Wednesday, May 21, 2008

tasting the armpit of the rooster

Chaozhou is an area located in the easternmost part of the Guangdong province in southern China not renowned for their food. I'd like to think that I have an accepting palate, especially for Asian flavors, but this trip was truly a challenge to stomach.

After schlepping up and down a slick, jungly Chaozhou mountainside in the rain with forty people I am apparently related to for the burial ceremony I was ironically not allowed to attend due to my "astral sign karma" (more on that later), it was feeding time. Thus, we descended upon what I could only guess was the single restaurant in town with seating capacity for our party.

Allow me to regale you with some of the culinary delights served in the Chaozhou style:

  • Small clams in an odd, intensely flavored broth
  • An unidentified, armored relative of the shrimp: equipped with extra exoskeleton and a thick orange-red vein likening to overcooked egg yolk
  • Stir-fried lily bulbs: the onion/potato hybrid. It looks like a garlic bulb, slices like an onion, but has the mouthfeel of a mealy starch. And tastes somewhere in between.
  • Fried yam. Period. Not to be confused with delicious, orange sweet potatoes. (Yam fufu, anyone?)
  • Cold cod innards and other fish bits. I was informed the swim bladder is a delicacy.
  • Ginseng abalone soup. This was actually one of the better courses, but there's something about prehistoric mollusks with a furry yet chewy texture that gets me every time.
  • Cherry tomatoes. For dessert.

These and handful of other lackluster, poorly seasoned dishes rounded out the night. The grade? Points for diversity, but fail on execution. Judging by the fact that nobody insisted the fish bits be polished off, or that I needed another yam left me to believe that the restaurant was at fault and not the cuisine. At least till morning.

(Side note: There was a 911 Carrera 4 out front when we left the restaurant. What? How? Why?)

Morning was greeted with oversalted congee mixed to a disproportionate ratio of water to rice, and shoddy dim sum. Being with family from the region, I was starting to doubt that we just happened upon subpar places, but that Chaozhou was simply a gastronomically underwhelming place.

Lunch confirmed this suspicion as we became the only patrons of another nondescript restaurant. Having been told that a number of relatives had dined at this restaurant before kindled false hope that maybe Chaozhou cuisine wasn’t so bad after all.

Dish #1: Shady clams with chopped chilies. At first I thought they weren’t fresh because none of the shells were open. The fact was they were just still alive. Next came a series of dishes similar to the ones we had regarded last night as well as a few new friends. Highlights include:

  • Braised lettuce with membranous clam bits and other chewy sea creatures.
  • The lovechild of a fiddlehead fern precursor and a soba noodle. I was told it was a mushroom, but I have my doubts. Taste: inoffensive.
  • ‘Lotus seed’ in a fishy broth. This seed was more like a large great northern bean, but really firm and waxy.

Overall, this led me to believe that the previous night’s dinner really was bad, but that it was also time to head for the border back to Hong Kong.

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