Thursday, February 26, 2009

Stranger Creature Cuisine (1880s)

Bill Brown ... Xiamen University
Major Henry Knolly's, who wrote "English Life in China," (1885) was obviously not fond of China or Chinese. I would blush to share some of the disparaging things he wrote of both. Still, he was very descriptive in his writings, and I've attended enough of 3-hour culinary marathons over the years, in which we're fed every part of an animal but the meat itself, that I can appreciate his account of a Chinese banquet--and especially his closing statement of having eaten his fill and still being hungry. I wrote about being "Famished at the Feast" in the booki, Magic Xiamen--Guide to Xiamen & Fujian".

Major Knolly's Chinese Banquet:
In course of time relays of hot dishes are brought steaming from the kitchen, and set down in the centre of the table. Bird's-nest soup, of course an expensive luxury which is never wanting in really recherché dinners. It is not a mass of twigs, moss, and feathers, but a clean, clear fluid with a yellow tinge, a slightly gelatinous consistency, and about as insipid to the palate as dissolved isinglass. Nothing except in thought to disgust one here, and as we are supplied with little scoops like porcelain medicine spoons, I am not behindhand in the swallowing race. Shark's fins humph! pulpy and viscous, one need be hungry to enjoy them. Toadstools— they look spotted and deadly poisonous, but Sir James Paget assures me that they are nutritious as beef steak. Fishes' maws, that is, the lower lips stewed into a snail-looking broth. Ugh! all this mixture of unwonted food in however small quantities, together with the heat, the charged atmosphere, and the 'bouquet de Chinois,' is beginning to make me feel thoroughly squeamish. Still the women, who by the way annoy me by hawking, hemming, and expectorating as incessantly as a forty-year-old Frenchwoman, in keen amusement ply their chopsticks in my behalf. Shark-fin, toadstool, fish's maw. 'Stop, please' (half choking), 'I cannot eat any more.' But as I open my mouth in enunciation of despairing remonstrance, one last tit-bit is thrust in a pigeon's egg, and a pigeon's egg which, according to Chinese ideas of dainty dishes, had acquired a peculiar relish by having been preserved for twenty years.
I hesitate no longer….

But to think how our repast made us not one whit ill the next day.' The secret of this was that about half a mouthful of each dish more than satisfied our appetites, and that thus the aggregate of food consumed was so small that practically we went to bed dinnerless. The whole experience was one to be eagerly sought out for once, but to be resolutely avoided on a second occasion.

Knollys, Major Henry, “English Life in China,” Smith, Elder & Company, London, 1885, pp. 289,290

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