Tibetans climb ten-storey-tall trees for three hours, armed with nothing more than an axe and a rattan branch, just to get honey straight from its source.
honey shortening 酥油蜂蜜
honey-glazed eel 蜂蜜鳗鱼
liqueur ice cream with honey 蜜制酒心冰淇淋
Professional beekeepers traverse the country, chasing the blooming flowers in each region. Every year, they spend more than 11 months on the road, travelling with a ten-tonne luggage.
While their precious bees feast on the flowers of Chinese scholar trees and produce some of the finest honey in the country, the beekeepers have to make do with whatever food they can rustle up with the simplest kitchenware in a makeshift tent.
spicy sausage 麻辣香肠
smoked pork 烟熏腊肉
Sichuan pickled vegetables 四川泡菜
Leshan beancurd 乐山豆花 made with coriander, mint, fried peanuts, and pickled vegetables (the Southern School beancurd). Not everybody is a fan of coriander, but I like it. It’s the type of food that you either love or hate, like liquorice or blue cheese.
Another group of migrant workers travel light. All they need is their hands. They are the professional wheat harvesters (麦客), competing against the modern-day machines. The only type of field where they still have an edge over the machines is in the mountainous regions with uneven terrain. They have almost no luggage, and depends on the hospitality of their employers for sustenance. Ten days’ work gets them less than a thousand yuan. They favour foods which are both cheap and high in calories.
Meat sandwich 肉夹馍
Lantian wide noodles 蓝田裤带面 best eaten with wood ear, carrots, tofu, and chilli oil
Fishermen don’t have it any easier, either.
After the three-month fishing moratorium is lifted, husband-and-wife fishermen teams venture out to the East China Sea. The first net isn’t cast until they are 60 nautical miles out to the sea.
After a simple dinner made with ingredients fished right out of the sea, cooked over a coal briquette stove, they get to work. Sometimes they would work for six hours straight and catch no fish at all. Fishermen say that “没有牛劲马力，难吃海洋衣食”. It means without the strength of a horse or an ox, you can’t make a living off the sea. After an entire day and night spent on the choppy sea, the fishermen return with 50 kg of harvest.
白蟹挂面 noodles with fried crab
Deep in the mountains, people can walk for half a day without finding what they are looking for.
小花菇 This slightly icky-looking wild mushroom is a highly prized delicacy and some call it the King of Shiitake.
They look and taste much better once they are dried.
香菇酿 shiitake soup
Fishermen slog through knee-deep mud to catch elusive creatures that only visit the beach during high tide.
望潮 Its English name is webfoot octopus, which is much less romantic than the direct translation of its Chinese name—the Tide Watcher. It’s a tiny octopus that’s about 15 to 25 cm long.
望潮菌菇煲 webfoot octopus stewed with mushrooms
红烧望潮 braised webfoot octopus (why does it look like it’s trying to crawl out of the plate . . .)
跳跳鱼(“jumping fish”) a type of mudskipper. These slippery buggers are almost impossible to catch.
Fishermen use a fishing rod that’s 5-metre long, with a fishing line that’s 6-metre long, to catch a 5-cm creature, which is over 10 metres away. The whole process lasts less than 1/8 of a second, and it takes 5 years to master the skill.
The sun-tanning mudskipper gets hooked before it realises what’s happening.
清炖跳跳鱼 stewed mudskipper
In a farmhouse nestled in the the cool mountains of Shandong Province
山东煎饼 Shandong fried pancake is made in a special . . . wok? Frying pan?
Anyway, it’s called 鏊子, which has no direct English translation (the best I can do is “giant frying pan”), and it has a diameter of 2 metres. Its surface area is about 33 square feet, the size of a queen-sized mattress.
The ingredients for making the fried pancake are sweet potatoes ground into powder, or soybeans, wheat, or corn.
The thin-as-paper fried pancake can be eaten with anything, like these:
红烧肉 braised pork belly
炝炒野生木耳 fried wild wood ear
蒙山羊肉汤 Mount Meng mutton soup
But to someone born in Shandong, the best way to eat it is still with spring onion dipped in homemade sauce.
The spring onion is not the typical kind, either. It comes from those giant 2-metre stalks, some of which are taller than Yao Ming.
Even thinner than Shandong fried pancakes are the spring rolls of Guangdong.
春卷 Spring roll filled with mung beans, chopped spring onion, dried shrimp, and fish sauce
A vegetarian version of the spring roll is popular in Guizhou Province, called 丝娃娃 (“silky baby”. I’ve no idea why it’s called that.)
A tiny piece of fried pancake is used to roll up over 20 types of ingredients, including sliced carrots, seaweed, cucumber, chilli powder, fried soybeans, and so much more.
People in Zhejiang Province enjoy a similar type of spring roll, but it’s made with glass noodle, eggs, rice eel, and braised pork. I like this version better (everything tastes better with meat). It has a modest name, 食饼筒 , which means spring roll stuffed with, well, stuff.
The Fujian version of spring roll is called 润饼 popiah.
Singapore version of popiah.
牛冻春 The Vietnamese spring roll, made with pork, prawn and vegetables, is found by the documentary director in a restaurant in Paris. (Kind of embarrassing to know that I, a live Chinese person with all four limbs intact, have travelled to fewer places in the world than Chinese food. I mean, you can find Chinese food in the Arctic, but I’ve never been there).
Initially I thought this episode was about the footsteps of the people who make the food. Now I realise it’s the food that’s doing all the travelling.
In the highlands of Guizhou Province, fish is popular.
糯米稻花鱼 grilled fish stuffed with glutinous rice, with pepper and salt
In the clear waters of a highland river, 70-year-olds and 10-year-olds alike dive into the river searching for 爬岩鱼 (Chinese sucker fish), native to rivers in China. Their Chinese name translates into “rock-climbing fish”, even though they are teeny tiny creatures smaller than a child’s thumb and I’m not sure how high they can really climb.
They are the essential ingredients for Leishan fish sauce. Other ingredients include pepper (a lot of it), ginger, litsea, and salt.
雷山鱼酱 Leishan fish sauce
There’s a saying, 落叶归根–fallen leaves return to the roots. In Fujian, an overseas Chinese returns to his hometown, and celebrates with a ritual and a reunion dinner.
This plain-looking radish is called 沙土萝卜 (“sand radish”), grown almost exclusively for export.
After the documentary was aired, sand radish became an Internet sensation. In one event, ten thousand kg of the radish was sold in half an hour.
萝卜饭 sand radish rice, fried with pork, mushrooms, oyster, and dried shrimp. The highlight of a reunion dinner.
It’s hard not to love a country with so many types of food.
Yes there may be some overseas Chinese who claim that everything is better overseas, you know, like “the air was so sweet and fresh, and oddly luxurious”.
But one’s home country is like one’s family. You can diss them all you want,
but if someone else tries to take a dig at them:
No matter how far we travel, hopefully, the last footstep we make will be in the direction of home.