The Carnal Pleasures, pt. I - Pork intestine and blood noodles.
Despite our lofty aspirations we humans are, at our very root, quite plain and instinctively drawn to whatever satisfies our needs - food being one of the primary ones. People love reading about it, watching photos of mouth-watering dishes and following all sorts of culinary blogs and such. I am perhaps even simpler a person in this respect, as I enjoy consumption more than food’s many visual or lyrical aspects; that being said, I cannot ignore the role it plays in the life of the City. It is, after all, the sole purpose of this account to portrait Her mystery as seen through all the five senses.
I feel my initial reluctance to even touch the subject of food stemmed from the fact that there’s probably dozen or so such writings, as this is the easiest and certainly most fool-proof way to acquire readers and recognition. A friend of mine made a fine comment on the series of photographs that accompany my little chronicle:
‘The ones depicting food get the most likes and comments!’
Had I been slightly more careful in following the latest trends in social media, I wouldn’t have been shocked to hear that. I was, to say at least, mildly disappointed to see that a random shot of a bowl of 10q noodles possesses more value than one of a hidden historical site for instance. Well, let’s say we all know why this happens, but this is not the purpose of this story to question intellectual abilities of my own species.
What made me put my aversion aside was most likely the situation we have recently all found ourselves in - now, as things in the City come back to normal, so do food stands and restaurants. The vibrant smells and colours return to the streets, and although it is still not allowed to dine in (squatting just outside the entrance with a bowl is totally fine), I can no longer restrain myself from getting a take-away from one of my favourite local providers of daily intake of oil and lajiao.
I am actually not doing much justice to the establishment I’m talking about here, as it specialises in a local gourmet prepared in a way most magnificent, and there is neither much oil nor chilli (usually the signs of poor cooking) in what they’re serving.
But it definitely wasn’t a love at first sight.
As you may already know from my previous stories, Dear Reader, I have been living in the same place on the Treasure Mt. Road since times immemorial. Over the course of months I got to know more and more local places of dining, and became more adventurous with what I would put on my plate. There was one place, however, that I could not figure out entirely - I could read the sign that said intestine noodles, and see the never-ending queues to food pick-up, but whether it was a good idea or not to actually try what was clearly so craved by the local populace, I couldn’t tell.
Now it is worth noting that I come from a place where cow intestines in a broth are a kind of a common and traditional dish - the meat is cooked tender and finely sliced, so despite its dubious appearance, it makes for a pleasurable meal. That being said, having tried intestines on a bbq in a couple of places I had a chance to visit in this part of the world, I was unconvinced to say at least.
Once, in a distant land farther east, I was instructed that it ought to be swallowed whole without chewing on it too much. Another time, here, the meat had such an unpleasant smell that I didn’t dare to touch it; I have mentioned that I enjoy eating, and if something doesn’t look appetising to me even after long and tiring hours of debauchery at the Spirit of Darkness Road, then it’s probably best to trust my instincts.
In my early months in the City, my endeavours didn’t really take me in the direction the shop - there’s a local convenience store first (that used to have a lovely little cat running around before the owners bought a pure-breed and dumped the tabby), then the bank and some other meat-on-sticks-in-a-funny-pot shop where I have never dined - which means I almost never walked past the noodles unless I’d head towards the Peach of Immortality Palace. And when I did, it was usually in the afternoon and I found the shop shut - seemed it would sell out during lunch time due to such a high demand and close to commence preparations for the following day. As I might have mentioned elsewhere, it is essential to know what food is to be eaten at what times of the day - failure to observe the law and order may bring peril upon a uncultured soul such as myself, that would go as far as to commit a blasphemy of eating bbq sticks for breakfast, and noodles for dinner; to stop this from happening, a heavy metal gate barred the entrance, reminding me all of the unbending laws of the City every time I placed my eyes upon them.
I can’t recall when that was exactly, but the place must have been busier than usual, with people sitting outside at makeshift tables, being nothing more than the usual plastic stools. Walking past, I caught a glimpse of what the bowls actually contained. I was delighted to see a kind of familiar-looking, yellowish noodles, different from the usual pale rice vermicelli I don’t quite fancy. The soup itself looked bloody-red, mostly (as I found out later) due to the amount of lajiao it contained. Whatever else there was, I could not tell, feeling it would be really awkward to stare into someone else’s dish for a longer while (it is worth nothing that locals never face similar dilemmas when staring at whatever I am consuming, but that’s another story).
A quick research done afterwards revealed that changwangmian, one of the staple dishes of the City, comprises of egg yolk noodles (thus the colour), pig or chicken intestines, coagulated blood kuai (pieces), and, in case of my local shop, spicy tofu bits and greens.
Soon after educating myself thus, on one cold winter day I decided to take a leap of faith - the shop area was filled with steam from the open-space kitchen, and most seats at the shared tables were taken. The cashier did look a bit baffled as I placed my order, probably thinking I must have no idea what I’m ordering, handling me two metal tokens: one for the noodles, and one for an extra spice-boiled egg (one of the best in town!). Those tokens were something else, and it was expected of customers to place them down neatly at the serving window while waiting in line - they’d then get picked by the kitchen staff to make sure there is no confusion in handling out the meals. I was absolutely in love with the whole system and the tokens, so you can imagine, Dear Reader, how devastated I was to find out months later that they were replaced with something as vulgar as paper receipts.
Continuing on the topic of food itself - I had already became accustomed to attracting the clientele’s attention wherever I ate, yet I did feel a bit of pressure as I stared at the contents of my bowl. It all smelled magical, but what if I get put off by a peculiar taste and make a fool of myself? I decided to take a bite of the intestines themselves first, with a bit of noodles, leaving the blood for later.
There’s another reason why I’m not all about reading about food, or watching pictures of fancy meals. And that is because once I actually get to try the dish, it rarely comes up to the expectations I was having. I blame it on my overactive imagination, that conceives ideas of tastes so complex and unique, that there is little possibility of reality ever meeting the standards. I said little, as rare cases exist where you try something you’ve been whetting your appetite for and it makes you go “bingo!”. A feeling of celestial pleasure goes down your spine and so on… and I honestly hope, Dear Reader, that you have experienced this feeling at least once, because if you haven’t, there is no words to describe how good it feels.
Needless to say, changwangmian was my very lucky bingo case. Not hard to guess, considering that I probably wouldn’t waste an hour of my time writing about something that ended up tasting like it came straight up from the Coal Mine Village gutter. Coagulated blood turned out to be less scary than I had thought, having a mild and pleasant taste that composed well with a rich and slightly spicy chicken-based soup. I had always imagined the texture to be jelly-like (similar to bingfen, which I detest) but found it to be more solid, and easy to eat.
The intestines themselves were of the finest kind. I have eaten different kinds of guts on several occasions since, and found out the secret lies in the preparation process - most places clean them just by flushing the water through with some kind of hose or other contraption, which is quick and effective but destroys the flavour and causes them to become rubbery and (for me) inedible. A proper way to do the cleaning is by hand, and although it surely takes a lot of time and effort, the crowds that gather outside the shop since early hours of the morning speak for themselves.
So, I became an enthusiast of changwangmian, much to confusion among my local friends, and disgust among fellow Outsiders. I found it to be a filling and healthy dish, surely good for your immunity system as it contained a proper portion of iron, perfect on chilly winter mornings, when the cold and dampness reaches deep into your bones. I would call it a very, very rewarding dare.
I suspect most people who frown upon me mentioning how much I love intestine noodles haven’t even tried them once, as anything even remotely connected with blood and insides must be too barbaric for an Outsider’s palate; in reality, it is this ingenious barbarism itself that makes most foods in this region such an amazing treat for anyone who truly enjoys eating. For fancy snapshots to show to friends and family, I recommend looking elsewhere.
Fine, fine, here's one (with a poetic wet rag in the background)