Culinary Adventures on the Trans Siberian Foodway

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I’ve seen one or two things in my time, but when that little head poked out of that shell, eyes bulging, lifeless, I couldn’t help but gulp. As the Vietnamese chef kept peeling away at fragments of shell and more of the unborn duck chick was revealed, I thought to myself that only five minutes ago that poor little guy was alive in its shell, getting ready for life on the outside.

And then I started feeling a little sorry for myself when I remembered I’d promised to eat it. The egg, bought about an hour before at a street market in Hanoi, was wobbling as we carried it home and the chick squirmed inside.

And then, mercilessly, it was dropped into a pan of scalding water.

It’s difficult and frankly wrong to judge other cultures for the food they eat, at least that’s what I told myself as, with a heavy dose of mind over matter, I forced myself to put the chick/egg in mouth and chew on the foetus meat, heavily.

I’m not making any statements about animal cruelty here, although perhaps I should. But it was actually rather nice, I have to say.

Food’s one of the first things you notice when you travel; it’s different everywhere and you can’t get away from it. And it’s the building block of hospitality and manners, a bridge between two people. So when duck foetus, or dog meat, chicken feet and pigs tails are served up by a host for whom there’s nothing shocking about them at all, what else can you do?

Something happens to Russian people when they travel along the tracks. With a tendency to being gruff, tough and a little isolationist in their daily lives and when they’re on the streets, especially in Moscow, when they’re on the Trans Siberian, it all melts away. One of the first ways they show this wonderful softer side, is with food and drink.

I was joined in my carriage somewhere down the tracks from Yekaterinburg by a lovely young family; mother, father and nine year old boy. Quickly and a little awkwardly we established there were very few words going to be shared. But none of that mattered when they sat me down on the bottom bunks of the compartment and cracked out lunch.

A big bottle of warm lager, a whole chicken and some soggy warm mashed potato with lots of salt later, we were communicating somehow, I still don’t know how, with quite a lot meaning. Something about sharing the same food had brought us together.

It was a long 55 hour stint and I spent quite a bit of time on my top bunk in a little world of my own, but we still managed to fill many happy hours eating together, sharing sweets, biscuits and nuts, drawing pictures in a sort of trans-language game of Pictionary.

I played a few games of chess with their son, Nikolai, with his father looking over his shoulder all the time, affectionately berating him when he made the odd strategic error. And I don’t know, but maybe it would have been that little bit harder if we hadn’t shared that first meal together.

And when I was the only Westerner on a train of hundreds, travelling south from Beijing through the enchanting Chinese countryside, and the whole carriage seemed star-struck at the sight of a white guy, it was food that kept the game going.

I had stocked up on sweets and biscuits, sunflower seeds and noodles, and I shared everything with the family at my table. The family, by the way, had requested me to join them from the other side of the carriage.

I ate Pelmeni in Moscow, a simple but delicious type of dumpling/ravioli filled with an infinity of wonderful ingredients, as part of a late-night post-party munchies thing in a tiny run-down apartment in a crummy old building on the edge of the city centre.

And perhaps the funniest moment of the night was when one of my drinking buddies, who’d had far too much beer and vodka, cack-handedly dropped a whole bowl of the stuff, mayonnaise and all, down my friend Anice’s jeans.

In Irkutsk I sat on a bar stool and ate chicken wings with a quirky boxing instructor who had a lot to say about politics in Russian sports; the reason, he said, why his best woman boxer had failed to make it into the team for the Olympics. Maybe he’s still there now, chomping on his chicken bones, rueing the bout that could have been.

I wandered in awe through the streets of Beijing, at the whole ducks and dog meat and crickets and bugs on display in the street restaurants, and the millions of people nattering and chattering over their noodles and rice on the doorsteps of the many wonderous hutongs.

The sight of a freshly slaughtered dog, butchered and presented with the severed head (so you know they’re not fobbing you off with another meat) in a street market in Hanoi made me pause in rather unsettling thought. And I couldn’t help noting with a degree of dark humour to myself, that live dogs trotted happily in among the stalls, blissfully unaware of the danger.

I nibbled, I must say deeply uncomfortably, at chickens’ feet on the train to Vietnam. A warm bag of the greasy, fatty, gristly things was the first thing a fellow traveller offered me. Personally that was the worst of the lot, but I swallowed the slimy rubbery stuff down with my best put-on smile, gratitude being a far more convenient social skill than honesty in that particular moment.

And then there was the duck egg. It felt so wrong, and I really had to talk myself into it. But you don’t go away travelling to experience the familiar and the easy. If that’s what you want, there is sadly a MacDonalds in (almost) every city in the world – although not, I’m pleased to say, Hanoi.

It might be sin to eat a half-grown duck foetus. But not as great a sin, I think, as being unadventurous. It’s all just a matter of perspective. In China chickens’ feet are a delicacy, a sign you can afford to live without the rest of the meat. In the West it’s all about convenience: chain restaurants, fast food, ready meals, processed ingredients and artificial flavourings are acceptable. Change your point of view just a little bit and it’s that, not the duck egg snack, that seems the wrong way around.

I traveled from London to Vietnam in the summer of 2012, blogging along the way. I traveled the tracks thanks to Rail Europe and RealRussia and my flights home were provided by Skyscanner. The ‘duck egg’ experience was part of a Vietnamese cooking class I took at the Hanoi Cooking Centre.



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