This is the first post by guest blogger Shanti Christensen.
Fóshān (佛山), CHINA — Every great meal begins with the fun adventure of grocery shopping. This may be tedious for some, but for me it’s another chance to connect with the locals and get seduced into buying other things not on the evening’s menu. Flash me a smile, call me péngyǒu (friend), and tell me “Hao jiu bu jian!” (Long time no see!); I’ll flirt back with the ladies and buy tomatoes I don’t need. “I should keep the house stocked with tomatoes anyway,” I justify to myself.
I arrive in Fóshān and wait at the subway stop for Qiūfán to meet me. She arrives driving a blue sporty hatchback. She apologizes for not having yet bought the ingredients for my cooking lesson and suggests I wait in the car while she pops into the local market.
Wait in the car and miss a market experience? Not me, I had to tag along! Who knows how many amazing things I missed out on when I was kid, waiting in the car while my parents shopped in an antique store? There was nothing I could break in this market, but there were things that broke me with awe.
Here were beautiful scallops shaped like shark fins! Qiūfán asks for two kilos of dàizi (带子, scallops). She has the vendor chisel off the points allowing more scallops to fit in her steamer.
I shudder. At full length, this alligator spanned perhaps two meters moments ago. Slowly, its head arches upward then lowers next to its cross cut half. Throughout the day it would bleed to death with parts hacked off and sold fresh. I returned later in the evening to buy sand ginger. The alligator had been reduced to t size of a tea tin.
Oh! A cage of frogs leaping anxiously!
Nearby, sits a lidless Styrofoam box of scorpions. In Beijing’s Wangfujing district, tourists can buy roasted scorpions on a stick. Grazing the exoskeletons with their teeth, they smile in front of cameras. Qiūfán explains scorpion has a sweet flavor and is prepared often in soups. Enticed, I am curious to try scorpion soup over the skewered fare in Beijing.
A man sits behind a woman skinning snakes. My skin crawls. I try not to appear a tacky tourist and refrain from squealing while rubbing my arms to calm the hairs. I ask Qiūfán if she knows how to prepare snake and she asks, “Would you like to learn how to make a snake dish?”
“If it isn’t too much trouble. It’s no problem if you can’t.” I wasn’t sure how to answer because I hadn’t yet convinced myself of an answer.
Qiūfán orders 100 grams and the lady reaches for a writhing naked snake, slices it lengthwise into four strips while the tail whips up. Final cuts into three-inch pieces, she uses her cleaver to scoop them into a plastic bag. I am mixed with emotion, squeamish and excited, I will learn how to cook snake!
Qiūfán stands still in front of the poultry table, pondering perhaps what other recipe she can enlighten me with. Here were chickens, ducks, and geese. She decides upon a chicken.
No one can argue our produce is not fresh. I trail behind Qiūfán wide-eyed, waiting for the next scene and glad I hadn’t stayed in the car.
I could crack a guess as to what the hanging tubes of flesh were, but why were they shaped differently? I didn’t expect to learn that one set of intestines were those of a healthy pig while the other more drip-sand castle looking ones were those of a sick pig and appreciated for their sour flavor. We didn’t buy any pork.
Meanwhile I am surprised over how relaxed the vendors are while I photograph each scene. Usually, vendors dislike their wares to be photographed, however here I am invited verbally to snap away. I remember the alligator vendor inquiring where I was from, then asking me if I had taken a photo of his prize yet.
As we leave the market, a motorbike rides in with a carcass slung over the rear seat. This is the final act of unprecedented market sightings for me. I can’t imagine ever witnessing a market experience such as this one, in the United States.
What will Qiūfán cook up with all our audacious gains? Some of us don’t like to know how sausage is made, so I’ll separate this hour from the appetizing hours that followed in the kitchen and home of Chén Qiūfán (陈秋凡).
Shanti Christensen, storyteller and food explorer, travels China meeting families who teach her their favorite home-style recipes. She writes and photographs for ShowShanti.com while collecting recipes for her future cookbook. Her Filipino mother and Danish-American father passed their wanderlust and passion for food through their own stories. Shanti and her husband are from San Francisco and have lived in Beijing since January 2007. Shanti enjoys making dinner for friends and family, bringing new flavors and tales to the table.
This post was originally published on ShowShanti.com.