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Fearless Chef: China Town

written by Kiran Jethwa 20th June 2017

This month Kiran and the Fearless Chef crew fish in the sacred waters of China’s frozen North East and find the region’s oldest and most celebrated plants – the Lotus.

As I walk around Beijing’s notorious Wangfujing night market, the snacks become increasingly more obscure. All around me stalls are displaying an array of strange snacks on sticks. Starfish, sea urchin, sharks … worms! How are these even edible? I watch as a stallholder drops a scorpion into some hot oil. I try it, hesitantly, it tastes like shrimp. The vendor decides I should try something else – a cricket. This one is chewy because there’s more leg! Next, I attempt a spider and as I crunch down on it, it takes every ounce in my body not to throw up!

For the latest episode of the Fearless Chef, I travel to China’s frozen North East. My journey begins about 50kms South West of the capital, Beijing, in farmland near the town of Liulihezhen. This is an area renowned for production of one of China’s oldest and most celebrated plants – the Lotus. The temperatures here regularly hit -20 degrees.

Fearless Chef

I meet the Wan Brothers who take me on a short chilly drive on an electric scooter to the frozen ponds containing the lotus root. They are a prized resource for the Wan’s and at the market will fetch approximately $4 per kilo. The lotus roots are buried deep within the mud under a thick layer of ice. Our first job is to cut out a large square of it with a huge power-saw to give us access to the freezing water. Dressing for this activity is limited to what can be fitted underneath a watertight, rubber bodysuit and as I enter the water, I catch my breath, this is some serious cold! With a very powerful hose we churn up the mud and dig up the root. Controlling it under water is hard work and if you’re not careful you risk breaking the roots and decreasing their value. After half an hour we’ve successfully uprooted a few prize specimens. Five hours later and I’m relieved to be leaving the pond, it’s hard to imagine doing this day after day!

With the first of my Chinese harvests over, I decide to get experimental with my dinner and head to the night market to sample some tasty insects. A crowd of people stands behind me as the stallholder urges me to eat a millipede. It’s huge! I don’t even know how I will get it in my mouth. As I crunch down the crowd goes “uuuuuuugh”. It feels like somebody took a weird looking crunchy casing and stuffed it with rotten pate’. I try and hide my revulsion from the onlookers.

The next day I set off on my next icy adventure. The sacred lake of Chagan lies approximately 1000kms northeast of Beijing in the Jilin district. From the toasty comfort of my plane, I look down on a never-ending blanket of snow and ice. From here the journey is another 4 hours by road. The lake’s name, Chagan, means holy water in Mongolian and its pure waters are fabled for both the quality and the quantity of their fish. In 2008, local net fisherman broke their own Guinness World Record with an astounding catch of 168,000kg of fish in a single net.

At four o’clock in the morning my thermometer reads -25 degrees. Mr. Jung, the fishing Captain, is explaining that in order to set the two kilometer long net, each side is threaded above and below the ice. A hundred holes are drilled along each side to sew the ropes through. One piece of net goes along the surface and one goes along the bottom and they are brought up together and pulled out so that all the fish are trapped in the middle. The holes are a specific size to let the babies go through so it’s actually a very ecological way of fishing. The sheer weight of the nets requires horses to turn a simple gear, pulling each side onto the next drill hole.

On a sled behind our cart is the master gear, which will pull the entire weight of the catch from the exit hole. The next process is to anchor the gear. The rope is attached and the first horse tethered. As the net is dragged closer to the exit hole, more horses are tethered to the master gear to take the weight. The horses at the other end of the field wind in a wire that is attached to the net and connected with a latch and pin. After we’ve been on the ice for almost ten hours competing in what feels like a world strong man contest, my eyelashes may be frozen but we have before us one of the most impressive catches I have ever seen!

As word of the catch filters back to the shore, eager prospective buyers travel across the lake towards the impromptu auction. The sense of excitement amongst the buyers steps up a gear and as we get to the business end of day, the crowd go crazy screaming and shouting. As I witness a large fish getting snapped up for 200USD, it dawns on me why the fishermen put themselves through these conditions for 68 days without break.

After a long but a very rewarding day I stink of fish but there’s still one more job to do: to create a feast worthy of my experiences. This is a real challenge due to the incredible food in this part of the world. I make three dishes; Slow Cooked Big Fish Head With Chinese Smoked Sausage And Red Wine Broth, Lotus Root Stuffed With Chinese Millet And Served With A Salted Pickle Salsa and A Chagan Lake Giant Mussel Risotto With Enoki Mushrooms. We have only scratched the culinary surface of China and I am absolutely bowled over with the quality and variety of food in this country, it is just awe inspiring!

 

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