Saturday, November 18, 2006

Cooking From The Earth

Flip open any high end restaurant menu and it is not unusual to find dishes with descriptions advocating the use of fresh ingredients supplied by farms within the region of the property. Many restaurants emphasize on the relationship of Chefs with local and regional farmers. These ingredients are prepared in the luxury of new technology oriented equipments in posh kitchen environments. While it is a seductive marketing tool to exploit the freshness of the readily available ingredients as unique selling points, in reality, sometimes too much handling in the preparation process makes the end results not much different to that of using regular supermarket grade stuff.
Like many other chefs who have dealt with farm fresh ingredients, I had the opportunity to try it out again but in the entire reversal way, right down to the environment and cooking. It would be interesting to experience produce straight from the earth to the pan and savouring it from the very hands that cultivates these crops at the location where they are grown. My wife, N and I spent a day in the Sichuan countryside in the mist of a cold December winter doing just that.
Cooking from the Earth

The place:
The ride out of the city took about one and a half hours. Weaving in and out of the chaotic morning city traffic with relentless horning, our driver, Li, had to contest with heavy city smog and potholes as well. Our destination was a farm in Peng Shan village, about 65km south of Chengdu City, Sichuan China. Before arrival, we made a stop at a fish farm where we picked up a grass carp straight from the pond for lunch as well. We had to struggle and rock for another twenty minutes on off-beaten tracks before reaching our final destination. The poor fish by now was total concussed. Well, maybe that would make it less painful to go under the knife. Li took the fish to his parents who where getting ready to cook lunch. Li’s ancestors had passed on the old farmhouse and farming was the main occupation until his generation. Being old means it has no fancy kitchen with modern gadgets but just basic electricity for lighting and water for cooking. Not even a refrigerator.

As Li’s father took out the fish to clean, we walk around the farm to see the vegetables that had been cultivated. Being winter, we came across fields of canola, turnips, round cabbages, napa cabbages, potatoes, pea shoots, red carrots and celery. Citrus fruits like tangerine, kumquats and pomelos were also in season. With some potatoes, turnips and pea shoots, we troop back to the kitchen where Li showed us a slab of freshly made tofu. No machine just an ancient stone grinder. The soymilk was extracted by grinding the soybeans in the grinder, which keeps the milk cool without affecting its quality and taste. A coagulant was added into the soymilk to allow it to set before being cut up.
As Li’s parents prepared the harvested vegetables, Li brought us to a shed where slabs of marinated streaky pork and sausages were hung. The meat was from a pig slaughtered at the beginning of winter where much of it was reserved for preservation through curing or prepared as stuffing into sausages made with skin from the intestines. Li explained that one pig was enough to feed his folks for the entire winter. Nothing from the animal is wasted as the innards are consumed as well, usually first as they do not keep well. After smoking, the cured meat and sausages were hung out to dry in the cold winter air, which helps to preserve and makes it more flavourful. The sausages were similar to Spanish chorizos, as they have been spiced with chili powder and Sichuan Peppercorns, while the streaky pork reminded me of pancetta from Italy. Li took a slab of the cured pork and sliced off a few sausages to be served for lunch.
By now, the carp had been cleaned and cut into pieces. Mrs Li proudly showed us a bowl of homemade spicy fermented bean sauce (Dou Ban Jiang) which is essentially the soul of Sichuan cuisine. Bearing in mind that they do not have the benefits of refrigeration, it is imperative that sometimes these folks have to make their own cooking sauces when town is just too far away for a bottle of sauce. Oh how fortunate we city folks are taking that for granted everyday! This time round, Mrs Li wanted to teach her son how to cook the fish as he had moved to the city and was almost eating out everyday. As mother and son took turns to fry the fish, old Mr Li just made sure that they have a good fire to work on by feeding the furnace with dried corn cobs, husks and firewood. Talk about family bonding, this can’t be better.

The meal:
Besides the fish that was served with the spicy fermented bean sauce, our host had also made a stew of radishes and potatoes, stir fried leeks with preserved smoked pork and ginger, tofu soup with freshly picked pea shoots and the wonderful spicy sliced sausages. All were simple home cooked fare with a rustic countryside feeling. Rice was the staple and the different depths of flavours from each dish were complimentary with rice as the perfect bridge in between. Every bite was a reminder that food can taste just as good as long as it is done the right way irregardless on where you eat. Tofu has never tasted so fragrant compared to commercial ones, peas shoots were exceptionally fresh and tender, the smokiness of the cured pork and sausages provided a rustic touch to the meal, the stew of potatoes with radishes provided comfort and the grass carp with spicy fermented bean sauce provided familiarity, warmth and deliciousness. All I can say is that despite not having luxurious settings or pampering service, we were not missing any of it as we know already know what we are in for. Other than some unusual Chinese eating habits by the Li family which I and my wife are not really too comfortable with, I could find no fault with the taste of the food that was so lovingly cooked. Our hosts were more than happy that city folks like us are able to appreciate such peasant style cuisine which has been an eye opening and learning experience for us.

As we took our own chairs out to the court yard for a short moment of rest and relaxation, we craved for after meal indulgences like a good expresso or wine with cheese and music. Well I guess a tea art session and fresh tangerines with erhu music might be more appropriate. Most importantly, without the sounds or noise from urbanization, the peacefulness is just invaluable for that few moments. While the rest of the world agonizes about terrorism, bird flu pandemics and war, it’s just another day in day out for the Li folks who other than working in their own fields do not really care about the world beyond their own parameters.

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