For the dreary days

Dear readers,

I’ve been struggling with what to write for this post, what letter to send out into the mystery of cyber space, and I am coming up blank. Right now, my classes, teaching, all that I am doing, writing, thinking, and reading have emptied me. These past two weeks have been particularly difficult, so in the moments in between the work, the essays to grade, classes to prepare for, the research, the workshopping, I have sought out things familiar and comforting.  If I have to read 1-2 books a week, then I read them wrapped in a blanker or in the embrace of a worn and beloved sweater. I drink coffee out my antique Wessex set, which is as delicate as lace. And I’ve been baking healthy and nourishing things, like these Coconut Raspberry Muffins. 

 

Recipe:

4 large ripe bananas
4 eggs
2 cups dried coconut flakes, unsweetened
1.5 cups of fresh raspberries
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsbp maple syrup
1.5 tsp sea salt
2/3 cup of almond butter, or any other raw nut butter

Pre-heat over to 350 degrees. Mash the bananas in a bowl and add in all the other ingredients with the exception of the raspberries. Mix well.

Fold in the berries.

Line your muffin pans with wax paper or muffin cups, and spoon the mixture in each filling it just below the top.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, depending on the strength of your oven, until the muffins are golden on top. Let them cool for a moment. Eat as is, or with yogurt and more berries.

 

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. 

Birthdays and Such…

I’ve just celebrated another birthday, and I am sad and a bit in crisis. Sad because I am 32, and though all the people older than 32 out there will most likely be offended, I need to clear the cobwebs from my soul …32 sounds ever so old to me. It sounds so old that I’ve decided to remain 28 (this is the crisis part), and so really, I just celebrated my 28th birthday, thank you very much! and intend to do so for the next decade or so. I know, I too want to be the kind of person that embraces her age gracefully, that behaves her age equally gracefully, that with dignity and gratitude welcomes each new year because it makes her wiser and such. Despite knowing that I probably should be this person, I relinquish the should and admit that right now I want to throw a tantrum that I am not 19 anymore, that my metabolism has slowed considerably in the last decade, that people have much higher expectations for my list of accomplishments, that without a minimum of 8 hours of sleep, I cannot wake up fresh faced and energized (and even with 8 hours this is all debatable). 

Though my life has been wrought with so many changes, relocations and dislocations, more friends than I could ever count, most of whom are in other states, and my own insatiable wanderlust, I really do hate change. Even the coming and going of a birthday disturbs some internal rhythm, making my life feel unraveled and chaotic. Perhaps, this is the crux of this birthday too. All around me, things are shifting rapidly. The blur of this summer with my sister’s diagnosis, Darren’s new job, the PhD program I’m finding myself in happy but anchorless, my small group of three and a half years coming to a beautiful sense of closure.

New priorities, new schedule, a whole new set of expectations and obstacles. Each change washes over me anew, and I brace myself, dig heels in, try to withstand the tug and push. Each day has been a frantic search for the things that make me feel safe, cooking, sitting in my green chair surrounded by my favorite books in a  stack on the floor, phone calls with my mom, afternoons with Shiloh, laughing with my sister over funny and slightly dysfunctional childhood memories, and Darren reading to me in the evenings from various cookbooks. This past two weeks, it was from Ottolenghi’s and Tamimi’s Jerusalem, one of the most comforting books, replete with Jewish and Palestinian history, examinations of traditions and customs, and photography to get lost in. I’ve fallen asleep to the micro history of za’atar, or more recently the spatial rendition of a Jerusalem market.

I guess in the end, I am comforted by food and all that it symbolizes. I love the rituals Darren and I have, breakfast at the kitchen counter, a French press, toast with over-easy eggs, or rice pudding with pecans and lots of cinnamon. Lunch is rarely a meal we have together, but then there’s dinner. Most evenings, I cook; occasionally we get take out from our favorite Lebanese place, Café Agora. Often we eat on the couch, plates in our lap, talking, laughing, maybe catching up on a show we both like. I love spending time with friends over a meal, because sharing food feels like we are entering into a very intimate reality with each other. Food makes us more open and vibrant, maybe because it awakens our senses and pushes us into the experience of our bodies, thus making us more present to ourselves and to each other. Sharing a meal and conversation is familiar, yet always a thrill for me.

Today, we spent the afternoon with dear friends and their perfect mini schnauzers. We made three kinds of pizza and a gorgeous salad with apple slices, walnuts and dried cherries. Chad and Darren watched football, while Tiffany and I sat in the dining room and laughed and talked for hours over too many glasses of Gewürztraminer, and we lamented all the changes of each other’s lives, empathized, then laughed some more. It felt so safe to spend the afternoon doing ordinary things like cooking, watching football, and walking the dogs. We’ve done this many times before, either at our place or theirs, but today it meant more, like the untangling of one firm strand from such a complicated web of relationships and responsibilities.

Earlier in the day, I cooked an Ottolenghi recipe, which you could find here, dear reader. I guess this would be a good place to mention that I intend to cook my way through the Jerusalem book, although this recipe came from one of his earlier ones, called Plenty. It is the second time this week that I make this dish (this time it’s for you, Erin!) because it is the most perfect way to cook an eggplant. I am happy now just thinking of it, looking over the photographs. It’s a recipe that will make you fall in love with the humble aubergine, if you’re not there already. It’s a recipe that might one day make me accept that I am 32 (!!!). Yes, it’s that amazing!