Happy New Year 2019 新年快乐


My warmest good wishes for The Year of the Pig to all those who read my blog, may you have peace, prosperity and good health for the coming months.

Spring Festival 春季  Chun jie is a very special time in Chinese life. It is the time when everyone heads back to their family home to spend time with parents, grandparents and all the kith and kin. The days before the New Year sees the biggest migrations of humans anywhere in the world,  chunyun (春运) as this massive movement of people is called is quite mind-boggling for most westerners as hundreds of millions descend on airports and railway stations or take to the roads. Loaded with gifts and carrying  Hong Bao 红包 (decorative red envelopes containing money to give to family and friends),chinese-red-envelope1.jpg they cram into every square centimeter of the trains and ferries, and the queues at airports have to be seen to be believed.


China has two long public holiday times – Spring Festival aka New Year, and Golden Week which is at the beginning of October. They have 7 days leave each time (plus weekend time). Whilst Golden Week is a fixed time each year, Chinese New Year fluctuates according to the lunar calendar. This year the date is February 5th.

As I may have explained before, the Chinese zodiac is counted in a 12 year cycle. Each year is represented by an animal. In order they are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Ram (sheep/goat), Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig.chinese-zodiac-animals

The length of the whole cycle approximates the orbital period of Jupiter which is the largest planet in our solar system.

Why is the pig the last animal of the cycle? Well legend has it that when the Jade Emperor summoned the animals, the greedy little pig stopped en route for a snack – fell asleep and arrived late, almost missing being included!

Chinese people often ask very direct questions when they meet you for the first time. A few years ago I was with two young women who were about to visit Britain for the first time. “One of the things you mustn’t do” I said to them “is ask a woman her age.” it is considered very rude, and many women don’t want to divulge how old they are.”  “Why?” I was asked. “Well, some of them have a fear of being thought of as old, and would rather you thought they were younger. Some may have been telling people – including employers – that they are five or ten years younger than they really are, for a variety of reasons.”                                                                                   “That is ridiculous” one of the girls said to me “all I have to do is ask and what zodiac year she is and I will know her age immediately, because if she was born a dog, she is not likely to say she is a snake!”

People born in the Year of the Pig are thought to be extremely fortunate – and my DH who was born in a golden Pig year (that’s a whole nother story) is considered particularly lucky.  What do I know? I’m only a Tiger ….grrrr!

BTW – Chinese astrologers here have predicted that Prince Harry and his wife Megan who are having a Pig baby, will be having a son…who knows.

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Beggar’s Chicken – A Sunday lunch to remember.

Once upon a time – long, long ago in China’s ancient past there was an Emperor who was fleeing from his enemies after a battle. He disguised himself as a beggar, and whilst on the run, being very hungry he stole a chicken. Fearing that the locals would know he had stolen it and tell his enemies where he was, he hid it in the mud at the edge of a river. When the danger had passed, he retrieved the chicken, now completely covered with mud, and put it into his fire to cook.

When he thought it would be cooked, he took it out of the fire and broke open the muddy covering which was now absolutely hard having been in the fire. When he did so, all the bird’s feathers came away with the mud, and the chicken was succulent and delicious.                                                                                                                                                     That is one of the legends about how ‘Beggar’s Chicken’ came to be.

These days mud plays no part in preparing this masterpiece of Chinese cuisine. The bird has already been plucked and it is stuffed then wrapped in Lotus leaves (these are usually bought dried and then soaked until soft) and following that a wrapping of heavy salted dough or pastry is sealed round the chicken. It is then cooked slowly in an oven for between four and six hours.  Then it will be brought to the dining table, still in its carapace – a hammer and knife will be produced and one of the guests will be invited to break open the wrapping to expose the bird.

Beggar's Chicken 2

Recently our friend K (who is a superb cook) and her husband W invited us and other friends to their hutong house for Sunday lunch.

After several delicious cold dishes (traditional start to a Chinese meal): Lotus Three Ways: pickled, stuffed with pork, and deep fried into spicy crisps; steamed savoury eggplant; baby tomatoes with sour plum sauce and various other delights.

Sunday lunch K&W 1

Then they brought out the Beggar’s Chicken!

Wow, wow, wow! One of us was handed the hammer and knife and invited to do the honours – breaking through the heavy crust of dough proved harder than he had expected, serious force was required.  But when he succeeded in breaking it open the most wonderful aroma permeated the room.  Everyone went “Aaah…” simultaneously!

K had made a fantastic stuffing of sticky rice studded with bits of Sichuan ‘bacon’ and chopped shitake mushrooms. As a side dish she served a big platter of wilted shredded green beans with slivers of smoked tofu, all in a delicious sauce.

The chicken was sublime – tender, moist and full of flavour. I have never had such a delicious ‘roast’ chicken in my life. Conversation ceased as we all tucked in.

This is not a dish that is usually served in a private home as it is thought that only a professionally trained chef can prepare and cook it properly. I have to say that is wrong! This Beggar’s Chicken cooked by K was the real deal – a chicken any Beggar would have died for.

I feel so privileged to know such a wonderful cook.

Thank you K and W for a memorable Sunday Lunch!


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Chopsticks – everything you need to know (part 1)

The world can be divided into 3 areas depending on how people eat their food. The first area is where people use their hands to eat; this area, roughly speaking comprises most of Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the middle east and Arabia. The second area is in the west and north of the globe, Europe and North and South America where cutlery (knife,fork,spoon etc) is used to eat food. The final area is the huge swathe of Asia, comprising China, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia etc and all the other East Asian countries where chopsticks are used for eating.
This means that every single day several billion people use chopsticks, so I thought I should know a bit more about them.

I recently acquired a copy of a book by Q.Edward Wang ‘Chopsticks – A Cultural & Culinary History’. 9781107023963

It is so well written, and Mr Wang’s research and knowledge shines on every page –  it has been a joy to read and learn from his book.

It would seem from archaeological discoveries that chopsticks came into being in the northern part of China during the Neolithic period (ie about 5000+ years ago). At first they were used to aid the cooking of food – you can imagine the scene: a pot of hot water with meat and vegetables in it – food sticks to pot, needs to be stirred – so whoever is cooking the the food picks up a stick or sticks to do that. Then, rather than burn their hands and fingers trying to extract cooked items from the pot or the fire, they realise that two sticks could be used as pincers to lift the pieces of food from the hot liquid.

From that starting point it was only a question of time before people started to use individual pairs of sticks to convey  food from the communal pot to their own bowl and/or mouth. Sticks which had been whittled to neat paired lengths were ideal for doing this, and so Chopsticks were born.

Over the millennia their use spread throughout all the lands with which China had contact, until everyone from Java to Japan used them as a matter of course. Originally very crude they became incredibly sophisticated, as they could be made from many materials: bamboo, lacquered wood, ivory (now banned), bone, enamel and various metals.  Gold chopsticks (which would show wealth and status) were not very efficient as the metal was too soft for practical use; silver was prized, particularly by kings, emperors and top officials, as it was thought that silver chopsticks would discolour immediately when touching poisoned foods, and therefore warn whoever was about to eat not to take food from a particular dish.
There were, and are, many advantages to using chopsticks, they cannot be used to pick up large pieces of food, so most foods are cut and cooked in small pieces. Because the food is cut into smaller pieces it can cook quickly and requires less fuel. Thus China’s cuisine has been much influenced by chopsticks, likewise Korean and Japanese cuisines.

Ceramic spoons developed later, as an adjunct to a pair of chopsticks; they were used to consume soups and soft foods, and to feed infants, small children and the very elderly.

Bear-in-mind that whilst chopsticks were becoming more and more refined in China and even the very poorest people used them, we Brits were still eating using our hands, a spoon and a slice of bread as a plate, and a knife could be used to cut foods. The spoon being the only true utensil. Forks first appeared in the Byzantine Empire and arrived in Europe via Venice. It was not until the mid 16th century that they started being widely used by the wealthy. The poor used their spoons and that meant that apart from big religious feast days they lived on a form of pottage.

In other words, China was way ahead of the game when it came to eating in a civilized manner. Confucius himself deplored the idea that anyone would bring a knife to a dinner table, with its potential to be used in violence if a dispute arose.

Lord McCartney, King George III’s envoy to China in 1793 was patronising in the extreme. When he encountered chopsticks, he said that the European methods of eating using knife, fork and spoon were so superior that the Chinese would quickly see the error of their ways and start using Western cutlery. Ha ha! he got that, and so much else, wrong about China.

Of course the Chinese do not call chopsticks ‘chopsticks’, that is the name by which they are known in the English speaking world. In Mandarin Chinese they are called ‘kuaizi’   (筷子) which can be loosely translated as ‘quick things’. So where did the name Chopsticks come from?

Well, ‘sticks’ is obvious, and in the days when Britain was busy colonizing India and other parts east, the phrase ‘chop-chop’* meaning ‘quick, quick’ was widely used. In other words  Chopsticks meant ‘quick sticks’ – not so far in meaning from the Chinese name.

There are rules about how chopsticks are held, and how they are to be used in polite company for which you are going to have to wait until I write part 2 of this blog post!

*a phrase still in use to this day!

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‘3 bowls of noodles’ let me introduce a brilliant blogger.

To all of you who read my blog (thank you!), I would like to introduce someone who knows far, far more about China than I do, and who really understands Mandarin with all its nuances.
You will learn a great deal if you follow him. His name is Andrew Methven and his blog posts are both fascinating and informative. His latest blog is entitled ‘Three Bowls of Noodles’ and yet it is nothing to do with the noodles one eats. I am awed by his knowledge of the subtleties of language in Chinese phrases. I have learned so much from him, and you could too!


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Himalayan viagra,冬蟲夏草, caterpillar fungus

I haven’t been writing this blog for a couple of months as I have had some health issues to contend with, and then – just as I seemed to be getting on top of things – my DH carelessly managed to rupture his Achilles tendon rather badly and had to go into hospital for an op. Needless to say, he is now – some weeks later – becoming rather impatient with being confined to the apartment with his foot in a large rigid ‘boot’; he is not allowed to put any weight on it for a while.
Friends and colleagues have been coming round bringing gifts of fruit, flowers, books to read, and generally keeping him company. We are both so grateful for their kindness and support.

Two Chinese acquaintances for whom Alistair once did a favour turned up to see him the other day, and brought him some fantastic green tea and a very smart wooden box which contained 20 glass vials, in each of which was a single caterpillar fungus. We made polite thanks but I wondered what on earth we were supposed to do with this gift.0-5.jpg

This had obviously been chosen for the DH specifically because of his injury and subsequent surgery. One of the uses for Caterpillar fungus in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is to aid post-operative healing. This is the most expensive ingredient available in TCM , weight for weight it costs more than gold, platinum and diamonds – so this box of 20 fungi was not only thoughtful but very, very generous.0-2.jpg

What is ‘caterpillar fungus’I hear you ask. th-5
Well, it is a wild fungus that grows in grassland at very high altitudes – mostly in Tibet or Nepal or the Qing Hai province of China. It has to be harvested by hand in the late spring or early summer, an extremely laborious task.cordyceps sinensis351
The Chinese call it ‘Summer Grass Winter Worm’, it’s full Latin name is Cordyseps Sinensis, and it is sometimes referred to as ‘Himalayan Viagra’!
It is the result of a parasitic relationship between the caterpillars of the Himalayan Bat moth and the cordyceps fungus. These caterpillars burrow into the ground, when they feed on the roots of a cordyceps fungus they become infected by its spores; the spores then start growing inside the the infected caterpillar’s body, replacing the tissue with its own. When the caterpillar is about to die having been totally overtaken by the fungus, it moves up to the surface of the ground where it expires.th-4
As it only grows wild at very high altitude it is not easy to access. Local villagers in Qing Hai and Tibet go out in the late spring and spend days crawling over the ground searching for the fungus. Areas of land where it is known to grow are jealously guarded and in recent years, as the price has risen, there have been some serious fighting between neighbouring villages as to who has the ‘right’ to certain patches of grassland. For most of the communities up in these high, desolate places, the fungus represents nearly a quarter of their annual income – however they do not get the huge prices which accrue as the fungus is moved from middle-man to middle-man down the supply chain until it ends up in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai where it is elaborately packaged for sale.

Caterpillar fungus has featured in TCM and Tibetan medicine for over 2000 years and was always expensive, but it really became super valuable in the last 15-20 years when researchers for ‘Big Pharma’ companies around the world came across it. They had discovered that the active ingredient in each of these fungi is cordycepin which is extremely powerful and has huge potential for use in the treatment of some cancers. Additionally it seems to boost the efficacy of chemotherapy as well as mitigating some of its worst side effects. It also strengthens the immune system and aids the movement of blood to the heart. Many studies are underway, as you can imagine.

In China caterpillar fungus is usually taken by being cooked into a special soup which people drink to get the benefits….having said that, one Chinese chap I know said all you had to do was soak a couple of the fungi in a bottle of Baijiu, and then drink that!th-3.jpg

I have been given several recipes for making such a soup, all of which involve other esoteric ingredients – black chicken, dried Angelica root, slices of dried Milk Vetch etc.
Some friends who have seen our box of fungi have warned us to exercise extreme caution as the caterpillar fungus is an extremely powerful ingredient and it is possible to have an adverse reaction – particularly if one is taking other (Western) medicine. So after much discussion we have decided to give it a miss. This box of 20 ampoules will be ‘re-gifted’ in due course, which is probably how we were given it in the first place!

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鲁班 Lu Ban and Leonardo da Vinci

A week or two ago an old friend invited me to the opening of a very high profile exhibition, and there were all sorts of dignitaries both Chinese and Western walking up the red carpet to attend the event – I was rather surprised to find myself among them.


The subject of the exhibition – which is still running* –  is the work of two men:         Leonardo da Vinci and Lu Ban.


Well of course I know who Leonardo is, doesn’t everyone?  but Lu Ban ? who he?


Lu Ban 鲁班 (507-440BC) was a carpenter who lived and died in southern China nearly 2000 years before Leonardo was born. He is virtually unknown outside China, and even here many people have not heard of him – I hope this exhibition may go some way to rectifying that ignorance.

Leonardo was a towering genius of the Renaissance,  a sublime artist, inventor,  military engineer, musical composer, scholar. th-6

He was born in Italy in 1452 AD and died in 1519AD. His renowned art works such as ‘The Mona Lisa’, ‘The Last Supper’ and many others, are priceless and held in museums and galleries all over the world for everyone to gaze at, as are the notebooks he kept which detail his inventions, engineering designs, studies of anatomy etc.


Both men died aged 67 [which I think was considered a good age in those times]


Lu Ban, whose family name was Gongshu Yizhi, was born into a renowned family of carpenters  and artisans in the State of Lu (in the southern part of China), during the civil wars of the Spring and Autumn Period of Chinese history (770 – 426 BC). He quickly became famous as he was (like Leonardo 2000 years later) a polymath:  Carpenter, Engineer, Philosopher, Inventor, Military thinker, and eventually Statesman – but unlike Leonardo he was not an artist.   His legacy lives on to this day, as much of what he did was recorded at the time and many of his inventions are still being used in new and innovative ways.

article-1269425845505-08D9190A000005DC-436741_636x392-lo-res Amongst other inventions, Lu Ban came up with a design – rather crude to be sure -for what is a prototype of the modern bicycle, made entirely of wood and using pedal power and gearing, it seems to have worked. Recently  one was  re-created here in China and it could be seen moving around streets of the city. His design to improve chisels, the saw, the square, and planer and other woodworking tools have had a lasting legacy, as has the ruler he devised to ensure accuracy when building or making anything. th-5He invented the ‘Cloud Ladder’, a counter-weighted seige ladder, and also a grappling hook and ram for use in naval warfare.

Other Chinese inventions were becoming known and used in the West as knowledge flowed down the Silk Roads – for example the locks  which make it possible to regulate water levels in canals and waterways so that vessels can travel up and down them were unknown in the West, but knowledge of them arrived from China and was quickly replicated.  It seems highly probable that some of Lu Ban’s inventions also became known in a similar way.

There are those who have studied the History of Science who think that Leonardo knew of, and was influenced by, the work of Lu Ban.  Although there is no hard evidence of that being so, it does seem coincidental that they both came up with designs for a wooden structure to enable a man to fly, and some of their inventions were remarkably similar. Lu Ban’s ‘wooden bird’ which could carry a man is accepted as the fore-runner of the kite together with the work of Muzi, started being developed properly in the city of Wei-fang which is, to this day known as the Kite City.  There you can see a modern statue depicting Lu Ban about to fly!


Lu Ban has also left his mark on the Chinese language: “ban men nong fu” 班门弄斧  is a Chinese idiom which translates as ‘Ban’s door, show-off axe’  and is used in the same way as we use the English idiom ‘teach your Grandmother to suck eggs‘  – ie don’t show off your amateur skills in front of a master!


*If you are going to be in Beijing in the next two months, the Exhibition is at the Riverside Art Museum, Chaoyang District until 28th August 2018 – well worth a visit.


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Why the Chinese are batty about bats and westerners are not.

The Chinese are not spooked by bats, in fact they really rather like them. Bats feature prominently in Chinese art, embroidered on silk robes for an Emperor, painted on porcelain, b11e12a1c2c1ccc5393a17f3216d5453carved in lacquer ware or wood. On the landing outside our apartment is a beautifully carved screen which features a bat and fishes – the bats represent good fortune and the fish represent wealth – what more could one want?!authentic-hand-carved-chinese-cinnabar-lacquer-trinket-box-bats-1

Now that I’ve told you about bats being depicted on Chinese items, you will start noticing it yourself .*


In the USA and Canada, the bat has become irrevocably linked to witches, demons, vampires and general spookiness – mainly as a result of the increasingly commercialised celebration of Halloween in North America.

th-3                                                                                                                                                                      In the UK they are  mainly thought of as a bloody nuisance’.                                                                                                                                          This is because all bats in Britain are protected by law, and when they settle in churches,  houses, or other buildings it is almost impossible to be allowed to remove them –  despite the damage their urine and faeces causes to fixtures and furnishings.  Some years ago I read the despairing letter a country vicar had written to the local newspaper who was at his wits end about how to contain the damage to the ancient paneling in his church which had become home to a colony of over 200 bats – he ended his letter by saying  “…if only they would stay in the belfry where they belong.”!


In English, the words bats/batty are often used to indicate a level of craziness, obsession, eccentricity etc.   You might hear someone say ‘Jim is bats about vintage cars’ meaning he really loves them; or someone else saying ‘that old man is completely batty, you won’t get much sense out of him’.


Then there are the many misconceptions about bats.                                                       Women, in particular, seem to be afraid of them,  they fear that bats will fly down and become entangled in their hair – this very common belief is highly unlikely to ever happen, bats will do almost anything to keep away from people, certainly it is not a common situation, not even an uncommon situation – it is as rare as finding a hen with teeth.

As experts say about many wild creatures: ‘they are more afraid of humans than humans are of them’.  Bats are also feared as spreaders of disease, – whilst that is always a possibility – but there is little evidence to show it actually happens regularly;  and as for them flying in to your home to suck your blood whilst you are asleep– forget it!       Unless of course you are living in the middle of a Central or South American jungle or a stone’s throw from the Amazon river – which rules out most of us – and even then it would be a rare occurrence.

Having bats in your neighbourhood is the sign of a clean environment, and as most bat species live on insects, they are helpful as they reduce the need for pesticides.

In China, unlike in the West, bats are considered lucky.

BatsBats have been living in China for millennia;  they were (and are) revered for their longevity and for the way they pollinated some fruits – particularly peaches.

Bats and Peaches B60P1707

As I have mentioned in other blog posts, the Chinese language has many, many words that are pronounced the same, but written with a different character. These words are often paired up, with one representing the other in symbols and puns.

One of the most common designs you see is that of five bats surrounding the symbol th-2shou which represents longevity, this also links to the Chinese idea of bats, as bats often live in caves and some colonies of bats are believed to have been living in such caves for over 1000 years.

The Chinese word for bat (fu 蝠) sounds identical to the word for good fortune(fu 福) making bats a popular Chinese rebus. Five bats together (wufu 五福), represent the ‘Five Blessings’:


Long life, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death.

I have never been a particular fan of bats, as I had bought in to the  many misconceptions  about them. Now I am trying hard to change my views and understand these amazing creatures which are the only mammal that is able to fly; however I have quite a way to go before I will believe, as the Chinese do, that they bring good fortune.


* When I was staying in Cape Town recently, the guest room in my friend’s house had a jar on an upper shelf, and – of course – it showed the lucky five bats and a shou symbol!




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