Calamari index? It's butter in China

By Pauline D. Loh ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-12-20 07:39:48

Calamari index? It's butter in China


The lawyer-turned-writer Jeffrey Steingarten once wrote about the Calamari Index, that measure of culinary sophistication he invented as the resident food critic for the US edition of Vogue magazine.

Imitation being the best part of flattery, I am paying tribute to the man who first inspired me to explore food beyond the plate. Let's look at a Butter Index, a mystic yardstick of how China interacts with the culinary world beyond its borders.

As the expatriate daughter-in-law of a very Beijing family, I vacillate between eating local and longing for the melting-pot diet I am used to. While I am ever-willing to be assimilated, I find it difficult to sacrifice my culinary roots - hence the persistent search for a fresh block of butter all these years.

Before settling in Beijing, a meal at home in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or San Francisco may have included noodles, pasta, roti canai, pizza, tortillas or sourdough bread. Butter and jam, malted breakfast drinks and coffee were daily necessities, not optional luxuries.

Getting hold of butter became a major mission after we arrived in the Chinese capital, requiring special trips to supermarkets either in Sanlitun or other diplomatic districts. Every trip abroad, our luggage would be weighed down with canned butter, countless packs of local coffee powder and 1-kilogram bags of malted milk powder.

Those were the days before the Chinese caused a run on imported milk.

In occasional wanderings around the city, I would happily buy butter wherever I could find it. The day we discovered a golden roll of Beurre d'Isigny at the Sanyuanli market, I was literally moved to tears.

Local butter is quite different from what the rest of the world knows it to be. First, there is nomenclature. Here, it is called "yellow oil", or huang you, where it is known elsewhere in China as niu you - a nod to the animal which produces butter.

The "butter bread" from local bakeries always tasted a little strange until we realized it was heavily scented with essence. The reason, my friendly cake-shop owner said, was because most Chinese cannot stomach the smell of butter.


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