Saturday, 29 November 2008

no smoke, no cook

We are picked up from our hotel by another slip of a girl, who - ' call me Janet'- takes us first to the local market. We are delighted and entranced by the first hall, piled high with all manner of colourful vegetable, and then pass below an arch into an altogether darker realm, the Fish market. On all sides creatures, short and long and thin and stubby, with and without scales, are expiring in large vats. They squirm and slither and wriggle, or lie defeated on their sides. I pass a row of giant carp heads, separated from their bodies, lying on a stone slab. They are still mouthing their silent despair.
I hasten through another arch and enter the infernal realm of the Animal market. Again the produce is mostly alive in myriad tightly-packed cages. The Chinese, it seems, will eat anything. (I pass no judgement.) I quicken my step and leave to a dreadful cacophony of bleating, crowing, shrieking, whimpering, whooping, snuffling, bellowing, barking and meowing.

Chastened, and grateful that we have chosen the vegetarian option, we are whisked off to an idyllic farmhouse in the karst (for geological clarification of this, see Kieran's message of a couple of days ago, and for correction to my Cohn-Bendit story see Claus's of the same day - thanks guys, I'm grateful for your prompt interventions).
We are a rum crew - an Antipodean, some other Brits, a camp gentleman from Seattle and a modern lady from Xian who has always resisted her mother's attempts to inculcate her with cooking lore.

First lesson : let your wok start smoking on a high flame before proceeding. This must be where I have always gone wrong back in Blighty, nervous of triggering my hypersensitive smoke detectors. The ingredients are ready waiting for us in tidy dishes, and all we have do is chop and shred and smash and sizzle, and have a lark. One dish done, we go out to eat it and sip green tea in an arbour surrounded by bougainvillea, and contemplate the karst. Back in the kitchen, our woks have been miraculously sluiced and dried, our worktops gleam afresh, and a new set of peeled and prepared ingredients await our attention. Bliss. Why can't cooking always be like this?

Today we return to Guiling upstream, a delightful place.