“I don’t think I want you to go in the mud fight,” says the director. “Or rather, I think contractually I can’t make you do it. The pond looks disgusting. I wouldn’t get in there. And production-wise, if you get tetanus or ringworm or something, or a rash, it will compromise the rest of the shoot.”
Yes, I say, but if National Geographic send me to the Kam mud fight and I stand at the back reading a newspaper, you might as well not have sent me at all. Isn’t this what a presenter is for? Looking like an idiot?
“We’ll talk about this later,” she says. “In the meantime, I’ve found you this nice apron with puppies on it.”
Mr Wu has fired up the stove, and thrown extra wood into the oven. The oil is crackling in the wok, and I am wearing a fetching gingham apron that has the words MY PLAYMATES written on it in large, friendly letters, above a picture of three puppies whose names are apparently Bobby, Oscar and Keith. I’m just saying: somebody had a meeting about that.
Today we shall require some roughly chopped red and green chilies, some ginger, some leek leaves, and some cubes of beef, as well as our magic ingredient: the intestinal juices of a recently slaughtered cow, wrung out from the grass of its last meal, itself ripped from the intestines in the middle of a tribal free-for-all. If you can’t find a recently slaughtered cow, feel free to use the intestinal juices of any creature in your vicinity, particularly one that eats grass, as it’s a good way to get that lovely green colouring. And I thought they only smelt bad on the outside.
Mr Wu boils up the niubie in his wok, then sets it to one side while he fries up the beef in the chilis. Then he pours the niubie over the top and dumps it all in a bowl. He offers me a spoon and I gingerly take a sip… It tastes like a soup made with chili and pepper and… oh, wait, there’s that burning aftertaste at the back of your throat like you just threw up a little bit in your mouth.
The director glares at me and I think of something else to say, vaguely suggesting that there is a Joycean uric tang.
It is only then that Mr Wu realises that he can’t find his blood.
“Where’s my blood?” he bellows?
“What blood?” squeaks Mrs Wu, who is trying to wok up a lunch for a group of eight tourists in the restaurant.
“The big bowl of blood with all the spices in it. We only scooped it out of the cow yesterday. I was going to cook xiehong for the foreigners.”
“Oh that,” says Mrs Wu, the dim dawn of realisation starting to glimmer on her face. “I thought that was waste, so I threw it out.” Mr Wu goes ballistic, since now he has to go and find some blood from somewhere else, like a five-foot vampire on a charity mission.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events were filmed as part of Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).