Revised December 2011.
Travel broadens one, they say. While that epithet was meant to refer to the mind, it has a döuble-entendre for me, in that it tends to broaden my waistline as well. As a roving technical representative for some 30 years, I had opportunity to “wine and dine” on company (expense account) money, which meant that I could afford to develop into a gourmand and connoisseur. Since the mid-1980s, I have also globe-trotted in my avocation of judging dog shows and lecturing on cynological topics. As Keats put it, “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold, and many goodly states and kingdoms seen.” I have yet to stand, like Cortez, upon a peak in Darien, but I have experienced his “wild surmise” in 50 U.S. states and some 30 countries so far, several of them many times. One recent assignment was a return to China—a different part than I had seen before.
This hobby-business has exposed me to cultures and flavors never available to my stay-at-home friends and, of course, food was an important part of the experience. When I retired ten years ago, that gave me more “vacation” time, which meant that I could accept more overseas assignments than ever before, with no worry about having to get back to the territory and call the office. Vacation lasted all year! And my idea of “vacation” being just another opportunity to work (but totally for myself) meant that I had the ideal “job.” The food continues to be one of the pleasurable perqs.
Sometimes I am surprised when I find similar food items in widely-separated parts of the world that have no known historical or cultural connection. We have eaten blood sausage in Scotland and the South American country of Colombia, and if they had been switched, I’d wager nobody would have known the difference. From wonton to ravioli to fried meat pies to tempura to “pocket pizza” to egg rolls to crepes and numerous other forms, such batter-wrapped morsels are found in every region with the possible exception of on Inuit tables. And you can’t credit Marco Polo with introducing all of them to the world.
Some, especially Americans and others not much traveled, shudder at the thought of certain animal body parts on their plates, but in almost every case, these have never even brought a fork close to the goodies I have mentioned to them. Ever have Rocky Mountain oysters in a Texas roadhouse? Kimchee whether in Korea or America? Raw seafoods of various species? (In Japanese this is called sashimi or, if served with rice and wrapped in seaweed, it’s known as sushi. In Peru, chopped with onions and seasoned with lemon juice and spices, it is ceviche.) Steak tartar or raw lamb tenderloin a la Lebanese “kibee”? Haggis baked in a Scottish sheep stomach? Sliced duck heads and fried chicken feet in Shenzhen? Sea cucumbers? (Don’t bother… this ocean-bottom crawler tastes and feels like art erasers!) Snakes, worms, or insects? As the man says, “If you ain’t tried it, don’t knock it!” Sitting on low boxes with old laborers in a central Taiwan warehouse, I’ve even slurped the raw contents after cracking the top of the shell off little turtle eggs. Haven’t tried monkey paws yet, but maybe if I get an African assignment…
In Peru there is an ancient Inca city called Cuzco (also spelled Cusco), from where you board the train and descend from its 12,000-foot altitude to about 8,000 feet to find the long-hidden Machu Picchu (in the Quechua language, Machu Piqchu, for “Old Peak”). This famous “Lost City of the Incas”, rediscovered in 1911, lies below the incredibly steep Huayna Picchu (which I quickly climbed hand-over-hand several years ago). Cuzco was regarded by the Incas (experts in astronomy) as the center of the universe. It was there I had my first and only cuy dinner. Cuy is roast guinea pig, stuffed with delicious local herbs, baked in a stone oven in the local restaurants’ dining rooms, and served lying on its back, its four legs with tiny claws in a posture suggesting the little rodent was scratching at its sky ceiling to be let into guinea-pig heaven when it gave up the ghost. Accompanied by coca tea (a cure for altitude sickness proven by the Incas and subsequent inhabitants of the Andes), it made for one of innumerable gastronomical adventures I have had around the world.
Recently I journeyed to one of the culinary centers of the world (if one can be so generous as to allow leeway in the definition of “center”), the city of Chengdu. This is in the center of Sichuan province, which in turn is both symbolically and geographically in the center of China, and just east of vast Tibet. There are literally thousands of restaurants in Chengdu, all madly competing to stay in business by offering something unique and exciting. Lack of imagination in this city means the quick demise of any eating establishment, the opposite of the fast-food/junk-food culture in the USA. Sichuan cuisine is best known for the considerable tonnage of chili peppers and other such hot-spicy condiments used in many if not most of the dishes here. It’s enough to make a Mexican yell “Ay, caramba!”
But the feeling of flames is not in every dish, not is it the only feature of this regional style. Sichuan’s dishes are served with such colorful artistry that, for a split second, you are tempted not to break the picture with your chopsticks.
The next time you go to a Chinese restaurant, consider that the fanciest of their Americanized selections are feeble copies of real Chinese presentations, and far below the excitement of those in Chengdu. The variety of tastes, as well as appearance, in Sichuan is partly copied, but far from matched, in other parts of the Far East and indeed most of the world. And yet, if you compare the taste and nutritional value at the local “Pagoda” or “Great Wall” restaurant in a typical American shopping center with the triparte McDonald-type wonders of fast-food heart-stoppers (made almost entirely of fat, salt, and sugar), you come out ahead. The real thing, in China, is another step even further away from the junk food jungle that surrounds us in our daily lives.
Maybe you can’t break away from your routine or your job and go with me on my next tour, but you can buy or check out of the library some exotic cookbooks and live it up a little. You’d not regret it.
But after you forgive me for the digression from purely dog topics, let’s mention what took me halfway around the world to feast. It was a series of dog shows, of course. I was one of two men participating in the judging of a Tibetan Mastiff specialty on the first day, then was one of three judges dividing up the all-breed show on Saturday, and finally as an SV judge, I judged a GSD specialty on Sunday. In China, as in much of the world, German Shepherds are shown separately, almost never seen in the ring-size and other constraints of all-breed events. Most important to the GSD people in most countries is their breed club’s requirement that the judge be an SV-trained and authorized judge. I am one of only two in the USA with that qualification, and there are a few in Canada and half a dozen at most in all of Latin America. It’s not snobbery; it’s simply protecting the breed from the same fate that has befallen the American-Canadian AKC-type GSD.
I always have the same difficulty in Japan and China, which is not having the faintest idea of what the local-language catalog says. It is like pulling hens’ teeth to find out the parents and bloodlines of the dogs I put in front of their classes. I’m still waiting for those details, but I thought I saw some familial characteristics in a few of the older dogs in the Chengdu GSD specialty. Some famous top dogs in Europe stamp a certain subtle “look” on their offspring, even though the first-time spectator at a Sieger Show in Germany swears that every one of them comes out of the same cookie-cutter and paintbrush. At Chengdu, I found the males to be superior to the females, and many of them would be very competitive back in the land of their ancestors. I hope you will find photos accompanying this report that illustrate this fact.
The Tibetan Mastiff specialty on the first day was shared with my “young old friend” from Taiwan, Alex Lin. Alex translated for me when needed, so we kept him pretty busy. I had judged the “Tib” National in the USA years ago, have visited kennels often, put one up for BIS in Korea, and have done the breed many times at ARBA shows, but in this Chinese province that borders Tibet, the breed is still very much a serious guard dog. We had to make doubly sure the handler understood that he was to hold the head securely while we made a quick testicle check., and we checked teeth from about a distance of four feet or more. This requires three things: that the handler knows how to show the dentition, that the judge be patient, and that there be no breed-show disqualifications for a missing tooth or two that can be missed in such an examination.
In some countries and clubs, when I have judged the Fila Brasileiro, the situation is similar, except in that breed’s case, you never touch the dog; you just walk around to the rear and say something like “Levantate la cola, por favor” (lift the tail, please) so you can count to two and then send the team down and back. There aren’t many breeds that need to be judged like this, and it varies from country to country. Usually the closer to the country of origin the breed history and clubs are, the more careful you need to be about what dogs are to be touched. UKC and AKC judges in such a situation sometimes don’t know what to do with their hands because they generally have been conditioned to give each dog a massage. American and many other dogshow judges have never been trusted to trust their eyes as much as their hands. The GSD is seldom touched (by SV judges) — not because of ferocity, but because we are trained to see what judges in the frilly-dog rings think they can only palpate.
The Tibetans, like the GSDs, were international in their conformation and a few were world-class in their quality. But thanks to breeders like Karol Croft and the late Melissa Wolfe, the breed has had as high a level of quality in America as anything I have found in western China thus far. At the all-breed show, the most popular breeds also were represented by very high quality individuals. These include the Siberian Husky, Golden Retriever, Bichon Frise, Poodles, Chows, and a few others. I suspect a few of these might have been imports, but again, the catalog being entirely in Chinese gave me no clues.
The third judge was Bull Terrier breeder Carolyn Alexander from California. She had sort-of a nightmare regarding a lost passport just days before due to leave, but after a little while in China, she started to relax and enjoy the Far East experience again (had been in the Orient long ago but not for dogs). We had a good time together, and I even persuaded her to be a little adventuresome at mealtimes. The breeds were shared among the three of us, and the age-divided BIS competitions were, as well. I was responsible for Hound and Working groups this trip, while she and Alex split up the Toy, Terrier, Herding and Non-Sporting groups.
China is always an adventure. Some 30 hours at a stretch without sleep to get there is the hardest part (repeated on the way back, but with the jetlag worse on eastbound travel), but it is still worth it to see another part of the world and old friends. Some people who looked familiar these thousand-and-more miles further from anywhere else I had ever judged turned out to be handlers from Taiwan, who had shown under me there or in Mainland China’s eastern coastal cities.
One of the big treats, a truly unique one, was a VIP visit to China’s giant panda breeding establishment, where I held a wriggling 4-month-old baby who almost mistook my latex-gloved and thankfully tasteless fingers for bamboo shoots. This photo-op usually costs the lucky few a thousand or more dollars, but the director of the zoo and breeding farm was a veterinarian with a great interest in dogs, and so I was treated like royalty.
As I mentioned at the outset, we also ate like royalty, and if I never get to Sichuan again, I will fondly remember that special part of the experience.
(Please double-click on a photo to view full size.)