Friday, January 08, 2010

A Food Market in China

The market in Chongqing seems to be almost constantly lit by a harsh white light. It is sunk a little into the ground, giving the impression of some vast modern cave and has the ambience of an underground carpark. The stalls are piled high with all shapes of marrows, yams, green vegetables like cabbages and celery and every variety of root. The stall holders are happy for customers to browse, sniff and touch.

I played a game trying to name what I saw: yam with prickles, marrow with spikes, pale root vegetable ending in a spiral, a relative of garlic, something that could be ginger, sheets of a black substance which looked like roof-tiling but could be seaweed.

I was tired. After more than a week in China I felt that I had been staring too long at an over-complicated picture. I was dimly aware of eggs: eggs in boxes, eggs soaking in fluid - shelled and unshelled, small blue eggs and white large ones, eggs I was told were a hundred years old, and those laid yesterday. I moved on to the noodles. The ones I had tasted so far, in the UK, were made from wheat and eggs, but here the noodles were made from other things too: rice, sweet potato...

I tried them in one of my hotels - and they were delicious. These noodles had flavour and their own texture, nothing like the blandness of noodles at home.

China is self-sufficient in most things including food. Even though the population is 1.3 billion it manages to feed them all. The land around Chongqing is fertile and warm and is famous for its productivity, yet, as I said in a previous post, about fifty years ago people were starving. Hong Ying records people digging in the ground for weeds, and using the almost inedible outer leaves for soup. Spices must have been a luxury then

or maybe a necessity to cover up bad flavours and distract from the unpleasantness of eating skin and gristle.

When I was a child, the Chinese were part of the population of the world I was supposed to pray for in Sunday School and school assemblies, and even today the UK still helps China with financial aid. As China rapidly develops and the UK declines this charitable offering is seeming increasingly incongruous. This week I read in the newspapers that within twenty years the UK could take its turn in running short of food. We might be forced to return to the post-war rationing of seventy years ago. It is hard to conceive of this now - like these stalls in the Chongqing market the UK supermarket shelves are always stacked high. At first glance it seems like the countryside around us is fruitful; yet a swift inspection of the labels indicates that the majority of the produce comes from abroad. Just as a famine can so quickly turn into glut, so can a complacent land of plenty swiftly turn into a place where everything is in short supply. Although here are murmurings too that it could be good for us.