Category Archives: Chinese

Missing China

Four months ago, I left for China. Two months ago, I came home. But, in some ways, in many ways, I’m still not home yet. My body adapted long ago to the time zone I find myself in, but my heart hasn’t. My head hasn’t. My suitcases have long been empty, but I’m not emotionally unpacked. Part of me is still lagging behind in China, wandering like a ghost through the carefully manicured gardens, past the women selling steamed buns on the street early in the morning, past the man who rides his bike with his little dog in the front basket. I’m clinging to the days when monumental successes were simple things, as small as ordering a meal and then receiving the food I thought I was ordering. Bargaining for a lower price and winning. Eating a steamed pork bun while walking the tree-lined streets of campus, on my way somewhere, or nowhere. I long for that sweet respite, when everything was new, when everything was an adventure—at the grocery store I walked to almost every day we were in Nanjing, there were aisles and aisles of food I had never tasted. I wanted to eat all of it.

And there’s a beauty in existing in a place where people don’t speak your language. Your thoughts belong to you more than ever. You belong to yourself and no one else. You answer to no one, if for no other reason than you can’t.

But I am no longer there. Now the new semester is fully under way, and I have lovely classes with brilliant students, but there are days when I walk the halls of my building, not sure exactly where I am going. Though I’ve been teaching in the same four rooms for weeks now, I’ll be in the hallway on my way to class and will be suddenly struck with the thought that I might not be going to the right place.

I found myself in the library the other day, browsing through the cookbook section, until my finger traced the spine of a book I knew I had to have. Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking by Fuchsia Dunlop. In it were recipes to actual food we ate on a regular basis: the noodle soup we loved at the shop near campus. The spicy gong bao chicken we ate in Chengdu the day we saw the pandas. Eggs and tomatoes. Sichuanese green beans.

I’ve cooked a half dozen recipes from the book now, and I’m in love. It tastes like China. For the first time since coming back, I can say that about something: it tastes like China. There’s a thrill for me in this cooking, in the trips to the Asian markets in our small city, in boiling the noodles and testing for doneness, in frying eggs in the wok until they’re crispy on the outside and runny on the inside.

So far, one recipe, Hangzhou Breakfast Noodles, has been my favorite. The noodles are silky, the egg delightful, the sauce perfect. It’s comfort food, in the best sense of the phrase. It’s deeply satisfying, in a way I can’t fully explain. I hope you’ll make it and see for yourself.

I could eat this every day. I don’t know when I’ll be back on a plane bound for China, but in the meantime, I can eat the food and remind myself that it really happened, that I was really there, that I will be there again.

Hangzhou Breakfast Noodles
(Adapted from Every Grain of Rice by Fuchsia Dunlop)

Ingredients:

  • 4 spring onions, green parts only, sliced
  • 7 oz dried noodles
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil or other cooking oil (plus more for eggs)
  • 2 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 eggs
  • Chinkiang vinegar to taste

Directions:

Boil noodles until cooked to your liking (be careful not to overcook). Fry eggs in oil in a wok, leaving the yolks runny. Set aside.

Heat oil in a wok until very hot. Separate noodles into two bowls and top with green onions. The oil is hot enough when a few drops of it make the green onions sizzle. Drizzle oil over noodles and onions. Top with soy sauce. Add egg. Add Chinkiang vinegar to taste. 

Seven Thousand Miles

As I write this, I am sitting in a crowded café on the ground floor of our hostel in Xi’An, a city exactly 7,674 miles from home. At home, seven thousand miles away, Jesse’s mom and sister are moving most of their belongings into a house they’ve rented about ten minutes from our house. When we return in two weeks, it will be the first time we have lived that close to anyone we’ve been related to in almost a decade.

This past week, we spent two nights in a city just south of Beijing. Renqiu is not a place tourists visit. There isn’t a restored temple there, nothing old to show off, nothing sparkly or shiny. No markets of souvenirs await Western pocketbooks. It’s a town of 300,000—a “small town,” our friend Faye calls it, though it is several times larger than the city we live in—and most people there work for the Petrol companies. We passed several flocks of sheep on our way into town.

In the apartment complex where Faye’s parents live are both of Faye’s aunts and uncles. In the apartment complex next door, a short walk away, live Faye’s grandparents. We spent the afternoon with Faye’s grandparents, playing mah jong, listening as Faye’s grandfather played traditional Chinese music. And then, as he whipped out a harmonica and started playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Faye’s grandmother let me help make dumplings. We crowded around a small table—Faye, her sister, mother, aunt, father, and I—and spooned meat and vegetable filling into delicate dough rounds. We pinched them closed, and Faye’s family was too polite to make fun of my clumsy offerings, which sat next to their perfect ones. These people have been making dumplings their whole life, and I thought then of my grandmother and her pie crusts, the way she knows the exact right measurements, the way she knows the texture the dough needs to be by touch, the way her fingertips have been trained by decades and decades to know how to make it perfect.

I thought of my mother making buttermilk biscuits. By sight, by memory, by touch. Perfect every time.

I wonder what I will perfect over the course of my life. What dishes will become my staples? If I have children, what food will they remember me by?

I am loving almost every moment of China, but the one thing I am looking forward to about coming back—above all others—is living close to family. Knowing that ten minutes away will be people who are connected to us by blood and history.

Now, I just need you to help me convince my parents to move to Wilmington.

But until then, I will think of my mother’s buttermilk biscuits and my grandmother’s pie crusts, and I will come home from China in two weeks, and I will try to recreate these dumplings myself. 

They spoiled us forever. 
They spoiled us forever.