FRAGRANT HEART

Copyright © Miranda Emmerson, 2014

Illustrations by Miranda Emmerson

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For my parents – Jenny and Oliver – who believe in having adventures
Contents


Prologue

Chapter 1: Number One Best Champion City
Huo guo – Hot pot

Chapter 2: Parrots are the Things with Feathers
Suhongdou – Crispy red beans with mint
Boluo fan – Pineapple rice

Chapter 3: Only One of Us is Paddling
Nem cuon – Vietnamese spring rolls

Chapter 4: The Happy Melon Farmer
Liang pi – Rice noodles with lamb
Zhi ma da bing – Sesame bread with spring onions

Chapter 5: Hot Spike Bitter Willow
Yuxiang qiezi – Fish-fragrant aubergine
Ma la kong xin cai – Water spinach fried with spices

Chapter 6: Though We Have Not Been Called
Pijiu yu – Beer fish
Guilin mi fen – Guilin noodles
Pao jiangdou – Pickled green beans

Chapter 7: Stories from the Burial House
Bun thit nuong – Grilled pork or aubergine on noodles

Chapter 8: The Little Red Book of Diving
Do chua – Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon
Banh xeo – Sizzling crêpes

Chapter 9: Mournful and Homely
Sach moan cari ang chomkak – Grilled chicken or tofu kebabs
Tirk salouk swai – Mango salsa

Chapter 10: Your Hat of Many Memories
Khao mok – Thai biryani

Chapter 11: August is the Month of Hungry Ghosts
Kari kapitan – Captain's curry

Chapter 12: The Conversation
Pajeri nenas – Pineapple curry
Nasi tomato – Tomato rice

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Bibliography
Prologue


Chris and I went to Asia for a lot of reasons. For the challenge. For the adventure. Because we knew that the next step was settling down and having kids, and we just needed to have one last fling, and we wanted to have it with each other.
  Our original plan had been to spend a year living and working in China, but without really meaning to we ended up in China and Vietnam and Cambodia and Thailand and Malaysia.
  A lot of things went right and a lot of other things went wrong. The latter were easier to spot.
  This is a book about travel but it's also a book about food. The experience of food, the discovery of it, the sensuality of eating strange things in strange lands and falling in love with the taste of other peoples' countries.
  Chinese food held a strange allure from my youngest years. We would celebrate family occasions at Mann's Beijing – the beautifully odd, always welcoming, wood-panelled Chinese restaurant in Isleworth, where I grew up. When as a family we had a bit more money, birthdays were marked at the Four Regions in Richmond, where on a quiet December lunchtime we would sometimes see Jerry Hall feeding her children at the next table. If Italian food tasted of home and family, Chinese food tasted of exoticism and success.
  And then there was Anne, my best friend from sixth form onwards. Her dad had come to London from Hong Kong in the 1960s. After several years in London he had returned to Hong Kong, met and married her mother and together they had come to London to make a more prosperous life for themselves and their children.
  Watching Anne's parents at work in their Chinese takeaway in Ealing, I observed the very particular ballet of the Chinese kitchen. Anne's baby brother Daniel would be watching television, sitting cross-legged in a dark hidey-hole under the counter by the hatch. His parents worked quickly and efficiently, moving back and forth between two great gas rings; cleaning their vast black woks, seasoning them with oil, their hands flashing over white plastic boxes of bean sprouts, mushrooms and peppers. They worked at a speed that seemed entirely unreal, never bumping into each other, never spilling: hands looping, feet moving in tiny diagonals like a waltz, woks bucking under their touch, ingredients cascading in showers from their fingers.
  But it took a spell living in China to really turn me on to the possibilities and varieties of Chinese food. To start to understand the different regions and the thousand different dishes that could emerge from a single wok. And all that was before we travelled the contours of the South China Sea. Down to Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. West to the Cambodian coast and Tonle Sap Lake. On to central Thailand and then down the Malay peninsula to the island of Penang and the city of Kuala Lumpur.
  This is also a book about escape. Escaping into the unknown. Escaping big decisions. And the realisation that there comes a time when you have to stop running away.
  We start the way our year started: with New Year fireworks, drunken musicians and a table full of dumplings.
Chapter 1

Number One Best Champion City


The man in the tree is firing rockets up into the power lines. Along the street, women jump back as lines of firecrackers are thrown at their feet. Babies and small children crawl under Catherine wheels, untroubled by the screams and cracks and caustic, electric howls. It's like being in a war zone – except everyone is happy.
  Hundreds of green, pink and white skyrockets are escaping from the dark lattice of streets. It's the Year of the Rat, a great year for China, hosting its first Olympic Games.
  Along the hutongs – the network of tiny alleyways that connect the houses in the older districts of Beijing – fires are lit and banquets of dumplings, fish and soup are prepared. The sweet, salt smell of chicken stock and rice filters through courtyards that are filled with strings of lights and paper rats, and where three or four generations will gather around tables and countertops to eat. In six months, the hutongs, houses and courtyards will be gone – torn down to build a subway station and chic blocks of flats for young professionals. But no one here knows that yet.
  William and Mrs William – veteran owners of the Red Lantern House hostel – are hosting a party for their guests. Mrs William is taking us all in hand, teaching us to make New Year dumplings shaped like crescent moons.
  She works with lightning speed kneading the balls of dough, forming them into bagel-sized rings, working and stretching them, cutting them into fat coins and then pressing them thin with a wooden rolling pin: as she turns them in circles on the table with her fine, deft fingers.
  She hands her lumbering guests coins of dough with a benign smile and watches us struggle for a while. And then she takes us one by one and shows us what to do; cupping our hands with her own as together we pinch, roll and turn the dough.
  The dumplings are variously filled with minced pork, onions, winter greens, cabbage and bean sprouts – flavoured with soy, garlic, ginger, Shaoxing rice wine, sesame oil and salt – then pinched shut and curled into little crescents. Some are boiled in giant pans of fiercely bubbling water; others served as potstickers, half-fried in the wok to form a crispy base before being simmered and steamed.
  William plays on his erhu (a skinny instrument, tall like a cello, with two strings and a bow), accompanied by his friends on pipas (Chinese lutes). Their music reaches us in the kitchen on a choking sea of cigarette smoke that mingles with our hot, white clouds of steam to coat our noses and throats with a cloying, comforting, sticky heat that is peculiarly Chinese.
  Chris is curled up on a sofa, drinking Tsingtao beer and swapping stories with Alan and Sonja who are just married. Sonja is from Spain and Alan is from Ireland. Their ridiculous, heady love for each other is obvious. They are at home in the clamour of a hostel dining room but would be equally happy alone, in silence, just grinning at each other. Alan taught Sonja English after they met travelling and Sonja's Spanish-Irish cadences are something strange and wonderful.
  Young Western men slouch at the table, eyes glued to their netbooks – blogging, Skyping, lost in their own little monochrome worlds. If our hosts mind, they do not show it.
  Barely visible through the cigarette smoke and dumpling steam, Mrs William's female relatives laugh loudly and talk over each other. An extremely old woman carries bowls of boiled dumplings from stove to sink to table and says nothing.
  We have been in China for ten days.

From the birth of the Qin dynasty in 221 bc through to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, China was an imperial power for more than two thousand years. The first Qin emperor built his reign on the back of the subjugation of the Han people, and it is the Han Chinese who still make up the largest ethnic group in China today. Under the rule of Qin Shi Huang, political opposition was crushed and absolute obedience demanded from all levels of society. Qin Shi Huang also required the burning of thousands of pages of written material, and between 213 bc and 210 bc, centuries of written history, philosophy and political thought went up in flames. Thus the birth of Imperial China was marked by the destruction of much of her recorded culture and history. This pattern of political upheaval and intellectual vandalism is echoed again and again through China's history.
  The Qin dynasty undertook the original building of the Great Wall and the centralisation of government. At this point, China's capital was located near Xi'an, which is best known in the West as the burial place of the terracotta army. The first millennium saw the break up and reunification of China and the rise of Buddhism as a national religion, a belief system that arrived – along with many other aspects of foreign culture – with the opening of the Silk Road. China's capital moved many times, depending often on the origins of the current ruling family. In 1403, half a century into the reign of the Ming dynasty, Beijing – which had been a major trading location for centuries – was instituted as the new northern capital.
  It was rebuilt on a grand scale as a vast citadel designed to illustrate the order of the universe. Long walls ringed the city, affording staggering panoramic views across the districts and out to the mountains beyond. The walls formed circles within circles and were mirrored by great moats. To the four points of the compass stood the principal temples: the Temple of Heaven to the south and that of Earth to the north; the Temple of the Sun in the east and the Moon in the west. In the middle of them all was the purple-hued Forbidden City, a palace complex that placed the emperors as secular gods at the very centre of it all.
  When Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, he announced the birth of the People's Republic standing on the terrace of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, his back to the Forbidden City, facing south. Symbolically, he was talking to all of China and from 1950 onwards the destruction of old Beijing and the old cultural order began. The walls, which had withstood floods and numerous invading forces, were taken down stone by stone in the dead of night to avoid the protest of ordinary Beijingers. The final pieces of the walls were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) when political prisoners – many of them Beijing's intellectuals – were forced to tear down these symbols of traditional Chinese culture as a step towards their re-education. Mao baulked at demolishing the Forbidden City and it was finally decided that 78 historic buildings could be allowed to stand for the sake of 'national pride'.
  The temples posed a real problem to the new order. Like the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, the temples were held in high esteem by ordinary Beijingers. But there were hundreds of them, occupying large areas of the city with their vast courtyards and many-storeyed buildings. During the economic reforms of 1958 – popularly known as the 'Great Leap Forward' – moves were afoot to turn Beijing into a centre of production and so a novel solution was proposed. Overnight, engineers and manufacturing experts moved machinery into temple buildings all over Beijing. Little by little, the temples of Beijing became factories, the monks operating in smaller and smaller parts of each temple until they finally gave up and moved out.
  The central positioning of so many factories brought new problems to Beijing. Once famed for its blue skies and clean air, the city quickly became heavily polluted as the factories worked round the clock. Beijing's air quality now ranks among the worst in the world and many days a thick fug of pollution hangs just above ground level across the whole city.
  The courtyard houses, or siheyuan, which ran along the sides of the hutongs were redistributed. Traditionally made up of four buildings linked by a single courtyard, the siheyuan had given home and shelter to a single extended family before the revolution. Now the owners were evicted and more often than not put on trial for the crime of owning property. All possessions were seized by the state or destroyed, and factory workers were allocated space in the handful of rooms, with as many as ten or twenty families sharing a home that had once housed six or eight people.
  When Mao died in 1976, he was succeeded by Deng Xiaoping, under whom the Cultural Revolution was labelled a 'mistake', and some of the half-demolished gate towers were haphazardly reconstructed. Deng's reform led to the end of commune farms and allowed the ownership of private businesses. The old route of the walls became a map for the new ring roads that now circle the city. Building was virtually unregulated and the desperate need for housing meant that prefabricated neighbourhoods were constructed only to fall into ruin within a few years. These dilapidated neighbourhoods became Beijing's new slums, while the end of communal farming and the lack of a clear, long-term financial policy left the area's agricultural economy in chaos.
  As Beijing continues to spread outwards, the ring roads grow in number. Planning is piecemeal and slum clearance heavy-handed. Little thought is given to the preservation of old Beijing apart from the great monuments. Building efforts now concentrate on high-rise apartment blocks, gated communities for the wealthy, malls for the new rich to shop in and endless 'British' public schools. The little darlings of the capital can be educated at Eton International School or Dulwich College Beijing, all within an easy drive of home. The financial district shines as bright as that of any other superpower and new skyscrapers appear, shimmering on the skyline, on a weekly basis.
  Everything happens in the blink of an eye. All along the city streets, buildings are going up and coming down and everywhere you look unfettered workers climb the sides of half-formed towers and crouch in gaping windows, fitting plastic to steel to brick. China builds and rebuilds herself overnight.
  Chris and I stockpile scraps of information against the cold like a pair of Fisher Kings. Some days we are heady with excitement, on others we feel as if we've gone on holiday by mistake.
  The scale of everything in China is overwhelming. So much space; so many people; such huge cultural changes; so much loss. She is dazzling. A country of infinite riches: cultural, social, geographical. Yet as scarred as she is by the contortions and contusions of the last 60 years, she is still there, growing, breathing new life, changing. She is all her people, regardless of the prevalent ideology, and a country of so many souls feels like its own world: a universe apart and full unto itself.

Making the most of the New Year festivities, we descend into the subway system at Xizhimen to visit the temple fair at Ditan Park. It's a Saturday morning and the subway is swollen with fair-goers. Bemused by the crush and commuter etiquette, which is assertive though not actively threatening, we let three trains arrive and leave. Chris, hardened by years of trying to get onto the 7.30 a.m. Northern Line at Elephant and Castle, eventually grabs my hand and together we storm the next train. Once inside, we are torn apart by a fast-moving current of bodies and pushed to separate ends of the carriage. We smile at each other in a silly, cartoonish way over the sea of heads. We would wave but our arms are now pinned fast to our sides. In fact, it is only the intense pressure of bodies that keeps me upright as we start with a jolt and rattle into the black tunnels of Line 2.
  We disembark giddily at Andingmen station accompanied by about three hundred others and file quietly up the steps. Andingmen is named after the northern gate of the city, which – somewhat ironically – was torn down to allow for the building of the station. Now there is a bridge and a gatehouse. Along the sides of the road white and grey boulders, remnants of city walls and ancient buildings, push through the earth. Sometimes in Beijing it can feel as if the old city is trying to regenerate itself, breaking through the new facades like flinty-grey spring flowers through a frost.
  We are carried in a crowd of thousands up Andingmen Outer Street and towards the gates of the park. Great strings of round, red lanterns with dangling, gold tassels swing in the breeze on lines above our heads. From the brightly painted, carved wooden gates – the grand paifang – which shimmer with golden characters on a sea of blue and green panels, hang even larger lanterns, each bearing a single character that taken together spell out a welcome to the New Year. Red paper lanterns adorn everything, the trees, the stalls, the gates; they hang in great strings up and down the avenues and walkways of the park, and in cascading columns from poles and posts and street lights. At eye level a sea of heads; at sky level a sea of red globes. The effect is overwhelming and thrilling, despite the biting cold.
  Before the revolution, temple fairs were a common occurrence, marking the turn of the seasons. For a while after 1949, the party instituted new festivals to celebrate the glorious leaders. When these were quietly dropped, Beijingers were left with few fixed points in the year when they could celebrate as a group. Hence the popularity and significance of New Year, and Beijingers' devotion to the few rituals that remain unchanged.

The rich smell of barbecuing lamb hits us: a slice of heat carried on the cold air. Chris perks up noticeably. Meat! Now we are in the park, stalls are popping up on the grassy verges. Many of them sell windmills, streamers, air socks printed with red and gold fish. Within a couple of minutes every child in the crowd seems to have acquired something they can hold aloft. Hundreds of tiny, rainbow-spoked windmills twirl on tall, white sticks.
  Rats are everywhere. There are people dressed as giant furry rats, wearing the robes of imperial office. Rats on banners, rats on flags, strings of paper rats, plastic rats with waving paws, stuffed rats in jumpers, Olympic rats (strictly unofficial), rat couples holding hands, rat pillows for children, rat plaques with kitchen advice on them, rat tea towels, rat hats, rat scarves, mechanical rats, dancing rats, wooden 'executive' rats. I spring for a plastic plaque of two imperial-gowned rats in love. Chris stays wisely silent.
  Now we are in the middle of the fair. Stalls of games are marked out by lines of 1.5-metre-tall stuffed animals: Snoopys and Garfields; massive, grinning Dumbos: and round, pink pigs. Chris tries his luck on the shooting range. He is easing himself into the spirit of the fair, trying to win me a giant Eeyore. As he shoots, a crowd of young people surrounds us, the boys offering advice and encouragement in Mandarin. There is a convivial atmosphere and the stallholder seems genuinely sorry when we don't win anything. As so often, I'm not entirely sure if we are attracting an unusual amount of attention because we're foreign. Western faces are certainly in evidence around and about Beijing, but I wouldn't say that there were many of us outside the 'American village' of Sanlitun and the business district. Not in the depths of winter at least.
  'I have to eat,' and with that Chris strides down another avenue towards the smell of meat. The avenue of trees and lanterns opens out on a courtyard in which there are eight stalls, each one selling barbecued lamb. The posters above the stalls show rolling hills, snowy mountains and attractive, Disney-perfect sheep. Here and there the word halal is printed in English, beside it characters proclaim qingzhen cai (pure truth food). There are a significant number of Chinese Muslims in Beijing. Most come from the regions that border central Asia and Mongolia. And it is from Mongolian cuisine that the lamb kebab comes. Lamb skewers (yangrou chuan'r) are de rigueur at festivals and fairs, and you'll find street stalls selling them in cities across China. Small chunks of raw lamb are seasoned with some combination of cumin, garlic, chilli, fennel seed, Shaoxing rice wine, salt and Sichuan pepper (according to the cook's taste and provenance) before being barbecued on skewers and served alone or with fried onions and flatbread. They sell for as little as one yuan (less than ten pence) and Chris assures me they are fabulous. I drink a can of Fanta and eat his flatbread.
  When we can no longer feel our hands or feet we head back to the subway. I can't help but look enviously at the stalls full of bright, shining ephemera while Chris mutters: 'It's all crap,' under his breath. One stallholder is demonstrating her plastic birdcages in which mechanical birds covered in brightly coloured feathers come alive at the touch of a button, swinging and spinning and tweeting happily.
  Chris takes my hand. 'No,' he says firmly. I buy it anyway.

On Sunday, we take a walk down to Lake Houhai, where we've heard there's good skating.
  Lake Houhai, which lies in the northern half of central Beijing, is a long, wavy strip of water bisected by a dainty bridge over which rickshaws pull wealthy foreigners. In winter Houhai freezes solid and the white space is filled with ice chairs and bicycles skidding in circles around small islands mysteriously free of frost and snow. Ask many older Beijingers and they will name skating on Houhai as their favourite memory of childhood.
  I make Chris get an ice bicycle so I can see if he falls off. I take the much easier ice chair.
  Ice chairs are a revelation. Wooden schoolroom-style chairs are fitted with a pair of long, sharp metal blades and propelled across the ice with a pair of ski poles. They are as much fun as they sound. Unless you're a natural-born coward, in which case you will have to take my word for the fact that they are more fun than they sound.
  Chris rides off happily and incautiously on his ice bicycle and promptly falls off. He tries to get up and falls down again. I glide over to him.
  'You OK?'
  'Yes,' he says through gritted teeth as he falls under the bicycle again. And then, suddenly, he is off, pedalling madly like a small boy round and round the islands in circles. Something about the physical transports Chris. He becomes a child again. Three months into our relationship, we went to Lyme Regis on holiday. On a hot September day, I coaxed him into the warm shallows of Lyme Bay.
  'But I haven't been in the sea since I was a child.'
  'Well, didn't you like it then?'
  'It was Northern Ireland. We used to stay in for 30 seconds and then slide out entirely encased in ice.'
  Chris is right. I have attempted to swim off the County Antrim coast. Bracing doesn't even begin to describe it. It's like a form of penance.
  'This is southern England,' I tell him. 'We're no good at suffering.'
  I literally dragged Chris into the surf, and when the first wave hit him he screamed. With pleasure. Like an eight-year-old girl discovering a room full of Barbies under the stairs.
  In and out of the sea he ran, throwing himself into the pounding surf with the other hysterical, sugar-charged children.
  I won't lie. It was not his sexiest moment, but it did tell me something very important about Chris. Sometimes he needs to put down The Economist and just run into the sea.

It is Sonja and Alan, the lovebirds, who introduce us to the delights of hot-pot dining. They direct us towards a dark restaurant about two minutes away along our narrow hutong.
  Outside, the dusty windows are covered in paper cut outs of rats in Chinese emperor costumes. Inside, tables covered in plastic gingham cloths are laid out with gas canisters underneath and bubbling iron pots on top. The pots are divided down the centre: one half contains a mild, fishy broth (which grows distinctly trouty in taste and smell as the night wears on), while the other bubbles with a dark red, shiny broth that scorches the roof of your mouth.
  At the end of the restaurant a greengrocer's display – with a mirrored back, sloping shelves, lit from above and below – holds dozens of trays containing mushrooms, pak choi, tofu, raw fish, meat, offal and hard little cakes of rice noodles. Crates beside it are stacked five deep and laden with bottles of tepid Tsingtao.
  The idea of hot-pot dining is that you select from the raw ingredients on display, then dunk it all in the stock of your choice, scoop it out with a sieve when cooked and eat it with a nutty, herby dip and lots of beer to cool your throat. For fifteen yuan (a little over one pound) you can stay as long as you like, eat as much as you like and stew yourself in lager.
  The lighting inside is morgue-like, which helps to direct your attention away from all the dirt. It was one of the least salubrious places we've ever visited but something innate is drawn to the warmth and homeliness of its interior. The smell and steam and fiery heat of the food warms us up after freezing-cold days in the snow of Beijing and the restaurant is full to rattling every night with whole families enjoying an evening meal, which takes three hours or more to eat. Every table is another living room, a private space for families to laugh, argue and chatter. I think it's this that beguiles us – this sense of welcome, this non-exclusive club where anyone can eat and drink and chat until closing time.
  In China, eating spaces are expansively welcoming. No one will shoo you away. On the contrary, restaurant owners want you to feel at home, to relax and to enjoy time with your companion. This is a culture that, above all else, understands the value of a shared meal.
  One evening as we eat, an uncommon hush descends over the assembled diners and we turn in our chairs to find the most enormous rat we've ever seen attempting to pass through the restaurant unnoticed. The vast beast (roughly the size of a rabbit and nearly as plump) is taking a shortcut from a hole in the back wall to the kitchen. Like something out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, the animal is shuffling quietly along as he eyeballs the floor – because if he can't see us, we definitely can't see him. As one, we watch the giant rodent tiptoe, tiptoe, tiptoe past, and even the cook in his whites stands aside to let the animal pass.

There's a famous piece of graffiti in Paris: If you speak two languages, you're bilingual. If you speak one, you're English. I'd give you the quote in French, but...
  Not being able to speak a language is one thing. Not being able to read it, quite another. The first few weeks in Beijing we are, literally, illiterate. I walk along the shopping streets in our district and stare at the signs on the shops. Every window is dark glass and the signs tell me... that I cannot read Chinese.
  I'm too scared to enter shops. I can't order in restaurants. I have no idea where the toilets are.
  Ah yes, toilets. My friend Anne had already warned me about the 'no paper in the bowl' business. Beijing's sewage systems simply can't cope with paper waste, so all toilet paper must go in a little basket beside the toilet. Take a moment and think about it.
  Now stop thinking about it. You'll be happier that way.
  The 'no paper' rule is only the beginning. In most public toilets there are no toilets. There are cubicles, with a door if you're lucky, and a ceramic floor with a hole. A small hole. The toilet makers have helpfully made indentations to show you where to place your feet as you squat. Here's a tip: if you're not built like a Chinese person, don't assume the markings will work for you.
  After the first month I invest in rubber shoes. After six months I could represent Team GB in the Olympic peeing-in-a-hole competition. Sadly, as with so much else in China, peeing in a hole is one of those hard-won skills that only impress other foreigners.
  At night I lie on my belly on our bed with a Mandarin-English dictionary and a stack of exercise books and carefully copy out Chinese characters or hanzi. Within two weeks I have learnt the main subway stops, the sign for an emergency exit and the numbers 1–20. Anything more complex simply baffles me.
  I am fine with the very simple:

Da means big. The hanzi 大 shows a mountain with a line across it – the mountain reaches above the clouds. It is big.
An, which carries the idea of good and safe, shows the symbol for a cross-legged woman under a simple roof. 安 A home with a woman in it is good and safe.

But having learned the forty or fifty simplest characters I fail to move out of Dr Seuss territory. The hanzi do not tell you how to pronounce the words, and if you do know how to pronounce the words you must also know which one of the four tones you should use to convey your meaning. Spoken and written Chinese are learned almost independently of each other – and neither of them is easy.
  We buy food we can point to. We stalk the streets until rush hour and wait for the little hatches to open in the sides of restaurants. From the steamy openings, cooks in overalls sell jiaozi (dumplings) and bowls of thick, sticky, white congee – an unholy cross between soup and porridge. Baozi, steamed white buns, are light as air. I buy them filled with water spinach and nettle – delicious dipped in sharp, black Chinese vinegar. They are pretty much the only thing I can safely buy.
  Did I mention I'm a vegetarian? No? Well, it's a sore point right about now.
  Are you a vegetarian? Want some advice? Don't go to China.
  No. Wait. Scrub that. Do go to China. Just don't try to be a vegetarian while you're there. Everything is cooked in chicken or pork stock anyway. And d'you know what? It's delicious. I mean, ethics aside and all – it is staggeringly tasty. I digress.
  Where were we? Oh, yes. Pointing at food.
  Since the rat-infested hot-pot restaurant only opens 4 hours a day we have to find other places to eat.
  One night we walk 4 kilometres up a main road because we've heard that there's a proper Chinese restaurant somewhere along there with a menu in English. By the time we arrive it is very late and we are very cold. The restaurant has been taken over by one table on which a group of businessmen are playing something similar to poker. They talk loudly and drunkenly and tell dirty jokes.
  You can sense a dirty joke being told wherever you are in the world even if you don't know the language. The voice drops low and a slight growl enters the voice, like a tiger loping on stage and lying down to purr.
  The restaurant is filled from shoulder to ceiling with cigar and cigarette smoke. Some of the players have up to three smokes on the go at any one time. The ashtrays on the table look like Jake and Dinos Chapman sculptures – Jenga towers of filter tips. We sit at a small table in the corner and with numb hands we open the English menu that reads as follows:

Cow innard Sechuan sauce fry
Tripe willow herb boil
Kidney hot broth boil
Kidney sauce willow herb boil
Liver eel hot soop
Chicken tripe Sechuan hot sauce boil
Sweetcorn soop

We order two bowls of 'Sweetcorn soop' and Chris chances the 'Cow innard Sechuan sauce fry'. As a rule he will always order the thing that looks closest to beef.
  After 10 minutes the field of smoke has given me a raging headache. We both stare at the grubby landscape art. It shows willow pattern images of high hills and tiny garden temples. Puffs of cloud drift over the heads of dainty cattle.
  When the soup arrives it is bland, tasteless and full of glutinous lumps. Chris pronounces his dish as 'hot and soft'. A crackle of cursing punctuates the babble. An argument has broken out among the businessmen. Ash flies as everyone gesticulates at once. We stare transfixed into our bowls of 'soop'. More shouting. A pause. Several people start laughing. Then everyone is laughing. The men retake their seats. One of them is sulking.
  We eat the complimentary bowls of rice and drink the suspicious-looking, grey-brown jasmine tea. When we can feel our
hands again, we walk back out into the cold.
  It's after 10.00 p.m. and the streets of Beijing are deserted. We trudge for a while in silence. I'm tired and cold and very hungry. After a kilometre or so I sink onto the step of a dark restaurant and rest my head against a giant fibreglass rat. Chris waits for me, but I don't get up.
  Finally, he helps me to my feet, takes off his right glove, and my left, and puts my hand in the pocket of his coat, where he holds it tight. I rest my head on his shoulder and we walk on – awkwardly – like two children misremembering a three-legged race.

One day in the common room at the hostel, Chris catches wind of a noodle and rice stand in a lean-to 5 minutes and a couple of hutongs away. He goes to investigate and finds a queue of weary workers waiting to pay three yuan for a hefty pot of savoury heaven. The next evening I go with him and we watch the man perform – two gaping Brits in puffer jackets.
  As each person orders, the young man throws a dash of oil into his wok, waits for the heat to rise before adding a handful of fresh noodles or rice, which sizzle and jump about the centre. He swirls a ladleful of thick brown stock over the jumping contents, tosses them to cook the sauce, then pushes them to one side. Reaching into little containers (the cut off bottom halves of plastic Pepsi bottles) for spices, salt and dried chilli, he sprinkles each into the empty half of the wok and lets them cook for less than 10 seconds, as the waiting nose is hit by an explosion of hot, sweet scent. Then, with a toss of the wok the whole is joined together and a pair of chopsticks flick it deftly into a fat, cardboard cup to be garnished with a pinch of sour, sweet pickled vegetables. In just two movements, he has deftly cleaned his wok and is smiling at the next customer.
  The whole process takes a couple of minutes and the result is succulent and fresh – full of umami and layered with complex flavours. For the uninitiated, umami is a Japanese word describing an intense savoury taste found in foods that are rich in L-glutamate and ribonucleotides. In Italian cookery ripe tomatoes and cheese are key ingredients because they give dishes an umami flavour. In British cookery, umami-rich ingredients include eggs, chicken, cod, meat and fish stock, potatoes and carrots. In Asian cooking, umami flavours are added using soy sauce, shiitake mushrooms, fish, shrimp paste, Chinese cabbage, meat stock and the famous additive MSG. For many children umami is the first taste they learned to savour because it's found in breast milk.
  Street food has been a distinctive part of the culture in China for at least a thousand years. In fact, many aspects of Chinese cuisine were laid down by the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and have only altered slightly in the intervening millennium. Recipes from the tenth and eleventh centuries show Chinese cooks flavouring dishes with ginger, soy sauce, salt, pepper and sesame oil, all flavourings vital to modern Chinese cookery.
  In the regional capitals, pancakes, fried meat, fruit and soup were sold along the sides of the main roads just as they are today. Noodle shops were commonplace and important focal points for meeting with friends or colleagues during the day. And 'night food markets' offering hot and cold meals stayed open throughout the hours of darkness, even in the depths of winter.
  Food festivals were prevalent throughout China and large cities boasted a huge diversity of restaurants. Restaurants and dishes were already being classified by region, offering southern, northern or Sichuanese cookery. Southern and Sichuanese food was more heavily spiced than dishes originating in the north and travelling officials often found the local food unpalatable, so restaurants catering for homesick and hungry civil servants could be found in capital cities.
  There were few parts of life that food did not touch. It was central to the wheels of commerce (trade in foodstuffs driving much economic growth throughout the regions) and shared meals were central to business and political negotiations. Mealtimes were extended by Western standards and provided focal points in the day for workers and families alike. An obsession with food was expected, normal: a sign that you valued your culture and the enjoyments that life had to offer.
  In 1082 the poet, painter, civil servant and general polymath Su Shi, finding himself banished to a remote region, wrote 'Poem on Cold Food Festival':

Rain falls constantly, remaking the Yangtse River in trails across the glass
Snatched up in a swirl of water, my little hut is a fishing boat shaken by an angry sea
Cold greens lie in my broke-down kitchen; dripping weeds lie pointless in the hearth
A letter from home brings a sharp reminder: Cold Food Festival is here again
All those fine men I've known live in splendour; and I am lost in rain and reeds and dirt
I long to weep at the way I have been treated; but my tired soul has nothing left to shed.
Su Shi
Library of Chinese Classics, Selected Poems of Su Shi Xu Yuanchong (2008–12, Hunan Publishing House)

Read the literature of any country and you will quickly realise that the relationship between food and memory is one that crosses all boundaries. There is not a person alive who has not built associations around the taste of certain foods. From our earliest moments we associate the giving of food with the giving of love and comfort. The gift of food is an almost primal act of love.
  My mother's family – with its French and Jewish influences – belonged to a tradition of preparing food as an act of love.
  Though my maternal grandmother Irène was largely uninterested in food, my mother grew up in a house with her extended family and Eliza – her grandmother and my great grandmother – poured her knowledge and experience into the food she made. My paternal grandmother, meanwhile, excelled at cooking in the English tradition; for decades of her life Cicely cooked a two-course lunch every single day, creating a seemingly endless stream of perfect roast dinners, steamed puddings, pies and tarts.
  I grew up in a house where both my parents cooked and I learned from a young age, experimenting with new cuisines from the age of twelve or thirteen. My mother was an avid reader of food history and we talked often about the relationship between food and experience, food and politics, food and gender. In my early years we existed on a modest family income and I learned, like billions of others, the secret of how to make food taste good using only cheap ingredients. The popular dishes of the world are dominated not by expensive ingredients – meat, fish, seafood, truffles, saffron – but by the principles of peasant cuisine.
  Italian dishes of pasta and tomatoes use the cheapest of ingredients in bulk, augmented with the smallest amounts of luxury products: black pepper and Parmesan cheese. British cuisine is dominated by soups because they make small portions of vegetables and meat go further. Pies use cheap flour, onions and potatoes to bulk out cuts of beef or liver. Rich, thickened sauces became popular because they disguised inexpensive cuts of meat and filled the stomach. In China and Vietnam, bowls of noodles and soup are garnished with tiny slivers of meat, allowing people to fill up for the equivalent of a few pence per bowl. In the cities, where the middle classes eat and socialise, steamed white rice is never eaten until the end of the meal. The most expensive dishes are eaten first, the dishes of meat, fish and vegetables. Only at the end of the meal will those still hungry fill themselves with bowls of broth or bowls of rice: the food of the poor.
  Across Asia many people are virtually vegetarian, not through choice or religion, but because meat is too expensive for them to afford. Even those who farm livestock will tend to sell their pigs and chickens rather than eat them. For many of the rural poor, meat is a once-a-year treat: normally reserved for New Year celebrations. The irony for the vegetarian traveller in Asia is that as a relatively wealthy visitor to restaurants in the towns and cities, everything comes cooked in and garnished with meat. With the exception of Buddhist restaurants, chefs in China wouldn't dream of putting vegetarian food on their menus. Vegetarian food is peasant food and no one wants to dream of poverty in a land struggling to escape its grip.

It is Valentine's Day and Chris has disappeared.
  I sit and make him a card, carefully copying storks and flowers from a picture on our wall and using my dictionary to fashion a funny message in pictograms, which he will not, of course, be able to read.
  I cannot face going out this afternoon. I am fighting my way through my third bad cold of the month.
  Darkness falls and Chris returns very flushed.
  'Get dressed. I'm going to buy noodles. We have to leave in 30 minutes.'
  I stick my head under the shower, rub my head dry and dress. Chris returns with hot, round containers of noodles, pickles and rice and pushes one into my hand.
  'We'll have to eat on the way.'
  He puts chopsticks in my pocket and we pull on gloves. Outside the snow is 15 centimetres deep and the February night is dry and clear. You can even see one or two stars – a rarity in Beijing.
  We walk through the crush of commuters on De Sheng Men Nei Da Jie – a vast street running north to south through our corner of Beijing. Chris hurries us along and we try and fail to eat as we walk. At last he finds a strange, new street and then another and another and we twist and turn until we are almost on the shores of Houhai.
  'I think we're still in time,' he says as he bundles me through a door and into the intense warmth of a pitch-black little bar. We stand blinking in the darkness until we make out the line of the bar itself and then an entrance into another part of the room where a projection screen is flickering into life. Chris settles me in a large velvet armchair and goes to order cocktails. The projector is spluttering and stopping and the American in the room above is swearing to himself in English and Mandarin.
  When Chris returns I am nearly asleep in the sauna-like heat of the little room.
  'Happy Valentine's,' he says and curls his arm into mine.
  Sleepless in Seattle is being sharply yanked into focus.
  I squint at Chris in the darkness, 'You hate this film.'
  'Yes, but you love it.'
  The film reel races on before us.
  I secretly suspect Chris of replaying Northern Ireland 1–England 0 in his head, but I am extremely happy and very much in love.

We have to find a flat. The hostel is lovely but not cheap enough for the next few months. We must find somewhere to live, register with the police and see if we can scrape up any work.
  We have been enjoying the luxury of living in central Beijing, but our future lies in the outskirts, beyond the ring roads, in the ever-blossoming suburbs with their high-rise cities and giant superstores. This is new, urban, middle-class China. Glistening estates and subway commutes and Nike trainers from the sports shop on the corner. There's something of 1950s Americana about it all. A new world of consumerism. Everyone wanting the same chic little home, the same mod cons, the same designer goods.
  We decide to save money and live a long way out. Beyond the fourth ring road but before the blossoming fifth. We make an appointment to view a flat in Guo Mei Di Yi Cheng – Number One Best Champion City. It's on the thirty-first floor of a tower block with a spectacular view over Beijing. It has two bedrooms. We joke about how this will come in useful when we argue.
  It is a beautiful flat, with fake parquet floors and a vast open plan living room. Two wet rooms, one for him and one for her. Two sweet little bedrooms and a tiny kitchen with a top-of-the-range cold-water washing machine and toaster oven.
  The landlady informs me that she will need it back by August for the Olympics. She has been in touch with the British women's hockey team and is hoping to accommodate all their parents here. She says this without humour. My eyes slide around the apartment – all 6 by 8 metres – and I nod politely.
  Chris and I gaze down from the giant windows onto the concrete gardens below and marvel at the huge mosaic of Van Gogh's Starry Night set into the central amphitheatre. It's very beautiful and very... not Chinese.
  Very little about Number One Best Champion City is Chinese, or at least not at first glance. There are ten tower blocks, each one 31 storeys high. Each storey offers four two-bedroom flats, and the flats look out over the other blocks, the tiny flower beds, the mosaic Van Gogh and the shopping street. There is one restaurant, one pizza delivery firm, two beauty salons and Wing's grocery store. Eventually, it will be home to upwards of 10,000 people, most of them young families with their single child and sometimes their parents or aunts in tow. These are white-collar workers, riding the subway to their jobs in retail, business and teaching.
  Between the fourth ring road and the fifth, urban Beijing flows into the dusty countryside; wealth living cheek by jowl with poverty. Across the road from our great metal gates, untreated sewage flows thickly beside a ramshackle slum district, constructed from old prefabs and a lot of blue tarpaulin. The district has been tagged for demolition, and within a few months it will be bulldozed. In the meantime it is a source of light, noise and street food in the evenings, as children race along its mud roads paved with sodden cardboard, and working men queue to buy noodles and bags of pineapple. The stench from the river of sewage is so horrendous that we learn to take a deep breath before we step off the bus. After a while we stop looking in at the district gates. The poverty and the knowledge of its imminent destruction are too depressing. Like everyone else around us, we just edit it out.
  Wing's grocery store is the common meeting place for everyone on our estate. There's only one supermarket nearby and few residents own a car. Wing's offers copious amounts of fresh veg, shelf upon shelf of cleaning products and freezers full of ice cream. There are large glass tanks with lobsters, crabs, fish and crayfish – whose eyes I try to avoid as I enter.
  In the evening, as the packed blue buses pull up outside Number One Best Champion City and deposit commuters, the estate comes alive with street sellers pushing carts. There are popcorn carts and dried meat carts; carts full of Mandarin pulp fiction, romance novels with orange and pink covers, cookbooks translated into English for stunned-eyed long-haul workers fresh off the plane. Every few nights a man appears at the south gate with a little cart of prospective pets: kittens, lovebirds, goldfish and sometimes a puppy or two.
  Dogs seem to be favourite in Number One Best Champion City. Mostly toy breeds: tiny terriers and teeny pugs. There are strict rules about the size of dog you can own in Beijing. Each household is allowed just one dog up to 35 centimetres in height. The strict regulation of dog ownership is another hangover of the revolution.
  Dogs were extremely popular pets before 1949, but after the People's victory all the dogs in Beijing were rounded up and killed. Numerous theories abound as to the reason. Some said that they disturbed the work of secret policemen, arriving to arrest people in the dead of night. Others claimed that Mao had once been foiled in a youthful attempt to escape prison by a barking dog. Certainly, pet ownership was seen as bourgeois and eventually all household pets were removed. The destruction of so many beloved pets was met with horror on the part of residents and when rules were finally relaxed, Beijingers re-embraced their love of everything canine.