shredded cat thick soup

November 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’m too wrung out today to write anything at length — there’s a fledgling headache rattling around behind my eyes and in my sinus cavities that is going to metastasize into a full-on brain-clamp the moment I leave work, I just know it —  but here’s some scrumptious travel writing that I don’t want to lose if I can help it.

“In Cantonese cooking, nothing edible is sacred. It reflects an old Chinese mercilessness towards their surroundings. Every part of every animal- pig stomach, lynx breast, whole bamboo rats and salamanders – is consumed. No Hindu cows or Muslim pigs escape into immunity by taboo. It is the cuisine of the very poor, driven to tortuous invention. Most Chinese still eat only fourteen pounds of meat a year, and many survive at little above subsistence level. In the rowdy, proletarian Wild Game Restaurant, I interrogated the waitress for anything I could bear to eat. But she incanted remorselessly from the menu: Steamed Cat, Braised Guinea Pig (whole) with Mashed Shrimps, Grainy Dog Meat with Chilli and Scallion in Soya Sauce, Shredded Cat Thick Soup, Fried Grainy Mud-puppy (‘It’s a fish,’ she said) with Olive Kernels, Braised Python with Mushrooms …. If I wanted the Steamed Mountain Turtle, she said, I’d have to wait an hour. And Bear’s Paws, she regretted, were off. I had turned suddenly vegetarian. I played for time by ordering python broth, then glanced furtively round at the main courses on nearby tables, hoping for escape; but their occupants were bent over opaque stews where dappled fragments floated anonymously. Around us the windows were glazed with pretty pictures of the animals concerned : deer and cats wearing necklaces. The waitress tried to be helpful. ‘What about Dog Meat Ready to be Cooked Earthen Pot over Charcoal Stove on Table?’ I guessed in desperation: ‘It’s too expensive.’ ‘Then I recommend Braised Wildcat.’ ‘Well…’ I glanced at a domestic tabby squatting on the veranda beside me. The waitress followed my gaze. ‘It’s not that.’ She tried to explain it. It had nothing to do with real cats, she said. She wrote down the Chinese character for it, which I couldn’t read. In the end, hoping that it was a fancy name for something innocuous, I heard myself say: ‘One braised wildcat, please.’

But the soup was a meal in itself. It came in a python-sized bowl, and beneath its brown liquid lurked sediment of what appeared to be white chicken meat. It tasted fishy. The darker flecks might been skin. I excused myself by reflecting that pythons (although I had never known one) were less endearing than lambs, which I had eaten often. The tabby had squirmed under my table. It looked scrawny but dangerously edible. In fact I had the impression that almost everything bere was in peril. When somebody brought a warm flannel for my I was half prepared to munch it. What else was nutritional, I wondered? The mosquitoes? The curtains? It occurred to me that should I fall from the fourth-floor stair-well. The cat was still under my table when its braised compatriot arrived. I lifted the lid to reveal a mahogany-coloured flotsam of mushrooms and indistinguishable flesh. A pair of fragile ribs floated accusingly on the surface. I ate the mushrooms first, with relief, but even they were suffused by the dark, gamey tang of whatever-it-was. The meat was full of delicate, friable bones. I did not know if my faint nausea arose from the thing’s richness or from my mind. Several times my chopsticks hit rounded, meat- encircled fragments, like miniature rolling-pins, which resembled legs. I smuggled them to the cat under the table, as a melancholy atonement. “You don’t like your wildcat?’ The waitress was peering into the bowl, disappointed. ‘I’m rather full.’ I smiled feebly, picking the python out of my teeth. But she seemed to understand my diffidence, and stooped down to sketch me an exonerating picture of the whatever-it-was. She drew what looked like the illustration of an Edward lear Limerick : a lugubrious, four-legged ellipse, with a face either cross or upset. But it was too late : I had already eaten it. And when later I showed an English-speaking Cantonese the word she had written, he translated it “elephant-cat” or “cat-fox”, and shook his head, nonplussed.”

Behind the Wall, by Colin Thubron


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