrimp, their flavor is nothing like shrimp. Rather, they have a much more meaty, warm, earthy flavor, while still retaining the crisp citrus element of shrimp.
Chinese drinking culture indicates that you drink during meals, especially formal ones like this, but that you only drink when someone toasts. Also, the host can choose whether or not to engage the guest in an unspoken drinking contest. This time, my host did not. Instead, we drank beer through several toasts, which was fine, because I find that beer, like white wine, compliments seafood, especially the lighter style of Chinese beer.
But after dinner, my host brought out a large bottle that had once held cognac, but had been re-purposed to hold his own special concoction. It was baijiu — Chinese sorghum alcohol — in which were multiple Ophiocordyceps sinensis. These are special caterpillars whose bodies are colonized by a particular type of fungus, that then kills them and grows out of their head in a grassy stalk. They are extremely expensive and hard to obtain, and hold a very important place in Chinese medicine. There was also a deer penis in the alcohol! The bottle had been aged for over ten years, and my host only brought it out for special guests. It was truly a great honor to be served a small glass of this. It had a warm, mellow, complex flavor, and supposedly held strong medicinal properties.
This meal was very special for so many reasons. It was an example of Guangdong’s best, freshest seafood. I truly felt like I was eating the ocean itself, and the flavors of all of the seafood were matched by the warmth and hospitality of my hosts. This is Chinese culture, warm, welcoming, generous, and family-oriented. This meal illustrates the Chinese love of food, and just how important food is to the Chinese way of life.