Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
"The taste was like gazing into a deep, ancient pool."
That sentence, written by Fuchsia Dunlop in this excellent New Yorker article, rattled around in my head for a long time, for several reasons. First, it is a strange and beautiful way to describe the way a liquid tastes. Second, I understand what she means: I too have tasted the dense, dark stocks of a well-trained Chinese chef. And they taste like time gone by.
Many Chinese chefs--and especially those cooking in the homestyle (jia chang cai) realm of restaurant food--have turned their back on the essential technique of making stock. Instead, flavored powders dissolved in water finish off stir-fries, strengthen soups or simmer vegetables. Dust to dust.
So when I was in China last week I went to see what Dunlop (and a few food-obsessed friends in Shanghai) have been talking about. We boarded a van on a clear October morning, and watched the industrialized countryside slide by on one of China's bland, new superhighways. For nearly three hours we drove--from Shanghai to the neighboring city of Hangzhou--before getting stuck in the barking traffic that wound around Hangzhou's West Lake. Once a beautiful muse for artists and poets, the lake is one of China's most storied tourist destinations. Which means that on Chinese holidays, it's intolerably crowded.