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Fish Balls

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August 10, 2012 / Chinese / By
Tu Sen Tran

China is what it is. 

I sit in a cramped tour bus.  My girlfriend’s mother tells me that the quicker one goes to China the better.   Nature and old customs are being dissolved and repackaged into easily digestible experiences.  She tells me that there was a major attraction in a nearby village that consisted of a beautiful tree growing on the side of a cliff.  This tree could be a symbol for China, persevering and growing despite permanent difficulties.  However, when the tree finally died, the village simply made a plastic replica and then a tourist centre around it.  ‘Typically Chinese’ she said. 

We were near the end of our trip and we were going to try the best fish balls in the Guangdong province in Swatow. The shop was a winner of numerous awards and featured on many culinary TV shows.  The tour guide emphasised that the fish were carefully selected so that the fish balls were ‘bouncy’. 

Swatow is full of life and character but not for the tourist.  The buildings are decrepit but not ‘interestingly’ decrepit like other cities with rustic charm.  One hesitates to take one’s camera from its bag.  The people are carrying out their business in an unhurried manner.  They are not unusual in any respect if one takes a quick glance.   The tour guide does however assert that women here have smooth skin due to their high sea food intake.

The town was unexceptional but it was still a surprise to find that a shop with so many accolades looked so simple.  The shop consisted of one big pot, one sink, a few chairs and tables.   The shop assistant prepared the meals and cleaned the dishes at the same time.  There were large photos of the shop owner winning his many awards and eating with famous faces but there were no further decorations in the shop.  

The shop owner, with cigarette in hand, walked up to us and spoke a few words to the shop assistant and directed us to the back room.   Our fish balls arrived, four in total and bobbing about in a ladle of soup.  I spooned a fish ball with a moat of soup and paused to clear my mind in expectation of a spectrum of flavour.

It was good.  The fish balls were indeed bouncy and worthy of accolade.

But that was about it.  It tasted better than other fish balls I have had but not much better.  The shop owner with a new cigarette in hand, sat down next to us to answer any questions we had.  He described the process of making them and you could tell that this man really knew his product and was proud of his awards.  But still, he was incredibly modest.  He felt more like a family friend than a culinary powerhouse.

I imagined a Western restaurant review of this place.  Zero stars for decor and ambience and half a star for presentation.  Fish balls are what you come for and fish balls are what you get whether you like it or not.  Would this place get a good review?  Probably not.  I left the place and had difficulty trying to imprint the features of the shop exterior so that I may one day come back. It was just so unremarkable. 

On the bus back to Shenzhen, the remnants of the bouncy fishballs were digesting in my stomach.  I thought about the modest fish ball man and whether he would survive in the West with hats, celebrity chefs and fancy restaurants. 

 

Maybe we’ve been worshipping false culinary idols in the West all this time.

 

N/A

Country: China

Province/State: Guangdong

City: Swatow

Address: N/A

Zip/Post Code: N/A

Location Tips: N/A

Phone: N/A

Website:N/A

Price Guide:$ (What's this?) N/A = home cooked meal,etc
$ = street food, fast food,etc
$$ = bistro, cafe, pub, bar,etc
$$$ = fine dining,etc

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