Family portrait: this is beautiful food.
Last night, a friend took me to a restaurant that I had never tried before, not far from the charming little place in the alley that I wrote about before. This place served Bai minority food, which I have also written about already. So I was trying to think of a new angle for this article. I considered approaching Bai food from another vantage point; or perhaps comparing it to Dai minority food; or maybe even contrasting it with Thai food.
As this blog is about food as an expression of human love, I racked my brain trying to think of how I could wax philosophical and eloquent about the food. Well, Hemingway said that writing should be fundamentally honest, so I will be honest and tell you that my friend and I had a rather heated argument at dinner, and so the dominating emotional memory from that meal is negative. But you know, something in me has always been able to enjoy food even in the worst circumstances. I think I was fated (cursed?) to be involved in the culinary industry somehow. See, I am not one of these people who loses his appetite when things in life go badly. No, I remain hungry, and I still enjoy delicious food. I think I would even love dining out in the midst of a revolution in some tiny island republic. But I digress.
The bottom line is that I just could not think of a way to elevate last night’s dinner to a philosophical, spiritual, even metaphysical plane. So I decided to write about the part of the evening that I did enjoy. And here it is: the food was just really, really great! It is no longer important to me whether the food was Bai, Dai or Thai, or whether I touched the hand of God while eating it. All I want to do is to try to communicate to you how delicious this food was.
This lotus root dish was quite inventive.
We only ordered three dishes, and no rice. The first was thinly-sliced lotus roots, served cold, in a marinade of lime juice, garlic, and bright, red, hellishly-hot chili peppers. The lime, garlic, and chili combination is one that is common in Southeast Asia. But I had only tried it with fish and chicken. I had no idea that it was done with lotus roots.
If you have never had a lotus root, then you are missing out. Of course they are crispy, dense, and watery, like many root vegetables. But they also have almost citrus-like and nutty flavors — though very subtle — like water chestnuts. Combined with the tart, citrus, fruitiness of the lime juice; the pungent, sulfur quality of the garlic, and the intense, burning heat of the chili peppers, these lotus root slices activated all regions of the taste buds, and produced an overall sensation of fresh, crisp, herbal, water.
Goat cheese, but not like it is in Europe.
Our second dish was sautéed goat cheese. While European goat cheese tends to be pasty and soft, with a very salty, pungent flavor, Yunnan goat cheese is different. A specialty of the Bai people — as well as other minorities in Yunnan — this goat cheese is extremely fresh. It is sliced very thinly, and allowed to dry a bit before cooking. It is sautéed in a thin layer of vegetable oil with a little salt, and nothing more. Thus, it tastes very fresh, raw, and has a noticeable dairy element to the flavor. It is goat cheese in its purest form, and I have become quite attached to it.
Steamed pork elbow. Mmmmm.
The third and final dish was something I had never experienced before, and I am still not convinced that it was not just a lovely dream. It was steamed pork elbow. That’s right, it was the elbow meat and fat from a very large pig, steamed in its own gravy. My God, it was succulent. Imagine soft, tender pork meat — brown, juicy, and moist, full of porcine flavor — under a layer of the most delicate, gentle, ambrosial pork fat and skin that you have ever experienced. These slivers of fat were half an inch thick, and (although it is a culinary cliché) they literally melted in my mouth. Without overdoing the analogy, I can truly say that I did not have to chew at all: the fat simply denatured on my tongue, as it imparted its salty, sweet, piggy goodness all over my taste buds. I honestly have never experienced anything before so succulent and tender.
Underneath the tender layer of fat and skin, hid moist, succulent flesh.
So there you have it. This meal was tainted by the interpersonal problems that I was having with my friend and dining partner. But even that could not stop the orgasmic flavor and texture of the food. It was all brilliant, but really, the steamed pork elbow was a dish that I know I will remember on my deathbed. Overall, I suppose that nothing in this article is philosophical or divine, unless you believe that excellent food is a blessing of life. Guess what? I believe that.