By David Ferguson
The very first time I arrived in China, my wife and I were collected at Beijing airport by one of her friends, who insisted on taking us for a sumptuous lunch. It was about four in the morning UK time, and, as ever following a long flight, I was feeling queasy from the lack of sleep and the alcohol that had failed yet again to induce it. Sumptuous lunch was not high on my agenda.
On that day, the first dish I was ever served in China was cold pickled chicken's feet. It's hard to describe what these are like – "imagine eating a cold, pickled, chicken's foot" is about the best I can do. They consist of skin, bone, cartilage, and a claw. Once you've developed a taste for them, you can move on to hot spicy chicken's feet, although I didn't try these until later.
My local food market in Jilin is a cavernous hall – a riot of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, oils, meats, poultry, and (mostly live) fish. It's almost, dare I say it, "vibrant".
The first time I saw a dog's carcass for sale I was quite startled. It was skinned whole, from the nose to the tip of the tail, and it lay on the market butcher's slab like a white marble statue. Dog is primarily a Korean dish, but Jilin Province borders on Korea so there is a strong influence on the local culture. Eating-dogs are farmed for the purpose – a big, mastiff-type breed.
As a general rule, dog is good to eat, apart from dog skin salad, which I generally try to dodge. Peppery dog soup is an effective hangover cure, and fried dog, in flavour and texture, is somewhere between beef and brown turkey meat.
One of the things in the market that interests me a lot is the fish. For a city so far from the sea there is a very impressive display. One of the most popular, though, is a local fish from the Songhua Lake called pangtou ("fat head"). It's a strange fish like a big salmon, with an odd head that looks as though it's on upside down.
The fishmongers display the fish on wooden slats on the floor with their heads chopped off. At first I thought that the heads had been chopped off to sell for soup or to throw away. In retrospect, this was more than a little naïve – nothing in China gets thrown away. In fact, the heads are a prized delicacy.