The Kunming Wolfdog

One of the group activities for Team China 18 this month is putting together an introduction pack for DOT to use in introducing our team to the communities we will be working with.  Each of us are supposed to provide a mix of professional and personal details about our lives that will help people to know us better.

In these slides, several of my colleagues have indicated a fondness for dogs; this got me wondering if there were any notable breeds of dog from Kunming.  And sure enough there is one.   So Brett and Renata, I give to you the Kunming Wolfdog.

The Kunming Wolfdog

The breed was started in the 1950’s in response to the need for a common standard of dog for China’s military and police corps.  In 1988 it was recognized internationally as a distinct breed.  The main antecedents are German Shepherds and a group of wolf-dog crossbreeds developed in Beijing, but there were also a number of house dogs of indistinct breed in the initial breeding pool; detailed pedigrees were not kept.

Physically, they strongly resemble German Shepherds, but their wolf heritage is evident in the taller rear haunches and in how they carry their tail.  They are a very active breed, and require significant exercise every day to stay healthy and happy.  The breeding guides all say that they require at least one long walk every day.

They are primarily working dogs and seldom kept as pets, though this may be changing over time.  But even though they are mainly working dogs, the breed is quite popular.  There is an annual dog show in Kunming every October that features the breed.  The 2011 show was held on October 15, so it is not impossible that we will be there at the right time.

The 2011 Kunming Dog Show

So there you have it.  The Kunming Wolfdog.  I shall keep my eyes posted during my visit for a glimpse of this very handsome looking hound.

Advertisements

Food of Yunnan 1: 过桥米线 – Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles (guòqiáo mĭxiàn)

Amongst his observations of Yunnan and Kunming, Marco Polo noted that the people there were particularly fond of raw meat.  Like most people, I tend to associate raw fish with Japanese sushi and raw beef with Italian carpaccio or east European steak tartare.  Uncooked meat is frequently brought to the table in China, but only to be cooked there by the diners themselves; not once in all my visits to China have I encountered a dish in which meat is eaten raw.

Is the eating of raw meant something unique to Yunnan then?  Or have people simply outgrown their taste for it?  It has been over 700 years, after all.

Armed with curiosity, I resolved that I would spend the next part of my life dedicated to a deep, thorough, and comprehensive study of Yunnanese cuisine.  In other words, I googled around for about half an hour looking at some web pages. And while I didn’t find any dishes that resembled those described by Marco Polo, I did find many delightful things to share with you.

So without further ado, I give to you that most iconic of Yunnanese delights, Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles, or 过桥米线 (guòqiáo mĭxiàn).

Most people seem to agree that the recipe for Crossing The Bridge Rice Noodles is somewhere between one and two hundred years old.  There is not nearly so much agreement on how it got its name, I found the most fully realized telling of the most common story on a food adventure blog published by a couple in Vancouver called Chowtimes, which I have reproduced below.  They in turn appear to have gotten it from a sign posted on the side of a food stall in Yunnan itself.  Like many Chinese translations the prose is quirky, and calls out the many grammatical differences between their language and ours.  But unlike many Chinese translations, I find that this passage loses none of its ability to communicate a sense of wonder and delight…

Cross Bridge Rice Noodle is a special dish of Yunnan. It is originated during the Qianlong period, nearly 200 years ago. There is a popular legend regarding its origins.

It is said that a scholar in Mengzi, who was preparing for the Imperial examination, went to an island in the Na Lake everyday to study. His wife went across the bride to the island to bring his meal to him. Owing to the long distance, he had to eat the meal cold everyday.

Accidentally, his wife discovered that a greasy chicken soup is not easy to get cold. What’s more, fresh ingredients, such as seasonal vegetable, fresh meat and so on, can become edible by putting them into this kind of boiled soup.

From then on, the scholar could have a delicious and hot meal everyday. Because his wife went across the bridge everyday, the rice noodle made this way was named as Cross Bridge Rice Noodle.

By now, the Cross Bridge Rice Noodle has a distinct development. The most important factor in this noodle is the soup. It was made with natural hen, pig bone and ham. It needs to be boiled for over 6 hours until the soup become savory and the oil from these are distilled.

The next thing worth mentioning is the ingredients. There are two kinds of rice noodles. The proper kind is the slim one, which is good at keeping the flavour of the valuable soup. The ingredients can be divided into two categories: vegetable and meat. The vegetable used are dependent on what is in season. The meat is focus on slice. The thinner the better, so the slice meat is one of the characteristics of the Cross Bridge Noodle.

Last but not least, the process of eating is special. The right orders are as follows: firstly, put the meat slice in the soup, then the vegetable, the last one rice noodle. Minutes later, a hot colorful and delicious Cross-Bridge Rice Noodle is ready.

So there, in authentic Chinese English, is the story of Crossing the Bridge Rice Noodles.  As you can see in the above photo, the final dish is built at the table by the diners themselves.  That is probably the thing I enjoy most about Chinese food in general; more than any other cuisine I know of, the eating of Chinese food is designed to be a social activity, shared with family, friends, and colleagues.  I cannot wait to come to Kunming and try it with my team.

Historical Kunming Part 1: Kunming and Yunnan as seen through the eyes of Marco Polo

Most places in the world are steeped in history, and that history often defines the culture of its inhabitants.  Nowhere is this more true than China, and the canonical history of civilization that we receive as  westerners is almost completely silent about one of civilization’s most dominant cultures, a heritage that far outdates ours in enlightenment and sophistication.  Every western traveler to China I have ever spoken with (myself included) is at some point daunted by a sense of how much of the story we have missed.

To ensure that my team and I miss slightly less of the story this time, I will be trying to learn a little of the history of Kunming, and of Yunnan province.  And as an interloping westerner, it seems fitting that I start with the story of the most famous interloping westerner of all, Marco Polo.

Marco Polo was a Venetian merchant who in 1272 at age 17, went with his father and uncle on what was supposed to be a 2-3 year trade mission to China.  He ended up serving in the court of Kublai Khan, and stayed in the Mongol dynasty for almost 20 years.  His eventual return was badly timed; he arrived in the midst of a civil war in 1292 and was imprisoned for a further seven years.  His loss was our gain; having nothing better to do, he narrated the story of his travels to a fellow prisoner, a French romance author named Rustichello.  Upon their release in 1299, Rustichello published those narratives, and while the original manuscript is lost, various translations of the original survive to this day.

In Renaissance Italy it was considered right and proper to boast of one’s accomplishments; failing to do so was interpreted as a sign of weakness and subservience.  And while Marco Polo himself is portrayed to be a man of utter pragmatism, Rustichello was a romance writer by trade and unabashedly used the tools of his trade to their greatest effect when telling the tale of Marco’s travels.  For both of these reasons, the truth of some of the stories in this book must be taken with a healthy degree of skepticism. There can be no doubt that Marco and his father and uncle did go the places they claimed to have gone; their accounts of these places and the events that took place during their visit rings true with contemporary Chinese accounts of the same events.  On the other hand, there is no evidence whatsoever to support the central role in these events or the high position in the Mongol court that Marco assigns to himself.  In fact there is almost no mention of Polo’s twenty-year sojourn at all in Chinese historical records, only the scantiest hints of indirect evidence.  Certainly a foreigner so highly placed as Polo claimed to be would not have escaped the notice of otherwise inexorable Chinese scholars.

Where Polo’s account really shines though, is in his descriptions of the places and people he visits.  Unlike his biographer Rustichello, there is not the slightest flight of fancy in his worldview.  He notices those things that a merchant would deem important.  What items of value a region produces. Which roads are safe.  The abundance (or lack) of grain or livestock.  The quality of their horses.  Their religion and system of government.   And above all, health and temperament of the people.

So here then with equal mix of fascination and skepticism, is Polo’s account of Yunnan and Kunming, as he encountered them in around in the year 1282 AD.

On the farther side of the river Brius  lies Kara-jang, a province of such size and wealth that it contains no less than seven kingdoms (Kara-jang was the Turkish name for Yunnan, and Brius for the Kin-sha-kiang, one of the sources of the Yangtze).  It lies towards the west; its king is the Great Khan’s son, whose name is Essen-Temur, a very great king and rich and powerful.  He rules his land well and justly, for he is a wise and upright man.

After leaving the river, the traveller continues westwards for five days, through a country with numerous cities and towns which breeds excellent horses.  The people live by rearing animals and tilling the soil.  They speak a language of their own, which is very difficult to understand.  At the end of the five days one reaches the capital of the kingdom, which is called Yachi (Kunming), a large and splendid city.  Here there are traders and craftsmen in plenty.  The inhabitants are of several sorts: there are some who worship Mahomet (this is how Polo refers to Moslems), idolaters (Buddhists), and a few Nestorian Christians.  Both wheat and rice are plentiful; but wheat bread is not eaten here because in this province it is unwholesome.  The natives eat rice, and also make it into a drink with spices, which is very fine and clear and makes a man drunk like wine.

For money they use white cowries, the sea-shells that we use to make necklaces for dogs:  80 cowries are equivalent to 1 saggio of silver, which is worth 2 Venetian groats, and 8 saggi of fine silver may be taken to equal 1 of fine gold.  They also have brine wells, from which they make salt that is used for food by all the inhabitants of the country.  And I assure you that the king derives great profit from this salt.  The men here do not mind if one touches another’s wife, so long as it is with her consent.

Before leaving this kingdom let me tell you something which I had forgotten.  There is a lake here, some 100 miles in circumference, in which there is a vast quantity of fish, the best in the world.  They are of great size and of all kinds.  The natives eat flesh raw — poultry, mutton, beef, and buffalo meat  The poorer sort go to the shambles and take the raw liver as soon as it is drawn from the beasts; they then chop it small, put it in garlic sauce, and eat it there and then.  And they do likewise with every other kind of flesh.  The gentry also eat their meat raw; but they have it minced very small, put in garlic sauce flavored with spices and then eat it as readily as we eat cooked meat.

Let me tell you further that this province produces a sturdy breed of horses, which are exported when young for sale in India.  And you must know that it is the custom to remove two or three joints of the tail-bone, so that the horse cannot flick the rider with its tail or swish it when galloping; for it is reckoned unsightly for a horse to gallop with swishing tail. The horsemen here ride with long stirrups after the French fashion. Long, that is, in contrast to the short stirrups favored by the Tartars and most other races who go in for archery, since they use their stirrups for standing upright when they shoot.

So there it is,  an excerpt from the first notes of Kunming made by a western visitor to China.  To go deeper into Kunming’s history, we need to do what we as historians should have done from the start: listen to the Chinese themselves.  Next week, I shall attempt to do just so.