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)
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
Chinkiang vinegar to taste
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.
This week is my last week on vacation, my last week before the new semester begins.
I’ve been on a sort of perpetual vacation since May. I’ve traveled more this summer than any other summer in my life. First, the time in China and then a week in Maine with my family and Simona (pictures, recipes, and videos to come!).
It’s funny, but now that I’m home, I’m finding myself in love with the little seaside town where I live–in love with it in a way I’ve never been before. When I first moved here, I thought it was a beautiful place. Everything was fun and new and exciting. Everything was a delight, a discovery. I came here for grad school and meant to stay for three years.
Fast forward almost ten years later. I’m still here. And in between then and now, I’ve felt a range of emotions about this little city. I’ve resented it. Felt trapped, stuck. It was too Southern, too small, too hot. We were too far from our families.
But over the past couple years, my feelings toward my home have softened. Shifted.
Now that I’m back, I’m realizing that I haven’t been looking at this place with clear eyes in a good, long while. Funny, how months away from this place can bring me home feeling entirely different. The city hasn’t changed–it’s me.
Now that I’m back, I’m seeing this place the way a tourist would. I’m delighting in the ocean, the turquoise waves and the broken shells and the pier. The bike paths that lead me from campus, where I work, to the shore, to the waves, to the forever ocean, in six short miles.
It’s been raining for days now, our yards and streets flooding, but today the sun broke through. I got in my car and drove to the beach, to a little seafood shop selling local fish, mussels, clams, and shrimp. I bought a beautiful fillet of snapper and a couple bags of mussels.
I thought about a bike ride to the ocean we took a week ago with a friend. We sat on the sand and watched the waves, and I realized, somewhere very deep inside my bones, that it is not an accident that I have not been able to leave the ocean. I grew up twenty minutes from the Atlantic Ocean, for all but the first four years of my life. And I have stayed about that far from it. There is something in this view, in the crashing waves, one after another, in the salt spray, in the gritty sand, in the blinding sun, there is something in that vista that I crave, that I need, that sustains me.
So today I bought my fish, a piece of fish so fresh it smelled of nothing but the sea at its best, and walked to my car in the sun.
I thought to the beginning of this summer, just before the semester ended, when Simona wrote a post about sound and listening and fish tacos. I decided to revisit the dish, using recipes from the August issue of Bon Appétitfor fried fish tacos this time. It felt fitting, a beginning and an end, the wrapping of one semester and the beginning of another. I am still in the same place, physically yes, but not very much is the same.
When I came home this afternoon, I pickled jalapeños and made hot sauce with gorgeous red Fresno chiles. I made slaw and cut into a ripe avocado. And fried up the snapper that not that long ago was swimming not too far from where I live.
And I loved it.
Fish Tacos Adapted from Bon Appétit
Make the batter by mixing the following ingredients:
1. 1 cup all-purpose flour 2. 1 cup white rice flour 3. 2 tsp. salt 4. 2 cups club soda (plus more as needed)
The consistency should be thick enough to coat the fish, without being lumpy or too thick. BA recommends the consistency of “thin pancake batter.”
Dip chunks or slices of skinned fish in batter and fry until golden and done (about five minutes). Top tacos with cilantro-lime slaw, avocados, pickled jalapeños, and hot sauce.
I remember the day I stopped believing in best friends. It was winter of seventh grade, the time of tipping from one age to the next, those years of middle school, which felt very much transitional, and very much awful.
I had had the same best friend since first grade. We were like sisters. Her family was mine, her little sisters my little sisters. We regularly slept at one another’s houses, hers a beautiful two-story house in the neighborhood just across Carpenter Road from my subdivision. Her father was a businessman. He wore suits and went on business trips. My father worked at Cape Canaveral on the solid rocket boosters of the Delta IV rocket. Her side of the neighborhood was where the chiropractors and dentists lived. Mine was where the hourly workers lived, the union members.
By the time we were in middle school, my friend had outgrown our friendship, had outgrown me, but it took me probably a solid year to figure it out. The day I realized what was happening, I had caught her in a lie. A blatant lie she didn’t even need to tell. It doesn’t matter what about now. What matters is, I didn’t say anything. I didn’t call her out on it. I hung up the phone and sat alone in my room.
I remember the windows were open that day. Mom was cleaning, and the house smelled of bleach and dryer sheets. The wind brought the smell of orange blossoms inside, the line of citrus trees blooming in our backyard, the tangy green leaves brushing each other in the wind. I remember this as clearly as anything: the coolness of the air, the lovely sunshine, the smell of a clean house, and the sick feeling in my stomach, the heavy knowledge of being very alone.
After that, I made two attempts at having a best friend. Both those attempts ended much the same way. And I knew then that I would never have a best friend. I didn’t believe in best friends. I would not allow myself to be hurt like that again.
It was ten years after that day that I met you, Simona. But it would be years still before I realized that I had found my best friend. That I could even have a best friend. Years before I even realized what a best friend really was.
You were patient with me. You waited, as I very slowly opened myself up, as I very slowly began to trust. You told me your secrets and asked me to share mine. I kept you at arm’s length for a long time, but you were persistent with me. It took me probably five years to realize we could be best friends, that you weren’t going anywhere.
I remember one weekend last year that you and Darren came to visit us. It was early May, and we went to Oak Island, and the boys played bocce ball while you and I walked the beach, telling each other our secrets, letting the waves wash over our toes. We lay on beach towels until the sun had nearly set.
I remember the salt air, our hair blowing in the wind—yours light, mine dark—you, the poet, me, the prose writer, the sun soaking into our skin, the clear beautiful beach air filling our lungs. Everything about that weekend was perfect: the Mexican food we ate the first night, while talking about art and God. The beach. The dinner we cooked that evening together, hours in the kitchen.
It was that weekend that we cooked up the idea for this blog.
Once the sun had gotten low enough to let a chill in the air, we left the beach and went home to cook from Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible. We drank red wine, our messy hair pulled back from our faces, aprons tied around our waists.
The day was perfect, as was our food.
This past weekend was cold and gray and rainy and cold, so far from that day at the beach, the sun’s glow the color of butter. You are in Atlanta, and I in Wilmington, a six-hour drive away. We are both nearly buried under our work this semester. We have been busy, too busy, and I miss you desperately. So I made a yellow curry from the cookbook we cooked from together, and I thought of you. I thought of your sweet soul, how you were willing to chip away at my defenses, how you were willing to love me as I stayed distant and self-protective.
You know things about me no one else does. I take a long time to open up, and you are one of the few who have been willing to learn. You know what my tone of voice means, you know the punctuation I use when I’m happy and when I’m sad or distracted.
What a beautiful surprise this friendship has been, what a beautiful surprise you are. I admire you so. You are pure brilliance, a loving teacher, a passionate artist. A poet who always knows the perfect words. A soul that loves justice and mercy and goodness. You inspire people to be better, to notice what’s lovely about life. You are complex. You’re fashionable, with an eye for design. And you give. You give of yourself and your talents, to your students and to your friends. And we are all the better for your presence.
You are the best friend I always wanted but never had. Never—not even when I thought I had a best friend all those years ago. It was always meant to be you, Simona, you my sweet Romanian friend, dear soul, my best friend.
Love always, Erin
Chicken in a Yellow Curry Sauce (Gaeng Kari Gai) – Thailand Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible
Ingredients: 14 oz. can of coconut milk, left undisturbed for 3 hours or more [I used a non-canned version of coconut milk, so I substituted coconut cream later on] 4 Tbsp. peanut oil 2.5 oz. shallots, peeled and very thinly sliced into slivers 5 Tbsp. Yellow Curry Paste [see below] 1 tsp. hot curry powder 1 lb. boned and skinned chicken thighs, cut into small pieces 1.5 Tbsp. fish sauce, or to taste 1 tsp. thick tamarind paste or lemon juice [I used lemon juice] 1 tsp. palm sugar or brown sugar
If you’re using the canned coconut milk, carefully open the can and skim off thick cream at the top (4 Tbsp). Stir remaining contents and set aside.
Pour oil into large lidded pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add shallots and stir. When the edges start to brown, reduce heat to medium-low. Stir as they fry, reducing heat if needed, until they are golden brown and crisp. Remove and place on a plate lined with paper towels.
Add coconut cream and curry paste to the pan with remaining oil from the fried shallots. Stir until oil separates and paste is slightly browned. Add curry powder and stir a few times. Add chicken and stir for a minute. Reduce heat to low and add fish sauce, tamarind, sugar, and 6 oz. water. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes. Check to make sure chicken is cooked through. Stir in coconut milk and adjust seasoning to taste. Cover and simmer gently for another few minutes.
Serve topped with fried shallots.
Yellow Curry Paste By Madhur Jaffrey
7 dried hot red chillies (cayenne) 5 oz. shallots, chopped 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon grass, thinly sliced 10 small or 5 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and chopped 1/2 tsp. white pepper powder 1 tsp. curry powder 1/2 tsp. ground cumin 1 tsp. ground coriander 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1/2 tsp. shrimp paste or 3 anchovies from a can, chopped 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
Soak the red chillies in 5 Tbsp. hot water for 1-2 hours, or microwave them for 2-3 minutes and let sit 20-30 minutes.
Blend or process chillies, with their soaking liquid, with all remaining ingredients. Push mixture down with a rubber spatula as many times as necessary, until you have a smooth paste.
“I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.” M.F.K. Fisher