Monday, October 6, 2008

A Farmer's Feast

In the three and a half weeks I spent in the vast country of China, I was in cities as large as 30 million people, and towns so small they had only a single nursery school. We made it to Yangshuo, in Guanxi province toward the end of our trip, and it was a lovely break from the fast pace the trip had been following up to that point. We sat around, went swimming in the gorgeous Li river amidst water buffalo and fishermen, and enjoyed the stunning scene cast by limestone cliffs.

On the last of our three days in Yangshuo, we were lucky enough to be treated to a meal prepared by a farmer in his home. It was one of the high points of the trip; the food was wonderful, the house was charming, and the farmer was constantly coming back and forth, checking in and making sure we were satisfied, and that we left full (oh, did we leave full). He was gracious and kind, answering all of our questions without abandon through our tour guide, who served as translator.

The food was not the most creative in the world, nor was it the most aggressively spiced, but it had no reason to be. The ingredients were extremely fresh, and the quick cooking methods and subtle flavorings allowed their flavors to really shine through; it was absolutely wonderful. And it was served with none of the pretense of the "eat local" craze that is tearing across North America right now. This is not to say that I am opposed to said movement, in fact I think it is wonderful, and I think every one of us should take steps to eat more sustainably. There is no need for such a movement on the farms of Yangshuo. These farmers eat from the land, and understand the give and take between man and nature. This understanding has never waned, and there has never been any way to eat besides locally, which is why the food has never lost its soul. It was real, honest food. And it was delicious.

We sat down to three dishes: omelette with ground pork, sauteed potatoes and a sauteed pumpkin (or other like mystery squash). Everything tasted just like the sum of its parts, allowing the freshness of the ingredients to shine through. The squash was my favorite of the three, it was delicately spiced and had a hint of sweetness, and it was absolutely fantastic.

The farmer came out next with a dish of carrots and chicken with spring onions. The carrots tasted, well, just like incredibly carroty carrots, so crisp and fresh and oh so orange, perfectly accented with just the touch of soy sauce in which it was sauteed.

Bamboo shoots with pork was next. The sauces that graced each of these plates was rather similar, and I think it was just a sautee in some soy sauce, with a touch of garlic and ginger that brought every dish together, and allowed the ingredients of each to really speak for themselves. Bamboo shoots were one of the things I got (probably undeservedly) excited about every time they arrived at the table, since they are pretty much the best things ever and highly underrepresented in the American diet for obvious bamboo-related reasons.

These fried eggplant slices were battered and also had some pork stuffed in there. I wasn't a huge fan just because it tasted too fried for me, but everyone else at the table absolutely gobbled them up.

Sauteed bean sprouts in soy sauce was the last dish to make ti to the table. I didn't expect much from this dish, but it really surprised me. When I thought about it, I realized that I hadn't often eaten cooked bean sprouts, since they're usually tossed in at the end of the recipe to make sure they don't get sadly droopy. These bean sprouts were cooked just enough to warm them, but they still kept all their delightfully snappy integrity, and the light sauce allowed the very delicate flavor of the bean sprouts to come out without overpowering it.

The farmer dashed off after he realized we were full beyond belief and returned a few minutes later on his motorbike with a large bag in his basket. We all watched, confused, as he set up a ladder and strung what appeared to be 92854 firecrackers along that and the wall. Apparently it is tradition for those in the town to set off firecrackers whenever they have honored guests (though we were far from distinguished, so I'm not sure if I buy this...) to draw attention to and honor their presence. Let me tell you, those firecrackers were loud as hell, and seemingly went off for 17 minutes, though I'm sure it was more like five. To my eardrums, it was an eternity. But it was amazing.

It was wonderful to take a break from the chili flake and MSG-addled dishes we'd been (gladly, mind you) eating through that point on the trip and enjoy some food that didn't need any of that pageantry. Just Real. Good. Food.

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