tom lowe photo
fine art • fine art portraits
tom lowe photo
fine art • fine art portraits
I love to cook. When I travel I really enjoy trying the local cuisine and often times will recreate dishes from my dining experiences. For me, getting away from the tourist hotels and into the local eateries is where you find the true culture of a country. This philosophy has gotten me into trouble a few times. Guatemala almost killed me with dysentery and in India four days straight of curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner still has my body convulsing every time I smell Tumeric. But I still contend that food is what brings people together I’m just a little more careful about what I eat and how much of it if I’m suspicious of the kitchen.
The other morning our production hosts took us to a local restaurant here in Wulumuqi (Woo Loo Moo Chee). Upon entering the place I noticed a raw piece of meat sitting on a cafe table right inside the front door. It looked like someone was going to cut it up but there was no cutting board and no indication that the table had been washed. Opposite the Lamb (at least that’s what I think it was) was a buffet style noodle bar that the kitchen staff was just loading up. Upon closer inspection the noodles were at least a day old and the vegis inside were probably around long before that. If this was the front of the establishment what did the back look like? So I decided avoid the noodles and meat for breakfast – or if it wasn’t cooked or boiled within an inch of it’s life then don’t touch it! We were served a flat piece of bread that tasted like a three week old doughnut that had been reheated with a bowl of Congee. Our hosts gobbled it up but after a few spoonfuls I couldn’t do it. I’ve since learned that traditionally, where ever rice is the staple, rice congee is the Chinese baby’s first solid food. Its like oatmeal made with rice. I think I would’ve tried more if it hadn’t been for the sights on the way in. I settled for a powerbar and some coffee until I realized the coffee water was coming from whatever hell was in the kitchen and then went for a bottled water. I’ve tried congee here at the hotel and I can say with confidence I won’t be making it when I get home, it’s really bland and the texture reminds of putting your hand into a bowl of cold noodles on Halloween night and being told its brains.
After breakfast we loaded into three separate SUV’s and drove for hours to our locations through some of the most beautiful and striking landscapes I’ve ever seen. We went for hours in one direction only to find out the spot was no longer available but we didn’t care because of the entertainment the Chinese countryside provided. We went from the Gobi desert to the mountains and saw the people working the land or herding their goats. They lived in simple mud huts or slight homes with minimal amenities. The sights and sounds of this scout/tour were amazing and I’ll write about that later. We finally stopped for a late lunch at what appeared to be a truck stop kind of town. Lots of single story buildings with big semis parked out front. The pavement had left the road a while back and we were glad to get out of our SUV for lunch.
The Chinese producer Eemamoo, a big gregarious Mongolian/Russian man, walked into one of the little restaurants and started shouting at what I thought was the owner. I stopped in the doorway thinking something was wrong but Julie said, “It’s okay, he’s just telling her to hurry.” There were about 15 of us to feed so I guess he was worried about the time. I laughed and shrugged and asked if I could use the restroom. She gestured to the back of the joint and I wished I hadn’t gone because I had to pass the kitchen and food prep area on the way. Yikes was all I could think.
It was filled with smoke from burning oil and there were freshly killed chickens laying on the stainless steel counter next to a chopping block with two meat cleavers embedded in its wood. The cook was preoccupied with ‘hurrying’ lunch for us so I never saw her face. At least the floor looked clean. Continuing to the back I walked through an anti-room that looked like food prep. There was a freshly delivered pile of onions wilting on the floor and some fruit and other items in plastic bags sitting outside what looked like a dirt filled root cellar.
I was really hungry and reminded myself that this was farm country we were driving through, it was the desert and didn’t look anything like US farmland but still, these ingredients were fresh as can be and I bet if the cook was somehow transplanted to the mid-west and told to use beef and iceberg lettuce instead of chicken and onions she’d would be revered in any small town. I decided to put my fears aside and just go with the flow. I wasn’t disappointed. Every dish had a new fresh flavor. My only complaint was over a chicken and bok choy dish. The cook chopped up the chicken with no regard for the bones. Just chopped and through the meat and bones into the dish. Eating it was like trying to eat a seeded watermelon – finding the meat between the small bone fragments but the flavor was nice. The host who was berated when we walked in was gracious and came to our table many times to ask if we needed anything. Sweet and friendly, just like many local eateries across the US. We ate, laughed with our new Chinese friends and got back on the road. Food had provided the impetus to learn more about the Chinese culture. Unlike the place in the city where there seemed to be a disregard for cleanliness I realized that this was normal life out in rural China. The floor in the Kitchen was clean but the prep area was dirty probably because the onions had just arrived and no one had had time to clean up yet. The bathroom situation was gross but what truck stop bathroom isn’t? So someone was giving a damb out here in the middle of nowhere and I loved it. Julie’s prediction was true – lunch was better. I’ve had several traditional Chinese meals since then and don’t expect to get sick.