CALAMARI INDEX? IT’S BUTTER IN CHINA
The lawyer-turnedwriter Jeffrey Steingarten once wrote about the Calamari Index, that measure of culinary sophistication he invented as the resident food critic for theUS edition of Vogue magazine.
Imitation being the best part of flattery, I ampaying tribute to the man who first inspired me to explore food beyond the plate. Let’s look at a Butter Index, amystic yardstick of how China interacts with the culinary world beyond its borders.
As the expatriate daughterin-lawof a very Beijing family, I vacillate between eating local and longing for the melting-pot diet I amused to. While I amever-willing to be assimilated, I find it difficult to sacrificemy culinary roots — hence the persistent search for a fresh block of butter all these years.
Before settling in Beijing, a meal at home inHong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or San Francisco may have included noodles, pasta, roti canai, pizza, tortillas or sourdough bread. Butter and jam, malted breakfast drinks and coffee were daily necessities, not optional luxuries.
Getting hold of butter became a major mission after we arrived in the Chinese capital, requiring special trips to supermarkets either in Sanlitun or other diplomatic districts. Every trip abroad, our luggage would be weighed down with canned butter, countless packs of local coffee powder and 1-kilogram bags of malted milk powder.
Those were the days before the Chinese caused a run on imported milk.
In occasional wanderings around the city, I would happily buy butter wherever I could find it. The day we discovered a golden roll of Beurre d’Isigny at the Sanyuanli market, I was literally moved to tears.
Local butter is quite different from what the rest of the world knows it to be. First, there is nomenclature. Here, it is called “yellow oil”, or huang you, where it is known elsewhere in China as niu you— a nod to the animal which produces butter.
The “butter bread” from local bakeries always tasted a little strange until we realized it was heavily scented with essence. The reason, my friendly cake-shop owner said, was because most Chinese cannot stomach the smell of butter.
In a city where the powerful pungency of lamb pervades hotpot eateries and homes every winter, it is information I need time to seriously mull over.
Happily, our family’s craving for “real bread” has now been sated, thanks to a friend who is an artisan baker who cut her teeth on New York loaves. I have also located French cheeses with names like Beijing Grey, Beijing Blue and Beijing Red. My satisfaction is complete with the discovery of unsalted French butter, which has since rebooted long-forgotten baking skills.
In the five years we’ve been back, the capital city’s rating on the Butter Index has climbed a steep curve.
Most large supermarkets now carry butter on their dairy shelves, and those that still do not are mostly located in areas where the psychographics tend to reflect lower incomes and taste preferences.
In the increasing numbers of splendid restaurants here, that little plate of butter that comes with the bread basket is a good indicator of culinary excellence. Flavored butters, French butter and little saucers of freshly-pressedEVOO are standard offerings, and diners seem to have overcome their aversion to the “smell” of yellow oil.
Outside Beijing, cities like Shanghai and the southern precincts of Guangzhou and Shenzhen have already rung the bell on the index. Hong Kong, of course, has never had any problems scoring full marks.
Even in Kunming, where the spouse and I like to call home one month out of every 12, the larger French and American megamarts satisfy our butter cravings. Kunming is surprisingly Westernized, with a large expat community that keeps the demand for butter high.
Forget the squid. Bread may be the staff of life, but the butter on the bread… now that is the true measure of how China is catching up, and fast. Contact the writer at paulined@ chinadaily.com.cn.