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Pleasures of the Flesh, 4am in Chengdu

Chengdu: stewed rats head

A stopover in Chengdu to round off this Chinese leg of my journey starts out innocently enough propping up, and playing go with the regulars of the Little Bar and ends many hours later as a witness to, um, wanton abandoned consumption.

Every culture has its own equivalent to the 4am, pile-on-the-energy meal that rounds off a decent night out – after-hours clubbing in Tokyo followed by a hot bowl of ramen, richly filled bagels in London’s East End or a pide in Kreuzberg. For my Chengdu companions that food is simply off my culinary radar.

It takes our taxi driver an age of cruising empty streets to find a suitable eating establishment though to be fair he has to cope with our frequent requests for changes in direction. Given that he picked us up from a street known for its bars at this time of the morning he should expect a degree of incoherence and anyway the meter is nicely ticking over. At three am on a Chengdu winter’s night there aren’t a hell of a lot of culinary options and on more than one occasion places that should be open are shut. We eventually pull up to a row of cheap blue plastic tables, each identically set with boxes of tissues and a cup of rough wooden chopsticks. The uniform appearance of the tables is in stark contradiction with what they represent – set back from the road are 6 small street eateries each in competition for our trade. A tout opens the taxi door and steers us to a table – only to be roundly ignored by my two female companions.

Each of the slippery steps down into the restaurant proper is a lawsuit waiting to happen. What’s the Chinese equivalent to a greasy spoon cafe?

Hot glasses of water are first to arrive. This is swiftly followed by a pig’s knuckle soup and the oily seal that has formed across its cooling surface is only broken by icebergs of bone, ligament and a floating white bean. When the final dish arrived it took a while for me to recognize the origins of the 3 skinned and identically shaped lumps of flesh and bone staring somewhat nonchalantly out of a pool of chili oil. As a non-local one of the pleasures of meal times in China is trying to figure out the origins of the food, the ingredients and style preparation so alien to a European. Ultimately it was the dental records and snout that gave it away. “It’s stewed rat head” one of my companions grins matter-of-factly before donning a pair of disposable plastic gloves, selecting a choice skull, snapping open its jaw and with a happy abandon not normally associated with this time of the morning proceeds to suck the meat from the bones. I tell myself that ultimately there is little difference between a well cooked rat or pig or cow or lobster but years of culinary conditioning kick in.

I forget to ask what kind of rat makes a good stew. Are free range better tasting than caged?

If there’s a future perfect link to all of this, and I’m not entirely convinced that there is, then it’s the plastic gloves that Cecelia uses during the meal. Eating stewed rats head is a messy business and the plastic gloves make sense but I can’t help thinking that another culture would have evolved some form of implement to help expose the meat, or alternately that an apron would be worn and that hands would be first used then washed. When a task process, whether eating a rats head or lobster, changing a car’s oil filter or even sorting though a digital music collection is this messy how to contain the ‘dirty’ from the ‘clean’?

A number of small-town China market stalls serve soup in a regular bowl lined with a thin, transparent plastic bag. When the meal is over the bag is thrown and the bowl can be reused without needing to be washed. (Not that I’ve ever seen it used this way, but the bag-lining-the-bowl design is well suited to being a doggy-bag-bowl)

How do the cultural differences in the ways we interact with food carry over to the way we interact with what is carried, and what we worn? How well would the stick-your-finger-in-your-ear Whisper Phone go down in this mass-market Chinese context? In a world of wearables it’s a question worth asking.

Heading to Tokyo tomorrow to pick up supplies, a fresh change of clothes and a travel companion before the next leg of my December journey. Peace of mind is an open road, hand-luggage and the promise of good times ahead.