My girlfriend went back to her hometown recently, and as is her wont, brought back some of her hometown's specialties. We already have several legs of preserved/dried pork hanging on my balcony, as well as a couple of gigantic beef ribs that have been sent by her relatives. This time, she brought back a box with a bunch of odd vegetables, special hot peppers, another pig leg, and something that I didn't know what it was.
I asked her what it was, and she said, "ji zi". I didn't know what this was, so brought out my phone's Chinese-English dictionary and input the sound of the characters. If you've ever heard that Chinese was a pain in the ass to input, this couldn't be more wrong. These days, it's pretty easy, not like the old days where they had a typewriter with 5000 keys. You input the sound of the characters, and the most likely candidates are automatically sorted to the top of the list. You choose which one you're looking for, and then the input method helpfully auto-suggests what you'd probably like to write next. It works pretty well.
This time, the characters she was looking for weren't on the first page of results. Nor the second, nor the third. We had to dig down into the frequency list to find them. This is a sure sign that the word we're looking for is unusual or seldom-used. My dictionary eventually displayed this puzzling translation:
At this point I would like to digress with a little story. This is not the first time something baffling like this has happened to me. Nor the second, nor the third. See, a little point of pride I take with me is being a person who has eaten more unique species than most people ever will in their lives. This comes from living in a seaside Chinese city for seven years, during my formative years in China. The people of Ningbo, it is said, eat seafood for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They eat all manner of sea beasts: fish, shellfish, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, sea mammals, cephalopods, gastropods, sea vegetables, bivalves, algae, jellyfish, aquatic reptiles, oddments, barnacles, tentacles, horseshoe crabs, and everything except fried shrimp. The hairy crabs are famous throughout China and the world. The time I was there, I was enthusiastic and ate everything that was put on my plate. (These days I am more jaded and only eat what I like.)
Often, I would ask what I was eating. This usually resulted in a hurried conversation between my Chinese hosts, who rarely came up with an acceptable translation. I would ask for the character, try to look the word up in the dictionary only to either not find it, or merely find the scientific name. A lot of what I ate had no common name in English. Not surprising, Chinese people outside of Ningbo rarely ate these odd beasts either. Sometimes we foreigners and non-Ningbo natives would chuckle together at the absurdity of it all. "You know what we're eating?" "Me neither." "Whatever, just roll with it!" It wasn't a town for sticks in the mud or picky eaters.
Just recently, my father visited me and I took him to an ordinary market, not a specialty seafood market at all, just a local wet market where the working folk buy food. He, a world traveler, remarked there were more species of fresh shrimp in tanks than he had ever seen before. So, this phenomenon of the unknown food is not unknown to me. I'll take the Pepsi challenge with gourmands like Chowhound users any day of the week in number of lifetime total unique "Kingdom Animalia" species eaten. I'd guess over 100 easy. That might not sound like a lot, but it is!
So, I search for mantjac online, and find it is a kind of dwarf deer native to India, Burma, and coincidentally enough Southern China where my girlfriend's hometown is. There is also a non-native population in the British isles that escaped from a zoo in the 1800s. They weigh about 20 pounds and this piece appears to be a rear animal quarter. This muntjac was not hunted but farm-raised. Even if you search for muntjac on Google, you still won't find much information. This page from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has the most complete information I was able to track down. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/1911_E... Just shows you how little info exists in English on this topic.
Yeah, that white crap is certainly mold. They're very...casual...about things like this here. Just wipe it off is the idea. You'd think that properly preserved meat wouldn't grow mold...but...oh well. My mother tells me that in the fifties when she was growing up, they had pretty casual attitudes towards food preservation as well. They never kept butter in the fridge, and her mother thought nothing of carving raw chicken and then using the same cutting board to chop fresh vegetables.
So, it looks like we've got about five ribs, a spine, some loin, and a whole rear leg. Let's chop this baby into pieces. And when I say chop, I mean use a cleaver like an axe and chop it into pieces Chinese-style. Fine butchery this ain't. They regard meat and bones together as more delicious than meat stripped from the bone. Often, whole chickens are hacked into pieces and served this way. It's more work eating, but less work preparing. Let's not bother with carving into different cuts of meat that all cook at different temperatures and cooking methods. Nope! It all goes together.
I was trying to use my limited knowledge from this site to separate the meat into sections, but wasn't making much headway. The preserved meat was tough as nails, and I was afraid the sharp cleaver would slip and cut the hell out of me. Better just to stand back and let my girlfriend hack at it with full shoulder strokes.
She ended up with this mass of bone and flesh in a collander. She said it needed to cook for a long time, several hours. I suppose so.
She found my supply of bay leaves and added a bunch. There is also ginger and some mushrooms in there. I got the idea that a much more skilled cook could have made a much better pot of food. My girlfriend kind of didn't know what she was doing. I can't say too many cooks in the world know how to make muntjac well. Still, it was the highlight of our meal. We had six friends arrive for a big feast of nine Chinese dishes and the muntjac dish was the star of the show. I played it up and made sure everyone knew what an odd critter we were eating. Eight were invited, three of them came late and two didn't show up at all. Dinner parties are kind of a thankless task. I don't really know how to bribe people to come over...free food, free wine, exotic nouveau cuisine? What should I do, offer cash?
Enough talk, how did it taste! Well, uh, good? It was stewed meat. Faintly spiced. I've had plenty of deer sausage but only had pure deer meat a few times. I'd say this was fattier than deer which is usually pretty darn lean. It separated cleanly from the bone and had a nice steaky texture. Bites of ginger combined smoothly in between mouthfuls of muntjac. You know what was good? The broth, spooned into our bowls and mixed with some plain white rice. I'm going to repeat that it could have been much better if prepared a different way other than "thrown into a pot to boil with my bay leaves."
It was still good, though. I had the rest today as leftovers. My girlfriend says she's going to get some more shipped in from her hometown soon. One of her relations went to the store and found some fresh instead of preserved. Maybe if we can get it air expressed in, I can take charge of the cooking next time. Do something fun with it instead of just boil the hell out of it. Anyway, that's yet another species I've eaten that most people haven't. Until next time!
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