A Journal of the Plague Year Day 89

 Tuesday 16th June 2020

One thing I miss most is eating out. My friends agree we are reaching the stage where it’s fuck the pandemic, Fuck The Po-lice, let’s go out to get irradiated in the name of a kebab, a shag and skag, preferably all three. For me my vice is currently in the form of Singapore fried noodles (vermicelli), from the Tai Tip Mein palace in Woolwich. TTM is a small local chain that specialises in the cheap and cheerful. As with ‘Chinese’ food the world over it caters to local tastes, notably tweaked for a multiethnic South London population.

WARNING**** FOOD PORN ****

I will pay good money to lie quivering on a table and be covered with dis shit:

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The outlet in Elephant & Castle is notorious for looking like the dodgiest, skankiest eating establishment ever by dint, a little unfairly, of its architecture. The one in Woolwich, marginally better in building stakes, and the one in Greenwich possibly palatial insofar as you even pay after your food rather than before. Woolwich however is the gem of all three because it caters to a large African community thereabouts, notably the Nigerian customers who form a constant clientele. This is a winning formula. Elsewhere round the world the ‘Chinese’ food ups the sugar and salt content for Western tastes, creating gloopy, jam-like sauces more reminiscent of a jar of chutney poured over a changing roster of mystery meat special.

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Not so for Woolwich. Nigerian food reminds me of Malay -spicy, beefy, earthy with the chilli to boost, and little demand for the saccharine. Spiced rice like jollof and nasi goreng could be cousins, as could be the roast meats whether it’s beef suya with peanut coating, or satay sticks and peanut sauce. So hey presto! We now have Singapore fried noodles -not the limp, watery variety you get elsewhere, pale and inoffensive, but now the highly spiced version swimming in chilli oil and smoky flavours. It’s not the lovely lurid yellow that screams turmeric content, but a warm brown tint that shows the greater variety of spices. It’s also double a portion you’d expect and studded with the greatest hits: tender chicken, BBQ duck and two types of roast pork (one sweet, the other salty). If you want a centrefold, it’s the one at the top ^.  I always add extra chilli as I’m one of those people. You can only get this version in this branch, winningly so, but do avoid their garlic sauce dishes, a flavour clash if ever there was one.

Nigerian:

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Malaysian:

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It’s often a surprise when people actually go to China and find the food tasting unrecognisable to their takeaways back home -and the variety on offer too. There are 15 distinct cuisines, of which 8 are official stand-outs, and a ninth is being added on.

Let me lead you on a culinary journey, I’ve prepared a magic carpet and silverware. But we’re not eating the monkey:

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Up in Northern style it’s salty, hearty fare for the colder climes, where the main staple is bread rather than rice, and influenced by the Steppe people, such as the Mongols. They gave rise to the wonders of open fire cooking -BBQ and roasting (normally deemed uncivilised by the rest), with Beijing duck one famous example. Plus lots of warming soups and a surprisingly light and fresh touch by the coast, with a sideline in caramelising things in honey. Can’t go wrong with dat.

Local variations range from the wild Manchurian tribes foraging/ hunting /spiking from steppe and forest (bear paw anyone?) to the intricate haute cuisine of Imperial cooking, after the Manchus got used to the high end of 300 years in power and the touch of edible gold.

Rou jia mo -‘Chinese hamburgers’, a 2,000 year old streetfood of smoky, spiced pork belly with coriander.

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Beijing Roast Duck is sourced from a local breed, and cooked in a special oven over peach/ pear wood. It’s actually a three course meal: the sweet, crackly skin served separately, and the meat parcelled into plum sauced pancakes. The remainder a rich broth.

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Imperial menus employed delicate food carving. I mean look at the little squidgey, delectable fuckers:

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For the Southern style, Cantonese cooking forms the backbone of most of the Chinese diaspora round the world, and thus what many have been exposed to. However it’s not really authentic as the Cantonese rely on super fresh produce instead of having to look dispiritedly through piles of dried, mass-packaged ingredients at the Asian warehouses you see over here. It’s all about the natural flavour (all ingredients hours from the fields, either still braying or unwilted): imparted by the quality of produce and specific upbringing of plant or animal. Done well and it’s an unctuous, subtle play of layers of natural flavour -think steamed dim sum -done badly and it’s a bit, dare-I-say-it… plain. Overall, it can be likened to a subtropical version of Japanese, another cuisine of such simplicity yet finesse it has 700 varieties of salt. Rice as a staple.

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Hong Kong public art

Although joked within China as the people who’ll eat everything with legs other than the chair and table (a famine cuisine), it’s traditionally regarded as the school of cooking par excellence. They may oops! slip something like a snake or frog into the breach, but you’ll instead be tasting melt in mouth chicken. Fido will be a specially farmed breed that tastes sweet, the cane rat -a big stonking rodent about a foot long from the rice fields -also farmed and a more expensive substitute for lamb.

Before:

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After (and I’m not telling you which one’s which):

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For Lassie lovers who complain dogs are too intelligent, loyal, friendly and adorable to be chased round and cleavered, yet still find it within their hearts to eat pork -don’t worry it’s now banned.

The attention to detail is sovereign for every region -the beefballs they make in Shantou need to be pounded for 30 minutes nonstop with steel batons (different designs for different textures) that create the world’s bounciest meatballs and bodybuilders and meatballs again. The local hotpot (meat served up and cooked in a broth at your table) has to be plated within 4 hrs from when the animal was mooing about and takes a year of training to carve, some slices only 1mm thick. The fermented tofu mooncakes employ a 25 step process designed to degrade so they can’t be transported beyond the city.

Eating here’s pretty much a science, every stage exacted to break down certain types of fat, release different protein strands and get the right balance of texture that’s so important for the Chinese palate -foods designed for the shape of the bolus, consistency and feel in the mouth.

Steamed dim sum

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Seafood fried rice, Michelin style:

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Numerous offshoots include Hainanese -tropical but historically influenced by Western grub thanks to its island trade -no heavy sauces or strong flavours in simple, direct cooking. Chinese soul food.

Hainanese chicken rice -simple steamed fowl fed on rice and peanuts, with fragrant stock rice and spicy dips

Another one: Chiu Chow, a seafood-savvy cuisine that uses even less oil and is even more delicate, incorporating steaming but not averse to flavour punches via its sacha sauce (salty with a hint of spice). It also has that rarity in China -a dessert menu.

Chiu Chow Steamed veg dumplings and lotus wrapped sticky rice

Macanese a rarer gem combining the flavours of old Portugal, Africa and the Cantonese diaspora. Signature plates being African chicken (spiced up and peanutty), or baked, cheesy seafood spaghetti (instead of noodles) followed with their version of pastel de nata custard tarts.

African Chicken -grilled then baked in coconut chilli

Due East and it’s now more reminiscent of Western takeaways due to the increase in sugar content (Suzhou more so, Shanghai less); lots of noodles as its staple and a penchant for seafood. It was historically looked down on by the rest of China for being sugary and unsubtle -but has recently seen a renaissance (thankyou Shanghai), that’s now featuring as the country’s most popular choice when eating out. It’s come in leaps and bounds rediscovering its roots as well as reinventing the styles. From the strict regimen of the Anhui branch to the fresh flavours of Jiangsu, the smooth, ungreasy fragrance of Zhejiang to the high quality ingredients of Fujian. But beware, this is where you’ll find the ‘red style’ of cooking similar to takeout, but done much better. Though just as sweetly volcanic – you just can’t do two in a row.

Squirrel-shaped fish makes use of an explosive frying technique, literally a sugar bomb.

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Dongpo pork in ‘red style’.

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Zhejiang’s Longjing prawns can only be eaten between April -when the Longjing tea (finest in China) is budding its best -and early summer as the local prawns are harvested. The unusual dish created accidentally when an emperor spilt his cuppa.

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In central China the heat starts –Sichuan uses its native peppercorn (really a local type of flower bud) to create a different kind of spiciness, one in which the burn of the tongue is replaced by a numbing, tingling sensation in the lips and mouth, known as málà. It still liberally adds chilli on top, and may often call on an entire bottle of chilli oil (yes a whole bottle) as part of a dish, eg boiled fish soup. It relies on dual flavour combinations of spicy, sour, sweet, bitter and salty (eg hot and sour), but which can produce over 40 types of taste sensations depending on the mix.

Boiled fish + pint of chilli:

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Don’t worry, not all the pepper in a dish has to be eaten

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There are two types of cuisine -one in which the natural flavours come to the fore (eg Cantonese, Japanese, Greek), or the type where a world of flavour is added to compliment or even mask the natural ones (eg Indian, Thai, Turkish). Sichuan is decidedly the latter, everything looking geothermal -but it steadfastly maintains the Chinese tradition despite of having super-fresh ingredients, obsessively sourced.

Sichuan hotpot is a shared meal divided between spicy (outside of the constantly bubbling tureen) and not spicy (inside), where you dip your ingredients to cook. As the meal progresses the soup flavour intensifies.

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A popular proponent of the cuisine is Liziqi, a former DJ who grew tired of the city lights and headed back to her farmstead to be reborn as peasant polymath:

Next door is Hunan, once considered an offshoot but more coming into its own. Instead of using peppercorn’s mala, it just throws in voluminous amounts of fresh chilli, purported to be the world’s hottest cuisine and what killed Chairman Mao off with stomach cancer. But so worth it. It is a fresh and aromatic counterpoint to Sichuan, with added onus on smoked and cured goods. Although one of China’s ‘furnaces’ in summer, the chilli is meant to open up the pores and help you cool, in the format of cold appetisers. Yeah, right.

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Salad, Hunan style:

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Other cuisines are the minority foods. Xinjiang, deemed quite accessible for Western tastes due to the preponderance of bread and dairy, such as cheese, but beware the nose to tail eating, such as sheep’s head. Lots of roast kebabs, spiced beef and lamb, with noodley Chinese influence and Middle Eastern piquancy via the Silk Road. Hui is another Islamic cuisine, but more sinicised with street food wonders beyond meat-on-a-stick, taking the best from both worlds in roast meat patties, date and rice cakes, crumbled bread n’ beef soups (THE definition on unctuous) and chilli lamb noodles.

Xinjiang kebabs

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Hui date, red bean syrup and rice sticks

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Lamb noodle soup, one of Xian’s signature dishes -crumble the bread yourself, but it has to be the right size

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Tibetan and Mongolian are considered beyond the pale to many. Tibetans are partial to the wind dried variety of cooking (invariably yak jerky), surprisingly spicy as everything comes doused in chilli similar to Korean gochujang and washed down with butter tea. Tibet is a high altitude desert, aka the Third Pole, as if the summit of Mont Blanc was spread out to cover Western Europe – so little veg. Doable though a bit one noted.

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Their bready dumplings though are a big hit, notably having taken over India as a moreish snack.

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Mongolian is about as out there as you can imagine. If you like meat this is for you, but don’t expect veg or spices or marinades -simply boiled, perhaps served in a plastic bucket. And every part is eaten, from eyeballs to tail tips to hooves. This be warrior food Stage 10.

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There is a version of Mongolian BBQ – a range of meats, veg and sauces fired up teppanyaki style in different combos as spectacle to awaiting diners, said to be sourced from the way the invading Mongols would cook up their feasts on shields, accompanied by broth in upturned helmets (Mongolian hotpot, almost identical to Sichuan’s). However, it appears these formats were a Taiwanese invention, who changed the politically sensitive ‘Beijing BBQ’ to a more palatable Mongolian moniker. The dishes are popular now all over the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, but not in Mongolia itself.

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In reality with modernisation and the after effects of a turbulent 20th Century Mongol cuisine now has influences from its culturally invasive neighbours, from creamy potato salads and flatbreads to kimchi or mustard fired sauces to stir fries and dumplings. Its a meat lovers paradise these days, rough and ready, with potential for greatness if ever it cared for that, or cutlery even. As a vegan you’d perhaps have to graze on the garnish every time or ask for a lemon.

The ninth cuisine people wanna add to the greats is Yunnan. Long overlooked, this is the tropical, minority-happy eating of the steamy southwest. Once derided as poverty food (a jungle has less available protein than a desert), its unvarnished presentation and hobby for catch any little thing trying to scurry, crawl or squirm desperately away (river larva, snails, insects) it’s now elevated into a healthy eating bonanza. Full of fresh salads, flowers, raw ingredients, open fire cooking and banana-leaf or sugar-cane steaming, all to organic sourcing. Very trendy right now, similar to Vietnamese.

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Hot on Liziqi’s tails is Dianxi Xiaoge, another former policewoman turned rural farmer (she returned when her father got sick) who’s now made it big on the internet the world over. Oh and her giant fucking dog:

Thus ends a brief rundown on the Chinese cuisines, whether divided into 4, or 8, or 15, or 40, or 400 dependent on where you split hairs. And that it’s hard to find genuine Chinese food outside the country, where freshness is king, where you don’t have to rely on pre-packed ingredients nor cater to local tastes.

And to cut a very, very shaggy dog story down to size, I fucking want one.

Plus he’ll look great on a plate.

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A Journal of the Plague Year Day 86

Saturday 13th June

STILL SICK OHMIGAAHD. It has not come to pass.

But then, woke again a few hours later, sweaty, stained and strained. And it had, miraculously ache-free. Well enough to be up and about and feeling healthy in the first time in weeks. Bizarre.

And well enough to go out by the afternoon to meet some friends who live across the way, first time we’ve seen them in ages. Making full use of the lockdown ease in restrictions.

Discovered Wandsworth Common in all its glory.

The streets through Clapham very much resembled a socially distancing block party, all the pubs, cafes and restaurants doling out custom while the punters resided in doorways and on household chairs, available ledges and walls. Northcote Rd enjoyed a black van with a DJ pumping out the BBQ choons, apparently entirely independent from any business.

Everyone on one side of the street partied, the other side stopped, stared then decided on joining them.

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The park is the usual Common scenario – blank grassland with trees at its edges, popular with sports but these days taken over by the picnickers and drinkers, notably ourselves.

Plenty of the local teens were out loitering, circling with digital boomboxes and the hot bods -the kind who still wear their baseball caps backward, circa 1987/ 2017 -with their tops off and throwing varieties of ball.

By late afternoon the clouds were gathering on this first day in a week with sunshine, doom-laden with a double rainbow appearing. Some parts of the space resistant to shadow shone bright even as it rained. It must be odd playing ball, the wind blowing, hands freezing, refusing to put your pecs away and pretending you’re still in Rio, and not Wandsworth in the rain.

Nothing will ever dampen those horizons, or get in their way.

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Then it was back to theirs, a sparkling place of modern living and luxury simplicity segued into a historic building -all minimalist de-clutter offset by lone artpieces, historic detailing and orchids. The kind of place you think, one day my son… Designed by the architect who makes one half of the couple, the other a yoga instructor having given up being a vet due to how dire and depressing the industry is. By all accounts riven with death, intrigue and bitching like Game of Thrones with abducted pomeranians and murderfied gerbils – it has the highest suicide rates of any other industry. -I remember a mate who was a veterinary nurse, his little flat dotted with occasional squeaks, hairballs and furtive burrowing sounds at every turn, from the rescued animals he couldn’t bear to put down. He regaled me on the practices that happened.

For example, if some kind soul brought in an injured squirrel, perhaps rounded into a soft ball in delicate hands, you were meant to thank them graciously and wait awkwardly till they left. Then take the furball outside, and pitch it like a baseball at the tarmac or appropriated Death Wall. For the government insists you do it as guidance -as an invasive species from North America it demands annihilation, having sent the native Reds (smaller, tufty ears, red) into ever shrinking outposts in Scotland, as they get outcompeted.

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There is another line of conservation, that treats invasive species beyond a certain timescale as acceptable (as almost every wildlife habitat was created by being an invasive species at some stage). The city is currently seeing in a small colony of teeny Yellow Tailed Scorpions in East London, near the old docks where they jumped ship from the Med.

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We also have mitten crabs (yes, another Chinese biological import) -more problematic as they’re killing off all local species in favour of one. However, we may have hope -put a price on anything, and the human er ‘spirit’ will suddenly come to the fore and vanquish the impossible multitudes. As seen in the port city of Qingdao just before the Beijing Olympics, when a disastrous algae bloom turned the local coast a brilliant green. The government, having exhausted the army, eco groups and local do-gooders, then added a price for every bucket hauled (it can be used as fertiliser, food additives and fuel) -within days the seas had been cleansed and every grain of sand scrubbed as thousands of humans with greed on their minds descended.

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Mitten crabs are of course a prized delicacy in places like Shanghai that holds them as a star dish of the city, winning Michelin wreaths for their sweet flesh. In Europe however they haven’t caught on because of the offputting look of the growths that grow on the pincers (hence their name, and another moniker being ‘Hairy Crabs’). Also, they’re Thames dwelling, sieving through 20,000 tonnes of annual sewage dumped after every heavy rainfall, and thus not quite as salivating. The Mayor is currently building the enormously overpriced, already-late ‘Super Sewer’ (at 5 billion smackeroonies its ballooned to 5x the original cost thanks to money-grabbing contractors), a 25km tunnel under the city that will be able to take the overflow of raw shit. Until then it’s unlikely to be on any trendy menus.

It was so nice to socialise again, progressed into light drunkendom and gossiping about everything lockdown, riot and race related. It’s almost a social nicety now -to catch up on the current events, protests and pandemic at the start to get it over and done with, though now slowly becoming like Brexit B Word -something not to mention in polite company and ambassador’s balls. It segued nicely, and divisively, into how much of a colonialist twat our sacred Churchill was after 3 million died in the Bengal famine, that a 2017 study on the soil samples now affirms was engineered by his actions not drought (and the fact he denied them aid even after Canada and the US offered).

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At some stage we moved on to the hot topic of upward mobility (welcome to party-mad middle age, guys) and I stated it was noticeably easier in the UK, touting not just the figures but anecdotes on how many of our posho mates and creatives came from chavvy, knifey fams in caravan parks or refugee trails. But then J pointed out, we’d never even have that convo outside the UK, where class isn’t such a big fucking hang-up. I looked at it, he was right.

We later tried the homemade kimchi -fermented cabbage swamped in chilli (horribly pungent, spicy, and superb); Korean food is not like Chinese -it punches as a single note without so much the differing layers of flavour or texture, but in a good way. We finished the night with more wine, a surefire path to migraine and hangover for me, but what the hell. I need it. The food’s made me as reckless and unapologetic, likely to fight on the beaches.

Not so much a block party, more a fizzy, enjoyable slump into foreign sofas.

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