Taste of Guilt - Chinese Style
In this day and age of environmental responsibility, health consciousness and animal conservation- guilt can be found everywhere in the food world. People are now more aware on where their salmon is farmed and the environmental impact fish-farming has, which kind of oils has the lease amount bad fats and of course, if what they are eating is threatened with extinction. All these thoughts go into our dinner. Think of the poor Chilean sea bass, or fois gras in Chicago.
Let me describe to you one of the most lavish yet guilt-ridden meals that I have had. Let me start by saying the being Chinese gives me a distinct advantage in the eating of the strange and wonderful foods of the world.
A well-know gastronome in Hong Kong invited me out to dinner the last time I was there. The meal was to be prepared by one of the last remaining chefs from the Imperial times of China. The first two courses of the meal was a shark’s fin served in a heavily flavored broth of chickens and Chinese ham and stir-fried shark’s fin with Chinese chives, ham and eggs. There is then a braised abalone with geese-feet, then spiky black sea cucumbers, the house special fried rice, and the double braised swallow’s nest. This meal was the very picture of environmental irresponsibility, animal cruelty and it is most definitely not a healthy meal, at least by western medical standard.
Let’s first talk about shark’s fin. To obtain these fins, sharks are hunted, their fins cut off, and thrown live back into the sea, where the shark drowns or is eaten by other sharks. Sharks like the hammerhead to great white are all indiscriminately hunted since the larger the shark, the larger the fin and the higher price they fetch, but they taste no different from spices to spices. The fin that the chef bought out to show us was about three feet across the base of the fin, making me wonder about the size of the shark that it came from. According to the 16th century Materia Medica, an ancient Chinese medical text, shark’s fin stimulates the appetite and should be served at the beginning of banquets. The ironic thing is, the fins themselves are tasteless because of the intense processing it takes to make it eatable. It’s the chicken broth refined from half-dozen chickens that gave the first course its flavors, and the Chinese ham in the second.
I was dining with eleven other people, so the abalone, a single-shelled mollusk hunted close to endangerment in Australia and Mexico, was cooked with twelve pairs of geese feet- a dozen geese that gave up only their feet to lend the abalone its flavor- what happened to the rest of the geese is beyond me. Again, the abalone itself doesn't taste much like anything, since it was dried and then reconstituted. My gourmand friend informed me that the secret is, again, the half dozen chickens, and the two pounds of pork trotters that went into the broth.
Unlike broth-making in western cooking, the flesh are left on chickens and simmered for days and then discarded. Three courses in the meal, and we’re already gone through one dozen chickens without touching a scrap of meat. Another quirk of the chef is that he only cooks over charcoal, so not only are the flesh twelve chickens wasted, as are days of coal. It all seems excessive to me. Guilt was beginning to set in.
The chef told me that there were fewer and fewer of the spiky sea cucumbers left in the wild and that I should enjoy them while they were available. The secret to the fried rice was that not only was it cooked with Chinese sausages, ham and spring onions, but that it is fried with lard- lots of it. Pig fat really does taste fantastic - my mom has fond memories of eating plain steamed rice with melted lard and soy sauce when she was a girl. It is traditionally the Chinese cooking medium of choice because of its high smoke point but, as every doctor out there will tell you, lard is one of the worst fats for your body out there. My inner intuitionalist scolded me for taking a second helping, but it tasted great.
The dessert course is perhaps the most decadent (and politically incorrect) part of the meal- double braised swallow’s nest with thick coconut milk. Swallow’s nest is the dried saliva of the swifts that nests in the sea caves of Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and Maynmar (formally Burma). Not only is the collection of the nests dangerous because of the heights at which these swifts build their nests, but also because of the political instability in the regions where these caves are located. Collectors of these nests are armed to the teeth with semi-automatic weapons, and firefights have been known to break out between rivals with casualties.
In Chinese medicine, Swallow’s nest is one of the ultimate tonics for the skin and longevity, especially for women. Your average serving consists of one quarter of an ounce of the sticky, stringy substance in a broth or in this case, sugar syrup in which the Swallow’s nest has been braised for six hours. In this case, I was given around three ounces in my first serving, and around two ounces in my second. In this case, it was the cost of the bird’s nest alone that made me taste guilt along with the creamy coconut milk it was served with. A small legion of starving children could have been fed with the money that was paid for those two small bowls. But again, because swallow’s nest need intensive processing for it to be edible, it is completely tasteless but for the sugar syrup and the coconut milk.
The shark fin, the abalone, the sea cucumber and finally, the Swallow’s nest- they are all expensive and sources of guilt. They are only delicious because of the skill of the chef and the other ingredients in the dish. In this case, guilt is tasteless- literally.
And if you’re wondering, I went home that night and suffered for my guilt – indigestion.