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Blue and White, Big and Heavy

Why is blue and white porcelain so irresistable? Walking down Standon Street in Central during a heavy summer rainstorm, umbrella pulled down close to my head, I spotted a glimpse of blue and white plates out of the corner of my eye, and immediately backtracked. Lifting the umbrella, I could see a cubby-hole sized shop stacked from ceiling to floor with shelf after shelf of blue and white – teapots, cups, big pots, small pots, vases and ginger jars. 
I had to go in, of course, partly to shelter from the downpour, and partly to see if there was anything I couldn’t resist buying. I am well known for purchasing large, heavy impractical items on holiday, often very breakable, and carting them halfway across a country or even halfway round the globe to get them home. A mint green teaset bought for a fiver in a charity shop in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, carried as hand luggage all the way back to Australia. A set of three red and white enamel washbowls, carted by train from Yunnan to Shanghai. A leg of heavily-smoked ham, carried on my lap on the flight from Guiyang, with a fragile silver Miao head-dress perched on top. I like to think I have never let inconvenience get in the way of a truly great purchase, anywhere in the world.   
So as I walked around the tiny shop, seeing all the wonderful heavy and breakable things at absolutely bargain prices (and after living in China, hardly anything in Hong Kong is a bargain anymore), and I started to justify one or two purchases to myself. While I was flying from Hong Kong to Australia two days later, my husband was travelling back to work in Shanghai with a practically empty suitcase, wasn’t he? Surely he could be convinced to take just one or two small things carefully wrapped, and leave them in the kitchen until I got back?

Luckily I didn’t call him to ask first, because an hour later the final purchase included four blue and white condiment bottles (perfect for soy sauce, oil, and vinegar, plus a spare in case of breakage), a porcelain tea jar, a sugar pot, a salt pot with a tiny blue and white porcelain spoon, and two Chinese tea sets for gifts. Then, at the last minute, I added an oval wicker basket with a beautiful silver clasp, designed as a teapot warmer – lined with red cotton printed with peonies and dragons, and padded snugly. Pure folly, because I had been seduced by an identical one brought into our hotel room on arrival, filled with fragrant jasmine tea. I don’t even know if my own Chinese teapot will fit into it. 
Back at the hotel, my very patient and long suffering husband just asked – “suitcase or hand luggage?” as I presented him later two bulky bags filled with mysterious newspaper-wrapped packages. What a fellow. I guess after all these years he’s just come to expect it, but I’m ever so grateful to him all the same. What has been your most impractical holiday purchase?

Hing Chewng Fu Kee
17 Standon Street, Central
Hong Kong
Open 7 days from 10am

Lin Heung Tea House, with Dumplings

I stand patiently behind a bald gentleman as he spits the last bones of his steamed chicken on the filthy table. Next to the bones there are puddles of tea, puddles of juice from the chicken, piles of gristle, and dirty balls of tissue. Despite this, I’m making involuntary happy little food noises at the sight of the stainless steel hospital style dimsum trolleys, piled high with steamer baskets, being pushed between the crowded tables by the aged waitresses. Dressed in blue with crisp white aprons, they remind me of nurses doing their pill rounds, but today their charges are dozens of hungry diners at the Lin Heung Tea House in Hong Kong.
There are no spare tables of course. It’s only 11am and lunch service has barely begun but the long high-ceilinged room, up a few stairs from the street, is packed to capacity and then some. I’ve given up on getting a whole table for our group of five, and now I’m concentrating on just snaring a single spare seat, from which seated vantage point I can angle for a couple more. This is why I’m hovering directly behind the man with the pile of chicken bones, hoping he won’t refill his tea pot and start reading the South China Morning Post.
A waiter in a grubby white coat walks past with a grey-coloured cloth in his hand. In one efficient sweep he gathers the bones, gristle, and various liquids into the cloth, leaving greasy streaks on the tabletop and the tissues fall to the floor. At this sign, the bald man stands, appears to notice our small group for the first time, smiles, and offers his seat.
At Lin Heung, make no mistake, the dim sum is good. We start with a steamer basket full of frilled dumplings in a translucent yellow skin. They look like a set of four chrysanthemums sitting daintily in the basket. Inside are pork, and shrimp, and ginger. Delightful.  The next basket I open contains what turns out to be a lotus-leaf wrapped parcel of sticky rice flavoured with small cubes of pork belly and dried fruits. The waiter circles again, this time with our pot of Long Jin tea. The first pour goes into a floral dish in the centre of our table so we can rinse our tea cups and chopsticks in the boiling water.

When a new trolley leaves the kitchen, the hungriest diners leap from their seats and follow the waitress around the restaurant until she comes to her designated stop, frequently right next to our table. This is very convenient because I can leap up too, point to the ones I want, and have her stamp a tiny red stamp on one of the squares on my dim sum card as she hands the baskets over. There is fierce competition for the best dishes, so I figure I’ll try those too while I’ve got the chance. 

This method uncovers some amazing discoveries, like these ‘eggs’ made of rice flour dough, filled with a savoury mixture of pork and vegetables in a glossy sauce, and then deep fried briefly to give a crisp shell. They are superb and very clever. Then there are the ‘other’ discoveries, like a plate of chicken gristle sitting on a layer of spongy pig skin, and a pair of webbed duck’s feet, slow braised and wrapped in bean curd skin, nestled on a bed of glutinous rice. Thankfully the duck’s toenails have been clipped, and they taste of soy and five spice, surprisingly good. I spit the bones on the table where they join a growing pile of detritus.

It’s a great meal, with many other dumpling courses – translucent gelatinous shrimp-filled parcels, slabs of steamed ginger sponge cake, sheets of folded rice noodles. Like good Chinese restaurants everywhere Lin Heung feeds an extraordinary number of people each and every day, many of whom look like they spend every morning there drinking tea, eating dim sum and reading the newsapaper. It certainly has a convivial neighbourhood feel as you share a table with three old men and a local family of four. 
And still the trolleys come trundling out of the kitchen, with very little sign that the lunch rush is abating even two hours after we arrive. When dim sum is this good there is no time when it isn’t a perfect time to eat it. As we stand to leave a group of six, who have been standing behind us for some time now, swoop into our seats. On the way out I visit the ladies, doubling as the staff locker-room and restaurant laundry. There are various bits of kitchen equipment piled in corners, and slumped between two stacks of spare seamer baskets is the aged washroom attendant, approximately ninety years young, fast asleep. 



Lin Heung Tea House
160-164 Wellington St
Central
Open daily for breakfast and lunch from 6am
+852 2544 4556

Where The Hell Am I?

In the land of blogging, sometimes time warps occur….which explains why I’m sitting on a sunny verandah in Australia listening to the birds singing when it would appear, from this photo, that I’m still in Southern China, having just finished my last post about Guilin. I’m always torn as to whether to pretend I’m still in China, just so I can continue posting all the great posts I had planned or half-written or had great photos for but no words, or to just enter hyperspace, so to speak, and hop seamlessly from one side of China – or the world – to the other in a small flash, making all my readers believe I’m in a place I’m actually not.
My family always thinks this is hilarious, as do my Shanghai friends who have a better idea of my physical whereabouts, as opposed to my online whereabouts. “How’s Guizhou??” they’ll ask pointedly when I’m sitting at Waga’s on Donghu Lu having coffee with them. “Is the weather fine in Yunnan today?”
So I’m confessing. In reality, I got back from Guilin over a week ago. Oh alright, alright, it will be two weeks tomorrow. And in the interim, after three crazy days in Shanghai trying to buy everything on the list of pirated DVDs and TV series my sister sent me, I packed my bags and spent four days in Hong Kong en route to Australia and have now been back at work (like, my real job, as a doctor) for a week. And yes, after a lovely life of travelling, eating Chinese food, taking a few pictures and writing about it all, working in a busy public hospital Emergency Department was a shock to the system. Which I promise I’ll write about in due course, probably about a week after the shock has worn off.
Hong Kong, on the other hand, that delightful Anglicized Cantonese Wonderland, was so strangely westernized to me this time, visiting as I was from the other side of the China/Rest of the World divide, that it wasn’t a shock to the system at all.  In the past, it’s always seemed so very Chinese, but that was before I got to live in China itself where, hardly surprisingly, it’s very Chinese. English food writer and author Fuschia Dunlop, who spends protracted periods living in China, describes Hong Kong as “a decompression chamber, a halfway house between home and China” and I can understand why. As she describes:
 “Hong Kong helped me to cross the border gently. It was China in some ways, but in others it wasn’t.  I could meet English friends for a cocktail in the Captain’s Bar at the Mandarin Oriental, or I could watch live fish being dismembered in the Wanchai wetmarket; I could windowshop in the gltzy designer boutiques of Central, or lose myself in the feverish backstreets of Kowlooon.”

(from Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper by Fuschia Dunlop, published 2008 by Ebury Press)

I packed a lot of decompression into my four days in Hong Kong, and I have a few great posts coming up for you about the places I visited and the foods I ate (who goes to Hong Kong to shop? OK, perhaps I did a bit of that too). So hang on, lovely peoples, my blog will be catching up with my physical self very soon. 

Cooking Chinese in the Countryside: Yangshuo Cooking School

This will be my very last blog post from Guilin. Once again, it’s worked its charm on me and despite the heat and humidity, I wish I didn’t have to leave. Swimming in the clean clear rivers every day, cycling around under the hot sun wearing a broad-brimmed farmer’s hat, eating lots of good food and enjoying the slower pace down south – it’s a heady mix and Shanghai will have to work hard to beat it.

On one of my last days I visited the Yangshuo Cooking School – now an even bigger operation since I last visited a year ago. It’s still held in a rustic little farmhouse, looking out over lush green fields of rice and lotus to the karst mountains in the distance, but the school now holds classes twice every day, with a week-long intensive offered for serious foodies. In a morning or afternoon session you will first enjoy a guided tour of the Yangshuo wet market, then spend two enjoyable hours with fellow food-lovers learning to cook five new Chinese dishes, and then eating them. For 150 yuan per person, it’s something of a bargain. 
I’ve included one of their simple recipes below as a taster.
The kitchen set-up. And yes, those great big gas bottles are perfectly safe.

Steamed Chicken With Ginseng and Red Berries

This recipe, adapted from the Yangshuo Cooking School, is a healthy combination of ingredients designed to give the body maximal benefit through the medicinal components of ginseng root, chinese dates and goji berries. Luckily it’s delicious too!
Ingredients
  • 300g chicken breast or thigh, very finely diced (substitute silken tofu for a vegetarian version)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • dash white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 3 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
  • 4 shitake mushrooms, finely sliced
  • 10cm piece of ginseng root, finely sliced
  • 1 desertspoon goji berries 
  • 4 dried red dates (jujubes)
  • sesame oil, to serve

Method
  • Mix finely diced chicken with salt, sugar, rice wine and vegetable oil
  • place chicken on a small saucer and shape into a circular patty
  • top chicken with mushrooms, ginseng root, goji berries and red dates and a swirl of sesame oil
  • place inside steamer basket with lid
  • steam over simmering water for 20 minutes or until juices run clear
  • serves 4 as part of a shared meal

In the village after class a communal nap was taking place under the camphor laurel tree. A damn fine idea, and I would have joined them had there been any spare space.
See you all back in Shanghai!

Bamboo, with Free Police Raid

I didn’t plan on writing a blog series about my police raid experiences whilst in China, but there it is, I’ve now had a foot massage with a police raid, bought bootleg DVDs and Converse sneakers from locked back rooms during police raids, and been inadvertently involved in a magnificent biffo between five angry Russians and a child-sized but very fierce stallholder at the fabric market – in which the five Russians resoundingly lost – also involving the police.
How is it that yet again, I’m an unwillingly participant smack bang in the middle of a police raid, this time in the middle of the Li River on the back of a boat made entirely from PVC pipes lashed together with gaffa tape? 

This time, it happens on a hot day for our group of two families, off to the ancient town of Xing Ping in order to negotiate a boat ride to Yu Cun, an even more ancient fishing village downstream from Xingping on the Li River. It’s accessible only by boat or a long hilly walk overland. This is going to be a great adventure, I tell everyone, because hardly anyone knows about this village and it’s certainly not on any maps. We plan to negotiate with the local boatmen to catch a boat downstream, have the boatmen wait for us while we wander the 600 year old Ming Dynasty cobbled streets, eat some fish, then boat back upstream to Xing Ping. That, at least, is my plan.

Downtown Xing Ping
Xing Ping is a lovely old town with a vibrant twice-weekly market, and a transit point for bamboo rafts and hundreds of big, bigger and biggest boats that ply the broad Li River. Because of the good business to be had from boats, every vehicle arriving in Xingping (including our minibus) is met by a swarming hornet’s nest of twenty women all buzzing around loudly touting for boat business.

“Hey! Bamboo! Bamboo! Hellooo! Bamboo!” they all yell, in so many different pitches and volumes it’s hard to hear yourself think. “Bamboo”, apparently both noun and verb, is the word used to describe any kind of floating conveyance, from a bamboo raft all the way up to a three storey cruise liner, or travel by such method, to anyone who is not Chinese. Every step we take, sideways, backwards, or forwards, the hornet’s nest follows, yelling “Bamboo! Bamboo!” with every step. We try to lose them but they stick to us like glue, all the way down to the wharf.


I tell the head hornet – in a broad straw hat with a sparkling jeweled chin strap – where we want to go. She probably thinks Yu Cun is a god-forsaken backwater, because she tries hard to sell us ‘bamboo’ to every other destination on the Li River.

“Bamboo Yangdi?” she asks. “Went yesterday”, I lie.

“Bamboo Guilin?” “Day before yesterday.”

“Bamboo Yangshuo?” ‘No. Bamboo Yu Cun.”

The hornet’s nest goes into overdrive with high-pitched arguing and back and forth scritching. I can barely catch a single word of their strong local dialect but I think they’re discussing the price we’ve offered. Half of the hornets seem against it, the other half for it. In the end, it’s decided by a small, wiry, nut-brown boatman who agrees to take us, two boats in all, for the sum of two hundred and sixty yuan, return. It’s higher than the price I was told by my Chinese source, but hey, we’re foreigners. We expect to pay more.
Rather than leaving from the main jetty, for some reason we need to take the local passenger ferry across the river to the opposite bank, accompanied by Jeweled Hornet, to meet our boats. I have paid her in full, against my better judgement (I usually pay half up front and half on completion, this being China). Once on the other bank, Jeweled Hornet takes us to meet our wiry nut-brown boatman and his friend, and eight of us clamber aboard the two rickety rafts, with four seats bolted to the PVC pipes and a flimsy canopy overhead. Once on board the floor of the raft can barely keep its chin above the water, and often sinks momentarily underwater to keep our feet cool and wet. Jeweled Hornet smiles and waves to us as we push off into the shallows. 

 The magic karst cliffs climb high from the water on each side, and the Li River flows fast and turbulent over the shoals, as we take off at full throttle downstream. There’s a cool breeze out on the water, the sun is shining hot, and all is right with the world. For eight lovely minutes we’re skimmimg along on our PVC rafts, anticipating a delicious fish lunch. I’m feeling faintly surprised and even a little self-satisfied that the negotiations went so smoothly, given that Yu Cun is not on any normal tourist paths.


Then our boatmen unexpectedly kill the engines, in an area of shallow water near a bend in the river. They manipulate the rudders until we have spun completely around and are now facing back upstream, wedged on a small pebbled beach. “Just a big boat coming through, I expect” I yell to our friends in the other boat. The boatmen are frowning though, and that’s when I notice a small white motor boat with a Chinese flag flying from its deck. There are four men onboard, all in sunglasses and various coloured polo shirts, all smoking. They look like a group of businessmen out for a spin on the river, except they’re not going anywhere. They’re hovering, midstream and against the current, watching us.

“What’s happening?” I ask our increasingly frowning boatman.

He ignores me, and without a word, pushes the boat back out into the water, starts up the engine, and heads slowly back upstream. Behind us, the second boat is following, and behind him is the white motor boat. Not a single word has been exchanged between the four men and our two boatmen. 

“What’s going on?” I ask again. Ignored again.

Ten minutes later and we’re back on dry land. Our boatmen wave us away as the white boat pulls in alongside and three of the Polo Shirts clamber onto our boat. Despite the lack of any identification on their boat, or any form of a uniform on the men, I’m beginning to think that these guys are the police, or some kind of Chinese water mafia. They remain stoically silent, sunglasses on, and stand over our boatman while he pleads pitifully with them.

The pieces are beginning to fall into place. The heated discussion amongst the hornets. The necessity of paying in full up front. The clandestine trip to the opposite river bank to meet our boat, away from the small blue and white police hut on the waterfront. No other boats other than the official Chinese Government owned cruisers downstream. 

But no-one’s explaining, and our daytrip is heading badly down the gurgler, so I walk back over to the boat and yell out “What’s happening?” to the group of men. This time a Polo Shirt looks up, laughs, and looks away. We’ve been duped. Our boat was never going anywhere near Yu Cun. Bugger. 

What happens next is that our boatman goes from pleading on bended knees, grasping the hands of a Polo Shirt, to sharing a cigarette with them. Some sort of agreement has been reached, and I haven’t seen a single yuan change hands. The Polo Shirts have pulled out a huge wrench, and are now removing the engine from the boat, without apparent protest. They’re confiscating the engines. First our boat, then the second boat. The engines are loaded onto a tricycle, and the two boatmen and three Polo Shirts start pushing them away from the jetty and up the hill. 

photos courtesy of R Smith

We eight foreigners might as well be invisible. This is clearly between the Polo Shirts and the boatmen, and not open to foreign interference. By now, I’m incensed – we’re going nowhere, it’s stinking hot, and we’re down 260 yuan. 

“Forget it” my husband tells me. “You’ll never get that money back!”

Never tell me never. I run after the police, my co-conspirator and Shanghai girlfriend RS by my side. She knows, as I do, that this is not about getting our money back. This is about the principle of the thing. Because if you dupe foreigners and get away with it once, you’ll try it again.

The Polo Shirts have arrived with the two engines at a huge locked shed. Brazen now, and sick of being ignored, I shout “What about our money?” They look at us, two sweaty, hot, bothered foreign women with basic Mandarin, but this time they can sense something serious in our voices. 

“How about their money?” they ask the boatman. He shakes his head and empties his pockets. “I have no money” he says, and I believe him – Jeweled Hornet’s got the lot. We need to find her, so once the engines are locked up (for the next two days – standard ‘fine’ for boating in an off-limits area we later discover), we follow the boatman back through Xing Ping’s winding lanes to the bus-stop where we originally arrived a few hours earlier. 

Every thirty metres a different hornet steps out of the shadows, calling out “Hello! Bamboo! Bamboo!” Clearly the system of Chinese whispers works less well in China and they haven’t heard about our current bamboo woes. “Missy! Bamboo!” “Bamboo! Hello! Bamboo!” We just shake out heads, and hurry to catch up with the boatman. 

Jeweled Hornet, however, is nowhere to be found. “Just wait, she’ll be here soon with your money” we’re told, over and over again. They call her mobile phone and scritch into it. Nothing. We wait. We sweat. Rivers of sweat. We’re hanging around in the hot sun outside a steaming noodle shop with fifteen or so non-jeweled hornets, all pretending they haven’t the slenderest idea of why we’re standing there. Half an hour passes. They’re hoping we’ll give up and go and have a cold drink, but we can’t back down now without a massive loss of face.

And that’s when RS delivers her Shanghai style trump card. 

“You have five minutes to give us our money back, or I’ll call the police!” she tells the assembled hornets. She pretends to be tapping a number into her phone. Incredibly, two hundred yuan appears in our hands almost immediately. “That’s all we’ve got!” the hornets whine. I don’t believe it. After two hours they are still trying to do a number on us. 

“That’s it!” yells RS. She pulls her phone back out and calls a random number. “Jingcha!” she yells, “Police!”

The remaining sixty yuan appears faster than you can say lickety split. Done. 

“Good work!” I whisper, as we walk away. We feel very sorry for our poor boatman, who has made no money from this escapade and has had his engine locked up for two days. We look for him to at least pay him for his time and fuel, but he’s disappeared. What a day. 

Later that afternoon, after a reviving lunch in a local Xing Ping restaurant, I ask the owner about getting to Yu Cun. “Oh, it’s no problem after four in the afternoon” he says. “The police don’t bother after four, four-thirty at the latest. Everyone knows that.”

As our bus pulls out of Xing Ping we pass the hornets one last time, sitting outside the noodle shop. Jeweled Hornet has magically reappeared and is sitting front and centre amongst them. I wave and smile sweetly as we motor past.


A Forest of Lotus Blossoms

On the outskirts of Aishanmen village, near Yangshuo, is a small lotus farm open to visitors. Narrow paths meander between the ponds of giant shoulder-high lotus leaves and blossoms, emerald and pink. The lotus pods, starting out as the fringed yellow centre of the lotus flower, turn gradually green and fill with plump lotus seeds, bending like old-fashioned shower heads on thin green pipes.
I wish I had a garden full of still pools, filled with lotus blossoms.  

I Love Sparrows, Just Not in a Carnivorous Way

It’s 8pm and I’ve just eaten my first sparrow. Twelve pairs of eyes watch closely as it goes into my mouth, twenty-four pupils wait expectantly to see my reaction. I crunch through the tiny little bones and feel the unpleasant sensation of a curled clawed foot scraping the inside of my cheek. Working it around my mouth for another minute I manage to extract the tiniest morsel of dark meat from the bones, and spit the rest out directly on the table. Smiles of relief break out all round, and immediately all twenty-four eyes fix on my husband, now tackling his first sparrow. An imperceptible shudder goes across his body as I hear the unmistakeable crunch of bones, but no-one else seems to notice.
Sparrows. Tiny, defenseless birds. Karmic retribution will be coming down heavily on my shoulders, I just know it. I keep thinking about Mao’s campaign against the ‘four pests’ – rats, flies, mosqitoes and sparrows, when peasants had to eliminate as many of the four pests as possible. The poor buggers have probably only recently come back from the brink of extinction in China. Even more damning, the sparrows had been alive until just before dinner. You may well ask what I’m doing eating recently alive small birds in the first place – but remember Tao Hai Ying, she of the char-grilled fish restaurant on the Yulong river? And remember her invitation to have dinner with her family in their village home? Well, here I am and the sparrows are the first course.
An hour earlier her sister had collected us from the river bank in the communal family car and brought us to their tiny riverside village of around thirty houses. The village sits in a small clearing surrounded by karst mountains on three sides and the river on the other, fringed by tall feathered stands of bamboo. It’s an incredibly beautiful spot, and we go for a walk in the deepening darkness to see the rest of the village and the riverbank. Although it’s night I’m sweating heavily in the near forty degree heat and dense humidity, and the frogs and crickets are singing up a storm down by the water’s edge. In the dark there’s someone doing their washing, and next to them someone gutting a fish in the water, but I’m hoping the second is downstream from the first.
We walk back to the house, and it’s now completely dark. Which means, sadly, my photos are rubbish, so you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure the rest. The house is a communal family affair, owned by all four siblings and their parents, and has been freshly built near the family’s old claybrick farmhouse. Four storeys high and perfectly square, it appears that the family of ten adults and two children, three generations in all, cram together on the bottom two floors, with the top floors spare and empty. Perhaps for future growth? Up on the roof I’m proudly shown the new solar hot water system in all is shining silver glory. 
Back downstairs in the kitchen, the husband of daughter number two appears to be the family’s designated wok chef. To keep the rest of the house cool from the wok’s heat, the kitchen is housed in a separate low building to the side of the main house, just concrete walls and floors, a single naked bulb for light, a sink, and a low table for food preparation. Tao Hai Ying, her mother, and her two younger sisters are busy preparing the food ready for cooking – peeling, slicing and chopping, crouched on the floor on their haunches. Despite hanging around outside the kitchen a fair bit I miss the part where the live sparrows, tethered by a string to their feet, meet their fate along with one of the village chickens in the hotpot.

Tao Hai Ying’s young nephew surveys the dinner preparations, chopsticks in hand, ready to steal a choice morsel. Shortly after cheekily thieving a juicy piece of pork his mother chases him out of the kitchen and back into the garden, where he tries to get a rise out of the family dog.
Another low table, similar to the one in the kitchen but larger, is rolled out from behind a door and assembled outside where it’s coolest. Sixteen low stools are arranged around it, and bottles of cold LiQ beer are brought out from a cold box. We take our seats, along with all the family, as the dishes are brought from the kitchen. 
The menu: Hundred-year eggs with stir-fried tomato, roast crispy duck, pork belly stir-fried with water spinach and black bean, fried tomato-egg, slivers of squash, pumpkin shoots cooked in chicken stock, local river snails fried with garlic and chili, fried beans, and lastly, the table centrepiece: chicken and sparrow hotpot. An intense smell of garlic and fried chili envelops the table. I notice there’s no fish, but I guess if you spend all day cooking and serving fish it’s the last thing you feel like for dinner!
There is a lot of excited chatter, and everyone rushes for the best bits. The four of us hang back, being polite, and it’s at this point that Tao Hai Ying serves my husband and I a bowl of broth from the hotpot to get us started. I can see her dredging the bottom of the pot for something dark, and I worry that it’s the prized chicken heart, or liver, or even worse, the head. That’s OK, I say to myself, I’ve eaten chicken’s head before. I can do it again. In the halflight I can’t make out what it is until I lift my spoon from the milky broth and discover a neatly cleaved sparrow body in my spoon, feet and all. 
Having tackled the first one, I cautiously spoon through the broth, hoping against hope that sparrows are so prized that each guest at the table will only get one. But no. I have six. There are six sparrows in my bowl. Tao Hai Ying smiles kindly at me, and I smile back and do the only thing right and proper in a situation like this, in front of such generous and lovely hosts. I tuck in. Karma will have to get me back later.
(For those interested, sparrow meat is tougher and gamier than quail or pigeon. Like many things eaten in China, I suspect it’s for the texture – all those little bones – rather than the flavour. By the end of the meal every plate has a small pile of picked clean sparrow bones next to it.)

‘Pretty Ladies! Handsome Men! Barbecue Fish!’

It’s only 10.30am but the lunch rush has already begun at the oddly-named Shouzi Roast Fish Main Store, mid-stream on the Yulong River. Actually a floating restaurant rather than a ‘store’, the charcoal grill is smoking away and the smell of barbecued fish wafts gently across the water, reaching the noses of tourists rafting down the river on narrow bamboo rafts. 

Their boatmen pull in alongside the surprisingly sturdy bamboo pontoon and lash their own raft to its side, and guests clamber across and take a seat on tiny wooden stools aside small square tables. The bamboo floor of the pontoon is covered in wood-patterned linoleum, and the makeshift roof is lined with blue plastic to protect from sudden showers, but there are no walls, and the gentle river breezes keep everyone cool away from the blazing sun outside. The ‘menu’ runs to just three items – barbecue fish, ice tea, and beer. Perfect. The ‘kitchen’ consists of a single brazier, a low table for condiments, a cabinet covered in netting for storing the fish, and a large polystyrene box held together with yellow duct tape, for keeping the beer cold. It’s a pretty simple set-up.
There’s a holiday mood all round – everyone boating down the river is here for fun, most having been bussed in from Guilin, several hours away, or nearby Yangshuo. We’re lucky to be staying very close by, in Aishanmen village, and the restaurant is, for us, a ten minute bike ride followed by a five minute swim across the river.
Meet Tao Hai Ying, who mans the grill 365 days a year. It’s her restaurant, and her mother helps out most days, calling out “Pretty ladies! Handsome men! Barbecue fish!” to the passing rafts, and acting as waitress, dishwasher, and cashier all in one. Tao Hai Ying’s younger sister runs a similar enterprise further upstream, and her younger brother supplies both places with the fish he catches in a neighbouring river, reputed to be even more pristine than the Yulong.

But back to the fish. Long time readers know I’ve visited here before, and friends with similar food obsessions know it’s Number One on my list of ‘Best Fish Meals’ (everyone has these lists in their head, right?). The whole family have talked about nothing but this fish since we left Longji rice terraces yesterday, and I am worried it might be better in my memory than in reality. Sometimes memory can be unreliable, particularly mine.
I needn’t have worried, because it is the best barbecue fish you will ever taste, hands down. Tao gets up every day at 4am, to prepare the hundred or so fish she’ll sell. There are a number of steps to preparation, including scaling, gutting, drying, deep-frying, cooling, halving and skewering the fish. This is all done beforehand in her home, and the fish transported across to the restaurant early each day by raft. 
Each fish (or half a fish, sliced lengthwise) is grilled to order over charcoal, basted with an aromatic mixture of ground peanuts, sesame paste, cumin, sesame seeds and la jiao (chili paste) while it grills. My Chinese is a little better this year (OK, it’s a lot better) so I understand more of the cooking instructions she gives me, and I become even more certain that this is a dish I will never be able to re-create at home. For a start, I can’t get my hands on the right kind of river fish, caught fresh the day before, and Tao makes her own basting mixture and la jiao from home grown peanuts and chilies, mixing the ingredients together without use of any recipe.  When I ask about measurements Tao says, like most Chinese cooks, “Just add the ingredients until it looks and tastes right to you”.
The intoxicating smell of the roasting fish is killing us as we wait, but at last it’s ready and Tao’s mother brings it to us on a tin tray, with extra la jiao to the side. Like a flock of seagulls devouring a fish supper, we demolish the fish morsel by tasty morsel, until all that’s left is a pile of bones. We order another, and another.
As the next round of fish cooks, Tao and I chat and she brings us little gifts, a few cucumbers from her garden, and a plate of peanuts and home-made bean pickles. She remembers us from last year, the Australian family who swam across the river to her restaurant nearly every day, money in a plastic bag. This time the language barrier is not so great and she invites us to her home for dinner. ‘I tried to invite you last year too, but you didn’t understand!’ she laughs. So that will be something to look forward to – the day after tomorrow, with her extended family in their village home on the far side of the river. I’ll keep you posted, promise.
Shouzi Kao Yu Zongdian 瘦子烤鱼总店
Yulong River, near Aishanmen Village
Open every day from 8am until 6.30pm
From The Giggling Tree Guesthouse, turn left, then left again onto the main road. It’s about 7 minutes by bike, keeping to the riverside road all the way and heading in a downstream direction. When you see a riverside restaurant with a paddle wheel, look for the restaurant pontoon in the middle of the river, just downstream from a weir. Swim across.

Wood Ear Mushrooms with Pork and Ginger: A Recipe from Dragon’s Backbone

I hang out in a lot of kitchen doorways in China, watching techniques and gleaning cooking secrets, and generally trying to stay a safe distance from the cleavers and boiling cooking oil. By hanging out in the kitchen at Quanjing Lou guesthouse for a protracted period, scribbling notes and asking questions, I can now bring you this delicious recipe courtesy of Farmer Li’s chushi (chef). 
We ate it for dinner the first night on the mountain and the entire plate disappeared in 30 seconds flat, with several self-professed mushroom haters among those who wolfed it down. On the mountain they use fresh wood ear mushrooms when available, but dried mushrooms work equally well. The key is to not soak them for too long, or they absorb a lot of water and become rubbery. Finely sliced and cooked this way, they are soft and delicious.
Dragon’s Backbone Wood Ear Mushrooms with Pork and Ginger

Ingredients
  • 100g lean pork
  • 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
  • 2 teaspoons cornflour mixed with 2 tablespoons water
  • 50g dried black wood ear mushrooms
  • small carrot, julienned
  • 1/2 green pepper, julienned
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2cm piece of ginger, finely julienned
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon light soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon oyster sauce
  • 2 scallions, julienned
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Method
  • finely slice pork into strips
  • combine pork with Shaoxing wine and half of cornflour/water mixture, stir to combine, set aside
  • soak dried mushrooms in cold water for 20 mins, drain, slice finely
  • half-fill wok with water, bring to the boil
  • add mushrooms, carrot and green pepper, cook for 1 minute
  • add pork strips, stirring to separate, for further 1 minute
  • drain into colander
  • heat wok again over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • add ginger, stir-fry 1 minute
  • add cooked pork and vegetables, stir
  • add salt, sugar, light soy sauce and oyster sauce, stir to combine
  • add remaining cornflour/water mixture, stir until sauce thickens slightly
  • add scallions, stir briefly
  • add sesame oil
  • serve immediately
Serves 4 as part of a shared meal, or serves 2 as a complete meal

Hardcore Locavores, Longji Rice Terraces

The definition of a locavore, although not universally agreed, is generally someone who obtains the majority of their food from local farmers and suppliers, sometimes within a specific radius (100 or 200 miles, depending on location). The beautiful Yao people of Longji rice terraces are such committed locavores (by necessity and tradition) that they make a mockery of our definition of locavore – their food, almost one hundred per cent of it, comes from within a single mile of their homes.
Rice, from thousand-year old rice terraces, is the main staple on the mountain, but the fresh air and rich soil also make it easy to cultivate cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, beans, eggplants, corn, potatoes, peppers and chili. Ginger, garlic and shallots add flavour along with wild herbs, many of which I’ve never seen before. Interestingly, wild foods are eaten every day – bamboo shoots, fern fronds, water weeds and other wild plants are picked as needed from the forest or beside streams. Excess vegetables are pickled to add flavour and intensity to foods, and to preserve them for the winter.
For meat and eggs every family keeps a brace of chickens wandering around the house, looking for bugs and caterpillars and feeding on household scraps. Some Yao families keep a pig or two, and once fattened and slaughtered most of the pork is preserved as smoked bacon, kept hanging over the fireplace to intensify its flavour. 
The local large-leaf tea is drunk green and fresh, or for a more tasty brew, dried and smoked, with each family growing a tea bush or two for their own supply. Local wine is made from osmanthus flowers or wild yang mei berries, or from the rice itself. 
L: A Yao woman carries a basket at all times for collecting vegetables, with an umbrella for shade
R: Wild yang mei berries
Hiking up and down between hills all day leads to a pretty fierce hunger and we were lucky enough to be staying at one of the best places to eat on the mountain – Farmer Li’s Quanjinglou (全㬌楼) Guesthouse, near Golden Buddha Peak.
His kitchen was a hive of activity at all hours of the day, making meals for hungry walkers – the best kind of simple fresh home-style food, cooked without fuss to allow the amzing fresh flavours to shine.
The view from the terrace in front of the hotel is one of the mountain’s best, made even better with plate after plate of incredible simple home-cooking and a tall cold beer. 
The specialty of the house is sticky rice cooked inside a piece of freshly cut green bamboo. The uncooked rice, mixed with tiny cubes of pork and carrot and pieces of scallion, is spooned into a bamboo tube. The end is stuffed with fresh green leaves, then the whole tube is cooked over charcoal until the rice softens and the outside of the bamboo is charred black and easy to split open. The rice takes on a delicious smoky, woody flavour from the bamboo.
The following day’s breakfast at Quanjing Lou guest house was as good as the dinner – steamed mantou bread, crispy salty egg pancake flavoured with scallions, fried peanuts, and home-made cucumber and bammboo shoot pickles. Served with a glass of hot home-made fresh soy milk or smoky tea.

Our other favoured eating hole was here, a nameless small restaurant in Tiantouzhai village.
Their vegetable dishes were the absolute best – probably because the vegetables had only recently left their earthy home for a quick scour under the tap followed by a fast dance in a hot wok. These sour matchstick thin strips of potato were stir-fried with garlic, chili and vinegar. In the background, a dish of sweet pumpkin pieces pan fried until soft and melting, with garlic and scallions.
You may not have tried this before – stir-fried fern fronds with a little sweet pepper. A crunchy, unusual flavour not unlike raw asparagus.

After lunch this lively 98 year old man impressed me with the concentration required to light his tiny pipe, containing an even tinier skerrick of tobacco. After two puffs the effort required caused him to sit down on his haunches and take a rest until he could build up the energy to re-light it. In all truthfulness I think it’s the fresh vegetables he eats every day that are propelling him towards his centenary, although he thinks it’s the tobacco! 
One of our guides, a youthful sixty-plus years, was pleased to taste her first ever instant coffee before she led us off up the hill at a cracking pace. Must be fantastic to eat such fresh wonderful local food every day, and climb up and down mountains keeping you fitter than a mountain goat, thought I. I wondered how to explain the very foreign concept of a locavore to her, but gave up. She would find it perfectly logical and reasonable that foreigners all over the world are trying to emulate exactly her kind of lifestyle, after all, who wouldn’t want to live in a place like Longji?
Quanjing Lou 全㬌楼 Guesthouse

Longji rice terraces, between Dazhai and Tiantouzhai villages

40 yuan pp/night
Breakfast from 6 yuan
Lunch and dinner from 18 yuan

+86 773 7585688

It’s easy to get lost on the mountain paths, but the Yao women will be happy to guide you anywhere you’d like to go for around 60 yuan.