February 21, 2014 Today’s my sister Sue’s birthday and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I would really prefer to be eating oysters with her rather than looking out on Chengdu’s smog (today’s AQI is 203; you can monitor our air here). We have had exactly one day of sunshine in the past 6 weeks. I’ve had lots on my mind lately, since Peace Corps has yet to figure out my visa situation, I’m still recovering from surgery 6 months later (and I naïvely thought it would be 6 weeks!), and I’m getting ready to attend classes full-time at Sichuan University – my first classes in 40 years! But life is good. You can’t live happily in a foreign country by comparing it to other places you’ve lived. And you can’t judge the East with Western criteria.
Ma Po Dou Fu I’m horrified that I don’t like the food here more, but I have also been hindered in my explorations by my knee and by my lack of language skills (hence, the classes). Though I eat everything, and with a smile on my face, there are some foods I’ve never been a fan of. And I don’t mind saying so. It would be an awfully dull world if we all liked the same foods, the same music, or the same designs. (Funny how images of Mao suits just popped into my mind!) I don’t dislike tofu, but, like pasta, who eats it by itself? I’ve had some elegant versions of Chengdu’s famous Ma Po Dou Fu here, but I find most versions simply too oily for my taste, and the one we had at lunch yesterday tasted sweet to me. A teaspoon of sugar is traditional for two or three servings; I’m sure there was at least a tablespoon in yesterday’s. A typical recipe calls for a one-pound block of bean curd in ½ cup of red chili oil — peanut oil seasoned with 2-1/2 tablespoons (about 1/3 cup) of Sichuanese chili bean paste, a tablespoon of fermented black beans, 2 teaspoons of ground Sichuanese chilies (deep red, medium hot, very fragrant), and ½ teaspoon of ground roasted Sichuan peppercorns (the numbing seeds from the prickly ash tree), plus soy sauce, salt, cornstarch, leeks, a cup of stock, and a scattering of ground beef (unusual in Sichuan; pork is the norm) on top. One of the finest renditions of the dish I had at the fancy, nearby ShangriLa Hotel, pictured at left amongst more traditional Cantonese dim sum dishes.
Huǒguō Many foods here swim in even more oil. I’ve seen handfuls of both chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorns in the traditional huǒguō (hot pot) cauldrons, in which you dunk all manner of foods, from mushrooms and green vegetables to pig brains and skewered meats. Everything ends up tasting like the overwhelmingly spicy oil. I always order whatever green vegetables are offered, no matter how small or large the restaurant or noodle shop; they’re usually simply prepared. And usually rice as well. I can always find something I like to eat.
Street Food I’m loving much of the street food – much simpler fare, prepared before your eyes: super thin omelets filled with all manner of vegetables, meats, nuts, and fried doughs; lāmiàn (hand-pulled noodles) from a local Muslim restaurant ($2) for a hearty bowl [Here's a video]; dan dan noodles, topped with peanuts, ground pork, and scallions (street vendors sell for about $1 but the best I’ve had were, again, at ShangriLa); guo kei– flatbreads – of all sorts, grilled, fried, and baked (my favorite so far, sold near the entrance to the pricey middle school near my apartment, is a ball of dough filled with ground pork and spices, flattened and then fried); and myriad starch jellies.
Because Sichuan is one of the subtropical breadbaskets of the country, there is fresh and local food daily, much of it organically grown. Of course organic means night soil, so everything must be washed in this special soap that is supposed to kill any microorganisms. People just don’t eat raw foods here. And if you want salad greens, you have to go to one of the big German or French grocery chains and buy them in clamshell packages – even though they are often fresh and local. I’ve ordered seeds to grow the things I miss on my balcony, the way I did in Bulgaria, and I saved several varieties of the incomparable Bulgarian tomato seeds. I’ve got pots of mesclun and arugula on my balcony and Mediterranean herbs seeds sprouting indoors. Most of the local produce is beautiful; even warmer climes are not far away, and I’ve enjoyed lots of citrus this winter. The tiny, often seedless, so-called Mandarin oranges are my favorites, but I’m afraid their season is about to end: all the ones I’ve had this past week were larger, and full of seeds. Blood oranges have appeared now, and I recently paired them with the insanely delicious red Sichuan carrots. They really are a rosy red, a deep, slightly purple pink. And so sweet. I served them with the oranges, scallions, fresh green chili peppers, cilantro, extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper, and a hint of cinnamon for a Moroccan flavor. I added a few slivered leaves of celery, because I take advantage of any salad green that I can!
Bell-tower-ism In Italy they have a word that I love – campanilismo. Literally, it translates as “bell tower-ism,” which it is in a manner of speaking. It means excessive pride in one’s home town or region – or parochialism. You could say that I have had it for Charleston. Or Athens, Georgia. Or Genoa. The word is derived from campanile (bell tower), which is often the most prominent building in Italian towns and villages. Campanilismo is all about the much ballyhooed sense of place that we tend to look for in art – especially in books and movies, and on our plates. It is beyond fresh and local: it is a feeling of pride, of belonging, of identity. If you ask an Italian where he is from, he will invariably say “sono genovese” (I’m from Genoa) or “sono siciliano” (I’m Sicilian) before he will say he’s Italiano. Until the Risorgimento in the 1860s, there was no United States of Italy, so to speak. There were many separate states, with their own languages and dialects, their own culinary traditions, and their own histories. I use Italy as an example, because even though the country has been united for nearly 150 years, there are still many distinct regional differences – and differences within the regions. Focaccia in Genoa is not like the focaccia of Recco, a few miles to the east. Even neighborhoods within cities are rivals.
In Charleston, South Carolina, it is said that the only true Charlestonians are the ones who were there before The War. That would be the Revolutionary War. They are the true “bo’n ye’uh” (born here) Charlestonians. Everyone else is “from off.” I know lowcountry cooks who are so persnickety about the use of pig parts that they insist that collards be cooked with smoked neck bones except on New Year’s, when they must be cooked with “butt’s meat” (smoked hog jowl); turnips, with “side meat” (salt pork); and dried field peas or butterbeans, with a smoked ham hock (though in summer, you can use any cured meat with the freshly shelled peas and beans, though you must “fry it out” and pour off some of the fat before adding water).
This is also campanilismo.
However, the term also describes a sort of myopia and unwillingness or inability to see beyond one’s borders or comfort zones. As someone who has always eaten everything – and been willing to try anything — I am always amazed when people’s culinary horizons seem to be so near and confining. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard “We don’t eat that.” In Paris. In Genoa. In nearly every American’s home I’ve been in. In Bulgaria. And, perhaps most surprising, here in China.
Me: “So you will eat the rubbery throat of a pig doused in boiling oil so spicy it both burns and numbs your mouth, but you won’t eat lettuce?” Chinese friend: “We eat all sorts of lettuce. Cooked.”
Sweets The Sichuanese I have come to know are fond of saying that Western food is too sweet, but they have a profoundly sweet tooth here. Grocery stores stock huge bins of candies – front and center – and many of their baked goods and snacks are sweeter than pain au chocolat or Snickers® – both of which are also popular here. The fillings may not be familiar to Westerners – bean pastes and salted duck egg and guava, for example, and the textures can be downright bizarre (lots of sticky rice concoctions), but I’d venture to stay that they have more sweets than we do, for modern China has embraced our Western confections as well, so that custards and tarts and cakes share the dessert table with sweet soups, puddings, and jellies. Some sweets are steamed, then fried. Western style dairy products have also taken a foothold here. Ice cream shops are common now, especially in the malls, and yogurt (more often sweetened than not) commands an entire aisle in supermarkets now.
A couple of years ago some friends of mine from Genoa came to visit us in Washington – during the infamous “Snowmageddon” that all but shut the city down. I shopped for hours the day the storm began, standing in lines at five different supermarkets, stocking up for our inevitable shut-in. On the fifth or sixth day, we finally ventured out, and Gianni, for whom I had cooked lamb chops and oysters and Mexican fare and grilled quail and fried fish and pilau and gumbo, confessed he wanted pasta. We went to Pesce, the delightful little Franco-Italian bistro opened years ago on Dupont Circle by Jean-Louis Palladin and Roberto Donna. While his girlfriend and I ordered fish (their specialty) and seafood salads, Gianni ordered a simple pasta dish. Basically, he was homesick. Another facet of campanilismo.
I totally understood. When I roomed with Gianni in Genoa back in the early 80s, I horribly missed long-grain rice and butterbeans and okra and grits. In French and Italian, you don’t say you miss something – you say it is lacking to you: you are incomplete without whatever it is you miss. When I lived in Bulgaria, it was greens. In Paris, it was the sun. Here in Chengdu, it’s both the sun and salad that I miss. I realize that I can be as provincial as the next guy.
But today, the 26th, I went to orientation for school, my first class in FORTY years! (I just pulled out my transcript and see that the last class I took, in the winter of 1974, was Art 816: Creative Consciousness!) And at school I made five new friends – Mike and Michael and Kevin (Americans), Dan (British), and Andrea (Italian). I am sure I am older than any of their fathers. And I bought a bicycle! And on the way home I bought some jiǎozi qīngtāng (clear soup with dumplings). I’m determined to break out of my own bell tower and acclimate to the food here. At the Foreign Student Orientation this morning, the professor told us, proudly, “Here in Chengdu, it is very Chinese traditional, not international like Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, or Seoul. I hope you will enjoy our spicy food.” I should note that some of the best food I’ve had here has been in the school cafeteria.
Missing Okra I started to post this blog and remembered that my point of departure was actually okra, which I have not found here in subtropical Sichuan. I have only seen it once since I arrived in China (granted, this is winter), and that was in Beijing, in a renowned duck house. We were with four Chinese university professors and when we saw it on the menu, we of course had to have it. The menu clearly stated that the okra was roasted, but we were surprised to find that what came to the table were okra chips — okra pods roasted to a crisp. None of the professors — former students of Mikel’s — would touch them. “We don’t eat that here.”
The word on the menu was 秋葵 (qiū kuí — pronounced “chew-kway?”), which means autumn sunflower. But since okra is a type of hibiscus, the word for hibiscus (‘shùn”) can be used as well. Most pocket dictionaries of course don’t even mention okra, but I have a wonderful visual dictionary that the folks at Dorling Kindersley (of the terrific Eyewitness Travel series) published, and there is okra, plain as day, called yángjiǎdòu (which means sun false bean). Dòujiá (different tone, different character) means pod. But they don’t eat that here, never mind that in neighboring Vietnam to the east and Tibet to the west they do.
My friends and colleagues, Jessica B. Harris and Virginia Willis have written extensively about okra. In The Africa Cookbook (1998), Jessica wrote, “I once said that wherever okra points its green tip, Africa has passed; I still agree with myself.” It’s certainly all over Africa and its Diaspora, on which Jessica is one of the acknowledged experts. And while the slave and spice routes were for centuries the same, okra has penetrated cultures where few black — or white — men have ever set foot. In Virginia’s new volume on OKRA, for the University of North Carolina Press’s Savor the South series, she offers, along with a concise history and gardening tips, recipes from the American South, Africa, North Africa, Iran, Turkey, Greece, India, Singapore, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and Brazil. I have eaten okra in the Caribbean, Mexico, in Paris (in African restaurants), in Provence, throughout the Balkans, in Istanbul, in North Africa, in South Africa, in Sri Lanka, and in Thailand. But I have never seen it in Italy, where I have lived and traveled extensively, or here in China, except for those chips in Beijing.
Viriginia also offers her top ten slime-busting tips for the mucilaginous pods, but I honestly love the slimy texture and have never even tried to avoid it. Elizabeth Schneider, my dear friend and perhaps the world’s foremost authority on vegetables, says “the clear, sweetish, viscous, light slick that okra exudes belongs and will not vanish. It will always be present to some degree – and it is luscious to those who fancy it.” (Italics hers.) The okra chips that I had in Beijing were the result of roasting — a technique that, okay, reduces the slime, but it’s a “chip”… more crunch than flavor.
It’s actually quite amazing to me how similar the words for okra are all over the world — okra (or a variation thereof), gumbo, bamiya, bhindi, lady’s fingers — until you get to China. None of the books I have agree. Shiu-yi Hu’s mammoth work, Food Plants of China (50 years in the making and over 800 pages), calls it Coffee Mallow, which is a direction translation of the characters she cites. Hibiscus is a member of the Malvaceae family — mallows; the word for mallow and hibiscus (kuí) are the same. She merely notes that the young fruits are eaten and that the mature seeds are roasted and used as a coffee substitute. In the interest of history, Virginia tried it, but does not recommend it.
I’ve seen three other Mandarin words for okra, but I’ve yet to find someone here in Chengdu who eats it. I’m tempted to grow it, along with my salad greens, Meditteranean herbs, and tomatoes. But since I begin school full-time next week, I doubt I will be cooking much anyway.