As we walked through Shidong village, early on the first morning of the Miao Sisters’ Meal Festival, a beautiful young woman and her son approached us. She wore her long hair piled high on her head in a bun decorated with a large pink silk flower, in the tradition of the Flower Miao women. We were, all five of us, foreigners, but undaunted she explained in simple Chinese that she woud like to invite us to her parents’ home for lunch, and that it would be her family’s pleasure to host us.
“Will it be OK with your mother?” I asked.
I had heard of the legendary hopitality of the Miao people but had never experienced it firsthand, and I couldn’t help but think of the words my mother might say if I arrived on the equivalent of Christmas morning with five hungry strangers in tow. On the whole, Chinese people are incredibly, generously hospitable, particularly when they know you love Chinese food, but we’d only just met. However, she made a quick phone call, confirmed that we were welcome, and off we all walked along the river, her small son’s legs doing double quick time to keep up. Like all Chinese children, he was well-protected against any touch of cold weather with about fifteen layers of long underwear, and as we walked and the day got warmer he shed layer after layer, looking thinner and thinner with each shedding. Unbelievably for a day of near 25C he had a pair of tracksuit pants and two layers of thermals under his jeans.
As we reached their house, across the field from where women were beginning to gather and dress, he ran ahead to greet his grandmother who came from inside the house to meet us. The house, one of the more prosperous looking in the village, was two storys of brick with white-tiled floors. The only door opened on to a common courtyard shared by four other houses and a large chicken coop, along with various bits of ploughs and wheelbarrows. Lacking a kitchen or an indoor bathroom, a pink dish of clean water was set up under the outdoor tap for washing – hands, clothes,vegetables, hair, and in another tub wallowed a very large fish, ready to be dispatched for dinner.
Inside, the large open lower floor room was sparsely furnished with a low square wooden table surrounded on four sides by simple wooden settles for seats, a small shrine covered in offerings for the ancestors, and a battered couch. The young woman sat us down, and we waited to be introduced to first her mother, then her father, her uncle and her brother-in-law. Her mother, who we all called mama, wore a long-sleeved blue tunic over black trousers, her hair also in a high bun. They all seemed perfectly unsusrprised to be entertaining a house full of foreigners at short notice, and without any fuss or further bother mama walked over to the battered upright cupboard in the corner of the room and pulled out first one, then three, then eight steaming hot dishes.
When, I ask you, did she whip those up? It must have been after the phone call from her daughter, but that walk had taken no more than forty minutes….and yet here was a fully prepared banquet of eight dishes.
We began with steaming rice, ladled from a huge heavy wooden vessel on the floor, and in turn tasted all of the eight dishes. There were crispy peanuts stir-fried with sugar and chili so they caramelised just a little; egg fried with fragrant green herbs; slices of cold roast pork, simple and flavourful; a dish of pickled sour green beans, snapped into tiny lengths and spiced with chili; large chunks of fish slow-cooked with a fiery chili, garlic and tomato braise; sauteed bean sprouts; stir-fried firm tofu with scallions and green peppers; and a second pork dish with peppers. Alongside the food came smaller bowls decorated with flowers and filled from a 4-litre plastic bottle with the family’s home brewed mi jiu – rice whisky. Lethal stuff.
I love this type of Chinese food best of all – home-cooked, simple but strong flavours, seasonally fresh – each dish on its own is delicious, without a doubt, but it’s the combination of all the dishes together that makes a Chinese meal like this really satisfying. Mama has probably refined and perfected those eight combined dishes over forty years of cooking for guests and special occasions, to the point where it’s now pretty well perfect and forty minutes is all it takes to magic up a feast like this. Thanks mama – it was all delicious!
|L to R mama, her daughter and grandson, her son-in-law|
Tomorrow: the beautifully quiet village of Langde: drums, dancing, and lusheng-playing