China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

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@ chi­

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