September 29, 2011

La Mien from Xian

Many of the lamian restaurants in China are owned by Hui ethnic families from Northwestern China, (in Xinjiang they are known as laghman, لەڭمەن, inUyghur), and serve only halal food (thus no pork dishes). Lamian restaurants are the most common halal restaurants in eastern China.
In Kunming we met many Hui Tribe men who are experts in the making of la mien.
Another typical variety of lamian is Shandong lamian (山东拉面), from the eastern province of Shandong.

September 28, 2011

Roof Top Factory : Red Rice Sheet Noodles

 I met a wonderful  lady who is strong and very understanding. She has been a good community volunteer and has helped many women who have difficulties in life.

Besides this lady has sacrificed a great deal to help her husband and son to make a living out of the simple red rice flour.

Red Rice Sheet Noodle is not at all familiar for most Chinese or for that matter the Asians.

The family has a small farm house and on the roof they created a special kitchen to make the rice sheet noodles - a specialty in Yunnan.

She brought my friends and I to see her little factory and in it her husband  and son were hard at work in the afternoon. He and the son were preparing the noodles for sale in the evening and for the next morning.
Although he was having a hard time containing his anxiety problems he can be financially independent and  work at the roof top for as many hours as he liked.... He however would not leave their home and mix with people socially according to her.
This is the view of their small factory from the other side. The factory has been built by my new "sister" and her husband. As their son grew older her husband made him his apprentice and the two of them have been producing more noodles then before. Sifu and "apprentice" have been working very well together Although there was very little conversation between the two of them I noticed the work process was really smooth. Both of them were absorbed in their own work and in their own happiness.

The rice sheet noodles in the final state and are ready to be taken out by sister Li for sale at the familiar street corner.
My friends and I were given some as a "welcoming" treat after visiting the factory. If this is a first time for you to try the sheet noodle it would be polite to slice off a smaller piece...but never never say "I don't know how to eat this".  I know many people who think they are too good for some kind of food and snub the food offered.

If my friends say something like this I would snap back and say.."If you have thanked God for the food please eat nicely and you would never know when your next meal may be..." We must be always grateful for food on the table. Many millions of people have nothing to eat for days!!

A special Yunnan chilli paste is kept in a plastic bottle and the rice sheet is cut into smaller pieces. I love the chilli paste she made. According to her this type of Yunnan chili paste is also available commercially. But she makes all her own pastes to keep the tastes the family likes. And furthermore it is more economical as she grows her own chillies in her farm.
This is a rolled up rice sheet with chilli paste filling. Excellent in texture and taste. I am thankful for the sustenance provided by the sister. She is really very accomodating and hospitable. Furthermore she is very articulate and I am sure if she had the opportunity to study she could have become a lecturer too.

I left her home energized and feeling at peace with Heaven for providing such a wonderful and enterprising woman to this village...She who has helped her husband's family to prosper . We have to admire her for her resilience and infinite tolerance and love for her family.

She is indeed one of millions of Chinese women  who has helped lift up the Chinese sky.

And how often do women stand by their men when things are not that rosy!!

Recipe for Chili sauce : Pound together  a handful of dried chillies and  two tablespoons of sichuan peppercorns. Add some cloves and five spices and garlic. Pound. Finally add sugar and salt and some preserved brown or black beans. You can add other spices to create your own chillie sauce. In order to preserve the chilli sauce for several months simmer the paste in cooking oil for about 1 hour.

September 27, 2011

Crossing the Bridge Noodles Sculpture @ Nanhu

In Yunnan the famous local noodles called Cross Bridge Noodles are eternalised by a beautiful sculpture in the Nanhu(West Lake) Park in Mengzi. I do not think any soup or dish in Asia has been better commemorated in this way. When I looked at the sculpture I was thinking of my own Foochow mien sien in Sibu or the kampua ...when would the Sibu leaders officially commission sculptures of our famous dishes ?

Crossing the bridge noodles 过桥米线 (guò qiáo mĭxiàn) is an elaborate chicken (or any other meat) noodle soup which originated from the southern province of Yunnan and specifically from Mengzi.

The legend has it that about 100 years ago a scholar isolated himself on an island to prepare for the Imperial civil examination. His wife would bring him rice noodles and other morsels in a rich chicken broth, with a layer of fat on top to keep the soup warm until she reached him. The chicken soup was still warm and the rest of the ingredients fresh and tasty. (Wikipedia)

Indeed I was very touched by the commemorative sculpture when I stood in front of it. How gentle the wife was and how scholarly the husband looked. And as if it was very appropriate the two had only one child. And the way he looked at her was very special. ..that has a rather modern take as I reckon in the olden days of Confucian training most men would not look at their wives with that kind of special gaze. The sculptor should be commended too.

The sculpture exudes the best of values of family - love - kindness -duty - and patience. The sculptor captured them all remarkably!! When visiting Yunan every tourist would usually be introduced to this noodle in a nice outlet by the tour guide. And I must say you would find it a treat which will last a life time. And do spend time to savour the delicacy.

 My experience was near perfect as ten of us sat a huge round table in Mengzi's best Crossing the Bridge Noodles Restaurant. We ordered 6 sets to share. My friend and I could not finish in fact!! Served by attendants wearing ancient Chinese uniforms we felt like royalty. Furthermore we were also treated to a grand concert with good music and beautiful dances.The MC in his Mongolian costume was particularly eloquent and artistic.

The rice noodles here are different in texture and taste as Yunnan produces very good rice on its hills. All rice noodles are made and consumed on the same day!! I did throw a coin into the wishing well...may be one day I would be able to go back there and eat another bowl of Cross Bridge Noodles with my friends.......Do dreams come true?

(WARNING : always ask how big the dish is because a small eater may not be able to finish the giant bowl. Get a good friend to share the set meal or you will be wasting your good money....scan the environment first. Also when you bring your young children they might find the dish too much. Some restaurants only serve this dish and you might not have a choice....)

September 26, 2011

Croquet for the Retirees in Yunnan

90 years old and you think you cannot do anything at all?

Think again. You can still join a team and play croquet for your town and even enter an annual competition in Beijing !! Even if you are from rural China.

And perhaps that is why many old people are taking up croquet all over the country. In Mengzi a very keen group of retirees are practicing their game in the morning with some turning up as early as six in the morning. The fresh autumn air is not too cold for the still healthy sports men and women. Most of them are already in their 70's. I watched them play several days as my friends and went for walks  around the huge Nan Hu (West Lake) . We would end up with a nice bowl of Huen Tuen or Wan Tan in soup. (They don't serve Dry Wan Tan in Mengzi)

Croquet is a lawn game, played both as a recreational pastime and as a competitive sport. It involves hitting plastic or wooden balls with a mallet through hoops (often called "wickets" in the US) embedded into the grass playing court.

Ladies waiting for their turn.
This elegant gentleman is happy in his thoughts.
This gentleman is patient and is extremely perfect in his swing.

My short stay in Yunnan opened my eyes to many things. I realise how much the older people there care about their health. They spend their time in the parks with their friends and many of them get into teams to play organised games. Some even dance in the park every evening!! They are really enjoying their sunset years with viguour.
In a sports report in 2008 :  In April 2008 at"  Beijing's Ditan Park, right next to the Yonghegong Lama Temple eighty teams of nine were competing in a three-day croquet tournament at the park's six sand courts. That's 720 retirees in one little Beijing park." The article concluded with this quotation - "Croquet is the poor man's golf," says one old Beijinger, a teammate of tournament organizer Zhao Shuyun. "We just have to buy this one club and then go to the park and play." 

Zhao was 90 years old then.

Personally I believe that croquet not only has a bright future in the Grey World of the Future in Asia..but it may be a good game to introduce to Malaysian schools....but again....I am calling for school playing grounds to come back to schools...the concrete pavements would just not do at all looking at the pathetic conditions of many of our crowded schools.

Obesity can only be the result if our kids and adults cannot play and run around in an open school field. 

Last note: Anxiety ridden Thoughts about joining these retirees - Do I qualify to join them? Would they be exclusive in their membership? Do you think I can get along with them? What if I get thrown out after only three days? What if they are pursuing protectionist policies - no outsiders please!!....questions...questions old people ask because they have tendencies for anxieties....

September 25, 2011

Special Bamboo Water Pipes in Yunnan

The generous Foochows would place two packets of cigarettes on each of the banquet tables (square in the olden days and round in the modern days) along side four bottles of Ta Fong Aerated drinks and a bottle of Brandy and some bottles of beer for invited guests during a wedding feast when I was a child growing up in the village of Ah Nang Chong along the Rajang.

And this trip of Yunnan I was brought back to the old days of life in the Rajang....when I saw the cigarettes left on a huge enamel tray for guests to pick up as they brought their money packets for the house warming event. The treasurer of the occasion wrote down each amount of cash received and the guests would sit  at the "cash table" for a smoke and a chat. That's a nice way to welcome guests. And in Yunnan the men smoke like chimneys.

One great difference between the smokers of Sibu and those of Yunnan is the use of the big bamboo pipe.

Yunnan is known for its 18 Oddities. One of them is the huge Bamboo Pipe.
It is actually a water filled long bamboo tube which can be as long as a metre. The people feel that smoking tobacco this way will reduce chances of getting cancer. Because the water purifies the smoke and removes the cancer-inducing elements!

The loose thread like tobacco is burnt  in a cup-topped tube at the base of the pipe. The resonant gurgling noise which accompanies an inhalation is all part of the experience, for smoker and observer alike! Smoking in Yunnan is a social habit and is considered a good way of establishing good relationships!!

What about a smoke friend?

Man enjoying his pipe while waiting for customers for his taxi.
Pipe smoking - when guests arrive for a feast they are expected to smoke using the communal pipe provided (note the low chairs)

More people enjoying the smoking...
Man smoking while waiting for business to come.

September 23, 2011

Wood for Stove and Grandmother's Love

A former student just reminded me that fire wood can range from very burnable to the undry-able in Sarawak!! The indigenous people of Sarawak have tribal knowledge of what wood can burn well and what won't. Students who live in most Sarawak boarding schools in the 60's and 70's used to collect firewood for the school refrectory/kitchen and those who were not in the know would collect wood that could not be burnt!! Thus giving more work to the cooks.

Dinners cooked over good firewood taste better.

My mother and grandmother would know what firewood to use. Good drift wood collected from the river would burn well and provide a roaring fire for both the stove and the rubber smoke house. In those days we could also pick up  spare Ramin wood from Lee Hua Sawmill nearby. These scraps and unuseable planks (some with barks still on) would burn very well indeed. Furthermore they were easier to saw and chop into smaller pieces as firewood for the Foochow stove. But those doing the sawing and chopping would get itchy all all over. And we would scratch to our heart's content!!

While in Mengzi(Yunnan) my friend and I came across a scene which brought all the above memories back to me. We were walking through an older part of the city where old people were still tilling small open spaces and old folks could still be seen living in the older homes. It was part of a smaller river side village which remained undeveloped so far. But the urban jungle is creeping in fast!!
In one of our evening walks we came by this housing area. We met an old lady who was going to cook her dinner.
One of the family members probably owns this little business - a trolley and  glass box  displaying lots of Honghe  area's cigarettes and other daily items.
The old lady and her basket of good fire wood. This old lady reminded me so much of my own maternal grandmother!!

September 21, 2011

Chinese Imperial Examination Hall in Jianshui

My grandmother used to tell us stories about scholars going to the capital (siong ging ko di) to sit for the Imperial Exams. Tiing Chor Nguong (Foochow) Zhuàngyuán (状元/狀元), lit. exemplar of the state, jìnshì who ranked #1 first class (in the palace examination) at the Imperial Examination was the  dream of our Chinese male ancestors.

And I was then the young girl who was always asking why weren't girls allowed to sit for the examinations or why women were not made Prime Ministers but yet there were empresses like Wu Tzer Tien!!

And I am ever grateful that my grandmother told such wonderful tales about our ancestors.  I strongly believe that it is through such tales from  wise grandmothers and other older relatives that we the Overseas Chinese learn to value education and crave for top rankings in examinations.

Today we continue to see this kind of old values in Chinese films and perhaps those who can still read Chinese continue to read about these exams in our Chinese legends.

Not in my wildest dream actually would I one day be able to sit in an Imperial Examination Hall  in  China and role play a scholar  of the ancient days...But my gender is all wrong. No women were in the olden  days allowed to sit for the Imperial Exams. Bright girls were tutored by scholars at home but they never received any certificates. There were no costumes for me to rent and take a photo.....sigh....

Civil service examination are examinations implemented in various countries for admission to the civil service. They are intended as a method to achieve an effective, rational public administration on a merit system.
The most ancient example of such exams were the imperial examinations of ancient China.(Wikipedia)

Painting from Wikipedia of Chinese scholar (with Phoenix embroidery) of the First Ranking.
The fundamental justification for the Chinese Imperial Exams was that appointees to civil service positions were not to be chosen through special or inherited privilege, but through an individual's own abilities. For centuries, the might of China was established militarily, often by emperors from humble origins who had toppled existing dynasties. However, once in control, these emperors soon realized that the actual governance of China would require the administrative services of thousands of bureaucrats. The civil service examination was thus a means for creating such a body of men, and it became a meritocratic strategy that was emulated by France and Britain in the nineteenth century when these countries began needing public servants for their far-flung imperial outpost.

The Chinese civil service exams began around the sixth century; by 115 CE a set curriculum had already become established for the so-called First Generation of exam takers. They were tested for their proficiency in the so-called Six Arts which included music, archery and horsemanship, arithmetic, writing and knowledge of the rituals and ceremonies of both public and private life. Between 200BCE-200CE, the curriculum had expanded to the Five Studies. The and examinations included military strategies, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography in addition to the Confucian Classics.

By 1370 CE the scope and rigor of these exams were evident: t here were examinations lasting twenty-four and even seventy-two hours conducted in spare, isolated examination rooms.
Our trip to Jianshui gave me the opportunity to visit an examination hall and experience for myself what it was like to sit for an imperial exams in China all those years ago.

There were generally three levels of exams given at the local, provincial and national levels. District exams included testing the candidate on his knowledge of the classics, the ability compose poetry on given subjects using set poetic forms and calligraphy. At the provincial level examinations candidates were tested on the breadth of their studies in the Classics, and these examinations often last up to seventy-two hours. A candidate who passed the provincial level exam was termed juren meaning recommended man. Those who had attained the juren status were eligible for the national level exams. Passing that level of exams then raised an individual to the highest level possible--that of jinshi or the so-calledpresented scholar.

At the national level exams, candidates were examined on the ability to analyze contemporary political problems in addition to the usual examinations based on the Classics. There were also additional highly prestigious special exams that were held occasionally by imperial decree. The less prestigious exams were those that were held to exam candidates in law, calligraphy, state ritual and military skills.

The success rates of these exams were extremely small: During the Tang Dynasty the passing rate was about two percent. The personal suffering that individuals underwent both in the preparation and in the taking of these exams has become part of Chinese lore. Candidates were known to repeatedly fail exams. Some committed suicide because of the disgrace that these failures brought to their families. Others continued taking exams even as very old, grey-haired men. For those who rose through the ranks by passing these exams and being selected for administrative positions, it meant that their clans or families also rose in social prestige and wealth.

The meritocratic nature of these exams has been noted in Chinese history: During the Ming Dynasty nearly half, about 47 percent, of those who passed the highest level examinations were from families with no official connections.

It was not possible at all for any girl to sit for the Imperial Examination. I am glad that I have been born into a family where girls are educated like the boys...and we girls can go as far as we can to a certain degree.

One of the characters decorating the facade of the Examination Hall.
Ceramic ware on display in the Hall.
Costumes for the court examiners and adjudicators as well as supervisors and students. These could be rented for photo taking.
Three ladies of the 21st century taking their seats. Three on a bench. An official would have made sure that there was no cheating. It must have been nerve wrecking to take such an examination.  But I really think all (men and women) should have been given a chance to win top marks.
Pretty tourist guides for the centre.
the main door way to the learning centre.
Confucian School of Learning in Jianshui

Confucian teaching continues to be admired and organised. In Miri there is a big school near the Columbia Hospital. Many educationists also appreciate the methodology within Confucian teaching. Perhaps it is the Confucian way of teaching which has helped so many to be good scholars and mathematicians. Discipline of the mind is a fundamental value in Confucian learning in my own experience. I would agree that the younger generation of the Chinese should do some research on this topic and may help to open doors to better understanding of the Asian mind and how our brains work in modern days.

Note : The Chinese Imperial examination system had important influences on the Northcote-Trevelyan Report and hence on the reform of the Civil Service in British India and later in the United Kingdom.(Wikipedia)

September 20, 2011

Yunnan's Bamboo Rice (lemang)

At the Yunnan Ethnic Minorities Cultural Village - there is this special food stall which sells lemang or bamboo rice in their dialect.
It is prepared in almost the same way as our Sarawak lemang. The girl preparing it is very lovely and she serves us in a very gracious way - we were like royalty. Each lemang is only 5RMB or 2.50 ringgit. Our group shared one tube.
My friend dividing the lemang with her chopsticks. I actually never thought of using chopsticks with lemang!! But this is the done thing here. Eating bamboo rice with chopsticks for centuries!!

The bamboo tubing is easily pried open..look how lovely the bamboo cooked rice is. It is a very convenient way of cooking rice while travelling in the mountains. Set up fire. find some bamboo. wash rice...and lo and behold..your evening meal is cooked in no time. Some times a fish or some meat is placed in the rice and cooked together...lovely to think of a meal like that in the open. I hope Anthony Bourdain would have another go coming to Borneo and taste better food in the jungle!!

Banana leave wrapped rice...this can come out of a bamoo and then wrapped in banana leaves for easy carrying in a back pack. Having travelled much in the jungles of Sarawak I find this a very natural way of dealing with our food. Sustanence is so traditional  and our ancestral ways are more than intelligent!! Tribal knowledge should be respected by all means.

September 19, 2011

Bear Bile Wine and Powder of Yunnan

I have seen bear farms in Taiwan. And I have seen real bear gall bladders in SArawak...I have even seen bears freshly killed in the jungle in Borneo. And I had close encounters with bears in Zoo Negara in KL.

But a sudden and surprising introduction to a huge bear farm was this recent trip to Yunnan. The local people are very nonchalant about their local bear farm. They did not really push their products even. Perhaps bear bile wine is almost like just another factory product of theirs for decades.

We were taken to see some bears which were happily feeding away on the hill slopes.

Black bears on the hill slope of Ping Bian

More bears

Factory where Bear Bile Powder and Wine are produced. Some bears are caged inside this huge building

Bear Bile (gall) wine

Bear Gall (bile) powder

We visited a very special place called Ping Bian which is a small little town but it is really the centre of  bear bile powder and wine production. In no time we were introduced to these products but we were not forced to buy. The locals could not get us into the factory because it was not possible for tourists to visit. We were allowed to watch the bears from a distance.

Later we were taken to several of the shops which sold the products. The ladies happily introduced us to the products and the benefits of taking them. But none of us actually bought them. When we asked our friends whether they did buy any for themselves. They said that they were still healthy!!

I suppose that is the best policy then. Stay healthy always and we don't have to over extract bile from the bears.

Note : The monetary value of the bile comes from the traditional prescription of bear bile by doctors practising traditional Chinese medicine. Bear bile contains ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), which is believed to reduce fever, protect the liver, improve eyesight, break down gallstones, and act as an anti-inflammatory.

September 16, 2011

Horse Power in Yunnan

lù yáo zhī mǎ  lì , rì  jiǔ jiàn rén  xīn
                   ( Over a long distance, you learn about the strength of your horse; over a long period of time, you get to know what's in a person's heart. Moral: Character can be revealed by time.)

This can be used positively to praise a true friend, or negatively to criticize friends who could not stand a test.

This Chinese proverb rang in my head as I looked at the horse and cart situation before me in Yunnan. And I realised how truly did our Chinese ancients speak!!

I quickly took the rare opportunity of photographing this worker in a complicated situation with his cart. It was also very ananchronistic - his horse pulling a cart full of beams for a construction site..the beams would help to scaffold shop houses -- His horse looked extremely tired with the over load. A few of the beams were slipping further down the cart and touching the road causing his cart to literally stop in the middle of the road between two blocks of shop houses which had grown from a huge piece of farm land according to my friend who is now living nearby!!

The worker climbed up the cart

He tried to balance some of the beams. He was not able to pull the beams further up the cart.
The horse patiently waited for his master to solve the problem. Getting angry would not help the situation. He has a lot of "horse sense".

There is a Chinese expression which says - in our lives we are often "horse and cow" to our loved ones.

But in fact out of duty and obligation we really have to pull our own weight to create the great balance in life.

But sometimes the last straw will break a camel's back....What will break a horse towards the end?

Like in "Animal Farm" by George Orwell the horse (Boxer) will remain true to his work load until he dies ...

A thought comes to mind. Are women still reckoned as draught animals in many places in the 21st century? 

September 14, 2011

Memorable Hot Soups of Yunnan

“Good soup is one of the prime ingredients of good living. For soup can do more to lift the spirits and stimulate the appetite than any other one dish.”
Louis P. De Gouy, ‘The Soup Book’ (1949)

"Only the pure of heart can make good soup"
Beethoven (How perceptive of Beethoven to say thus.)

Since young I have loved my mother's and relatives' soups and as a Foochow I list the Foochow country chicken soup with red wine as MY No. 1 soup. What a wonderful world we have when we look at the great varieties of soups we human beings have created over the centuries!!

In writing this article I referred to my  little travel dairy  and I must say drinking soups in Yunnan with an average temperature of 16 degrees or below in the evenings can make one quite poetic.....

In the cool of the evening as we sat  down together...soup was served and my body warmed up. My tired muscles seemed to melt away with the breeze which also brought the special fragrance of Yunnanese soup!

The crickets filled the air with their music . But it was the familiar kitchen sounds  which was comfort to my ears.

Out of my comfort zone of Malaysian life I could find comfort in the amazing bowl of soup...or was it just a loving feeling deep inside for the soup? Can't tell the difference really but truly the simple serving of the country soup was an act of love for  tired souls. The fragrance from the soup is bewitching.

I just wanted to watch the food at the table.. and  thus sat there mesmerized . Nothing should temper with this coming together of spirituality of God's grace and man's harvest.  Least of all criticisms and negative thoughts. There must be pure joy at the feast: joy of food and shared love and blessings.  And this bowl of soup was truly the result of the sweat of  a farmer and his rough hands. 

We must be thankful for farmers who toil for us and for the food (and especially the soup) on the table. (My Travels in Yunnan - August 2011)

And here I have pictures of almost all the soups I had in Yunnan...photographs taken with love to share with you (those who were with me and those who did not go with me)........

Our first peanut milk based soup in Yunnan @ our first ever Yunnan meal.
Rich goose meat and bone stock for our hot pot meal in Kunming
Famous Yunnan Wild Mushrooms added to the goose hot pot
Village favourite - savoury spinach and peanut soup
Special beef and Rice Noodles (soup)

toufoo and mountain wild vegetables soup
Mountain vegetable and omelette soup
Fish and Salted Vegetable soup (Similar to the Iban Kasam Ensabi and Fish Soup)
Peanut Milk and pumpkin tops soup
Close up of Yunnan styled meat filled omelette/dumpling  for soup
A special vegetable soup with egg omelette dumplings.
The milkiness of a good peanut milk soup
Toufoo and greens soup
Silky "huen tuon" or wantan.
Special Yunnan Huen Tuong Soup with Chinese parsley and coriander which will definitely make my son very happy. (At 3.50 RMB breakfast)
Special banquet styled pork knuckle soup (the flesh could be easily torn apart by a pair of chopsticks)
Hill Winter Melon Soup with Pork Bones
Crossing the Bridge Noodle and Huge Bowl of Superior Soup
Crossing the Bridge Mi Sien in soup with ingredients like veg etc...
A splendid display of hot pot with all the goodies hidden under the meat filled egg dumplings
Wild Vegetable Soup

I hope you are inspired to cook soups for your loved ones and do start writing about the soups you prepare from your heart!!

Sibu Tales : Making Bah Gui from Scratch

The pioneering families of Sibu Foochows continued to practise the  adoption of girls from poor families who become their maids (slaves). ...