I recently spent two weeks in China for a work trip. While I got a chance to see some of the main attractions like the Great Wall, Tiannanmen Square, Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Confuciuous’s temple etc, it was experiencing the food, drinking and fishing culture that was the highlight for me. Unfortunately I didn’t get to go fishing while I was there, but was impressed at how important fishing is in the Chinese culture and learnt heaps about the significance of fish and fishing. I was also lucky enough to try a multitude of different fish and seafood dishes, many of which have given me ideas for my own cooking. I also tried a few things that I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to try again, but the benefit of this is that I’m less likely to bork at odd bits and pieces in the future. More on this later.
Fishing in China is primarily done for food. Fish of all shapes and sizes are kept, and cooked correctly, can be delicious. However, the universal language showed me that many people are also simply enjoying time by the water, using fishing as a form of meditative escape from the busy city streets and relentless pace of Chinese life. Sportfishing is in its infancy, although I was lucky enough to have a Chinese fishing channel on the TV at one of my hotels. There is some sportfishing and a fair bit of competition fishing, but at the moment it seems to be confined to those with money. This is an increasing proportion of the population in China, and it’s safe to say that it will increase in popularity rapidly. Despite not understanding a word of what they were talking about on the fishing channel, it was fair to say that most of the fishing is ‘coarse’ fishing. Long poles and rods are used (mostly poles without reels in the cities). Lightly weighted finesse floats with small hooks seem to be par for the course. A ground bait or berley seems to be a critical ingredient to success. It’s a relatively simple technique, but appears to be very successful. Small dough baits or corn are popular.
I was lucky enough to stumble across a small market on the side of the road selling some fishing gear. For around $10, I got a beautiful long tenkara style rod and some quality floats. I can’t wait to give the technique a go on Wallaga Lake’s healthy population of mullet and garfish, or perhaps set myself a challenge on some of Lake Burley Griffin’s carp.
In terms of the food, I tried some interesting things. Salted carp was one of the more memorable dishes, as was the nile perch that had been butterflied, scored and fried with salt and a tomatoey style sauce rubbed into the cracks. I also had some delicious whole small fish, a bunch of floundery type things, plenty of jellyfish, some tasty limpets, shrimp done every way under the sun and more sea cucumbers than you could poke a stick at. Sea cucumbers are a pretty interesting culinary experience. They look bizzarre; like a spiky phallus-shaped slug, with strange little mandibles. Often served in a creamy corn based soup, they have a rubbery texture and very little flavour. They’re a delicacy in China and apparently they will make me ‘strong in bed’, ‘more than one time per night’ and ‘wife very happy’. Not wanting to offend, I gulped them down with healthy swigs of Tsingtao and Yanjing beer, hoping that their medicinal qualities would compensate for their ‘interesting’ texture and appearance. As an aside, some of the other dishes I consumed with gusto included donkey burgers (sorry to all the equine lovers), pigs head and trotters, cicadas (think nutty flavoured textured vegetable protein), chickens feet and goose heads. It was truly a culinary adventure. After drinking way too much rice whiskey, most food seems a welcome break from the relentless ‘gambei!’, which means ’empty glass’. I must have been doing the right thing, as after sculling huge amounts of beer and whiskey, accepting the cigarettes (which came out with the entrees) and repeatedly being called ‘number one delegate’, I was adopted as an honorary son by an ex-army general and offered a job and a wife in China. Fun times.
Anyway, back to the fishing. Fish are a symbol of wealth in China, which is perhaps ironic as fish form much of the protein for many of the diets in the more impoverished areas. It’s made me realise that perhaps eating fish out of my local lakes probably isn’t such a bad thing. There’s a huge stigma around it in Canberra, but thinking about the reservoirs and lakes where many of the fish I ate this trip came from, maybe I’ll reconsider whether or not to keep that next big redfin that comes out of Lake Burley Griffin! I’d also be keen to try salting a carp from a nice clean water body to see if I can recreate what I had in China. It really was delicious.
Now that I’m back in Canberra I’m aching to get some fishing in. I realised that the luxury of standing on an isolated south-coast beach by myself, catching salmon, tailor, bream and other awesome fish is something most people will never even dream of. Cruising out into twofold bay on a safe boat with mates and chasing big, hard fighting, delicious kingfish really is the realm of the ultra-fortunate. We are incredibly lucky in this country to have access to clean, healthy fish stocks. Let’s try and keep it this way for more people to enjoy in the future.
I guess one final note is that fishing really is a universal language. Seeing the Chinese out there under a willow tree, meditatively contemplating their navel or sharing some tea with a mate was great to see. Not having the time or gear for fishing was frustrating at times, but you can still appreciate it immensely even when you don’t have a line in the water. At one point my colleague exclaimed, ‘You’re obsessed!’, as though it was a bad thing. I felt lucky to have such a wholesome and consuming passion, and pondered whether the symbolism of fish and fishing in Chinese culture goes deeper than material richness, perhaps alluding to the value of the relaxation and escape that it brings.
Lee, October 2011