The first impression of life in China's cities is that they are crowded, polluted, noisy and chaotic. Masses of busy people bustle about making a living at a frenetic pace in the face of formidable obstacles.
China's population doubled to 1 billion between 1950 and 1985. As agricultural mechanization proceeded and fewer hands were required in the fields, the cities became magnets for China's hundreds of millions of peasants.
One result is that there is an average living space of 64 square feet per person in the smaller Chinese cities and even less than that in the larger ones: about one small room for every two persons. Most apartments have kitchens that must be shared with other families. While there is usually electricity (albeit with "brownouts"), few places have bathtubs and less than half have indoor toilets.
And even this type of housing is horribly scarce. Young couples intending to marry must often wait many years before obtaining housing of their own. It is not surprising that urban dwellers in China spend much of their lives outside the home. People throng the public areas, conversing, playing mahjong and cards and walking.
Above all, they enjoy eating and snacking. More than half of the average urban household budget is spent on food. By sunrise, the markets are already selling fresh vegetables brought in from the countryside. Many families do their marketing before going to work to insure securing the day's choicest foods.
The Guans live in the remote southwestern part of China, in Kunming, Yunnan, a city of more than 1 million. Gong Shouhua was born on the border of Hunan and Yunnan provinces. Her husband, Guan Nafen, is from a peasant family in Guangdong province.
The Guans are comparatively well off, by Chinese standards. They live in a roomy three-bedroom apartment with a small kitchen and a dining room. Their son was recently married, and he and his wife live with them while awaiting assignment to their own place. Their daughter is a nurse; she too lives in the apartment with her husband and their infant son. In the Guans' tiny kitchen, there are only two gas rings on the range. Consequently, every step of the meal is carefully thought out beforehand. The Guans are relatively well off in two regards: They have a small refrigerator, which is in the dining room, and they have an electric rice cooker, the height of urban culinary sophistication in China.
At the gate of the Guans' apartment complex, there is a large market that provides them with a wide variety of fresh foods and ingredients. Kunming is surrounded by a very productive countryside whose farmers know the food preferences of the various minority groups and keep them well supplied.
I went shopping with the Guans several times and noted the varied specialty offerings in the marketplace: fresh goat cheese, dried goat cheese in curled sheets and the so-called "stinky bean curd" (bean curd that has been allowed to curdle and to acquire a strong cheese aroma and flavor). There were fresh vegetables in profusion, from Chinese broccoli to squash. As I sipped smooth, delicious yogurt sold by a street vendor, I observed the distinct Muslim influence: goat meat and dried beef, to go with our goat cheese and fresh vegetables.
For one special occasion, Mrs. Guan prepared her version of Yunnan clay-pot steamed chicken. Most commercial or restaurant versions begin by adding water, but Mrs. Guan's recipe develops the broth solely from the steam that condenses through the chimney of the clay pot. She allows the chicken to steam for four hours. Meanwhile, dried goat cheese is soaked in water to soften it, then dried with towels before being deep-fried into savory chips.
Our meals were accompanied by Chinese beer, but I was dismayed to see the younger people drinking cola with their meals. Fresh-fruit dishes closed our meals--the local watermelons are particularly sweet and refreshing--and hot tea was always served as well.
FURU CHAO WENG CAI
(Chinese Water Spinach
1 1/2 to 2 pounds fresh Chinese water spinach or European spinach
2 tablespoons peanut oil
3 tablespoons chile-fermented bean curd or plain fermented bean curd
2 tablespoons rice wine or dry Sherry
3 tablespoons water
Wash Chinese water spinach thoroughly and drain. Cut off 2 inches from bottom of stems, which tend to be tough. Cut rest of spinach into 4-inch segments.
Heat wok or large saute pan until hot and add oil. Add fermented bean curd, breaking into small pieces with spatula. Add water spinach and stir-fry 2 minutes. Pour in rice wine and water and cook another 3 minutes. Place on serving platter and serve at once. Makes 4 servings as part of Chinese meal or 2 as single dish.
LIANG BAN ROU
2 to 2 1/2 pounds fresh bacon or pork belly
12 green onions
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons chili bean sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine or dry Sherry
1 tablespoon light soy sauce