"I have the simplest tastes. I am simply satisfied with the best." - Oscar Wilde

"I came, I saw, I ate." - Au Gourmand

Monday, September 6, 2010

Bai Cuisine in Dali

Dali is the land of the Bai people. Again, I cannot and will not lecture you on the characteristics of the Bais, but you know how to use the internet (otherwise, how did you find me?). Dali is distressingly touristy; the town is totally infested with cheap-in-quality-but-high-in price souvenir shops (I don’t really buy the story that the Bais call a high price out of respect for the customer and as an invitation for further bargaining – I mean, how can it be so if they immediately dropped the price by 1/3 without any words from me? Am I not respected?), tourist-trap restaurants serving coffee, cheesecakes (Really, do you have to have them while you are in China? Why are you here?), fish and chips (I suppose it is simple enough to make, minus the malt vinegar), and buried among these are the locals (yes, they are there – just hard to find). In a town like this, how do you find good restaurants? – Of course, ask the locals. You can start with your hotel, but if they recommend their own restaurants, ignore and move on to the next self-respecting local with taste buds instead of a calculator.
Thus, I turned in at 益恒饭店 on, where else, but 人民路.

Armed with research into Dali specialties, I proceeded to order the four dishes that I just had to have or I will suffer from insomnia later that night: Ru-Shang (乳扇), Ru-Bing (乳餅), Sha-Guo-Yu (沙鍋魚) and Er-Kuai (饵块). When I asked for some unusual vegetables – mind you, they have got some funky vegetables you have never heard of – the waitress recommended Hai-Tsai (海菜), which was a kind of vegetables indigenous to the famous Lake Er-Hai (or ferns or “lake” weeds – these can’t be “sea” weeds, right?).

Er-Kuai, a type of rice crepe, was sautéed with pickled radish, shredded pork and Chinese cabbage. Due to the combined effect produced by the pickled radish and Chinese cabbage , equaling Kimchi, it reminded me of some Korean dish. Crossing off one item from my list, my burning intellectual and gastronomic (more of the latter) curiosity had now been ameliorated by one quarter; however, the flavor was as commonplace enough that I could have just cross the bridge over to New Jersey, instead of Dali.

Next, the dessert arrived – fried Ru-Shang with red bean paste. Ru-Shang, which tastes like string cheese, is usually sold on the streets, grilled and rolled up with some “rose” jam (I do not really taste the rose – Is it because they use lesser quality rose jam for the tourists?). I have tried the grilled versions twice, and I thought both times that a simple grilling so that the edges would be crispy, sprinkled with some cayenne, would have been better: Because, well, Ru-Shang is really cheese, isn’t it? It gets soft when heat is applied. Sweet, grilled cheese just does not appeal to my palette, as diverse as it is. Having said that, I had yet to try the fried version for completeness’ sake. So, then there I was with a plate of giant puffs. The verdict: Salt and some spice, please. To be fair, the restaurant did not do it justice since the red bean paste filling was so pathetically little that the ratio was 1 red bean paste to 40 Ru-Shang. I am not being overly critical: See if you can find the dark red bean paste in the following picture.

Next arrived the much anticipated fried Ru-Bing: This curious specialty could not be sampled on the streets as it needed to be fried; I found this out by a scoffing shop woman: “Ha! You want to eat it? Go to a restaurant.” Thus, I had to bite my lips and wait for the dinner time. Ru-Bing was thinly sliced to golden brown and served with a side of sugar. As for its taste, Ru-Bing was a lot like goat cheese: I cannot really explain it but it had this taste that told me it was not exactly cow – you know, something unfamiliar as if its secret is awaiting to be acquired – of course, I may be totally wrong. As the uninitiated, again, it was strange to eat fried cheese with sugar. My friend told me that his mother used to sprinkle salt over it, and I believe that would have been simple but satisfying as any fried cheese would be. Wouldn’t Ru-Bing be fantastic with a bit of the spice salt seasoning or some chopped herbs? Now, I wish I had a kitchen right here, right now.

Then there was a lull, although perhaps a matter of mere 6, 7 minutes: My neck suffered much stretching by trying to discern the activity in the kitchen (Do not tell my chiropractor). By the way, why is it that some restaurants seem to take forever to produce the dishes? On the one hand, I understand that these relatively simple Chinese dishes that I have been ordering are quicker to make, than, let’s say, Peking duck. On the other hand, some Italian, French, New American dishes are equally simple and should be subject to expedient delivery: For example, how long do you need to sautee my foie gras? However, the rule of thumb seems to be that the fancier and more pretentious the restaurants, the dishes take longer to appear on the table. I assume that these pseudo gourmet restaurants are not counting on that anticipation and empty stomachs will give the necessary kick to their otherwise mediocre food. Hence, what else can it be attributed to but simple inefficiency? Skill is important; talent is critical; however, speed is not less decisive in terms of the quality of a dish.

Finally, Sha-Guo-Yu made its grand entrance. No, not the pink strips of “lunch meat.” I do have to judge the use of “lunch meat” although I can already hear what the defenders would say: “Oh, you have to understand! It is still poor over here. You cannot judge based on your standard.” This “You cannot judge” seems to be hanging with neon sign on everyone’s mouth. What a sorry excuse! If no one judges, how does one improve? You judge yourself and are judged by everyone else, which is not a bad thing: Constructive criticism, have you heard? Everyone judges whether you pretend or not: Be honest and understand that you do judge. Don’t be some hypocrite and pretend that you are open-minded while still adhering to your prejudices and stereotypes. Unless you can wipe out your memory, and even if you do, as long as you have a reasonably working brain, you would judge. That is because humans are intelligent. If you would rather choose to be an ostrich or to disclaim all responsibilities, then so be it. In any case, the use of lunch meat is unforgivable. Period. Yes, I ate it when I was little (along with “fish” sausages). I would still eat it, although not by choice; however, I will not use it in a dish that I would sell to customers. And, that’s that. Moving on to the whole dish, it is a soup of fish and vegetables cooked in a clay pot. While Sha-Guo-Yu can be potentially exquisitely delicious if done right, this was not such a case. The stock was edible, but nothing that lived up to its hype. I give credit only because it was not drenched in oil as so many Chinese dishes often are.

Lastly, the oil drowned weeds from the lake arrived. Do I need to bother criticizing the overuse of oil – oil is also a limited resource like everything else, OK? The vegetables, or weeds, were very soft and felt a little sticky (some of the vegetables have such tendencies as their fluids produce a sort of shield around them) and slick. As to flavor, it was rather like a very mild bean. I would have liked it if I could have sautéed it myself.

Restaurant Info:
益恒饭店: 古城人民路117号 (Renmin Lu, No. 117): Its entrance is small, but it opens up to a large courtyard, and Thank God, it does not have any gaudy signs to attract your attention; moreover, there are no menu-thrashers in the front of the restaurant trying to trap any unsuspecting tourists.

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