I wanted a distraction and started to translate. This is a sweet piece by Wang Zengqi (1920 – 1997), who came from one of the small water towns strewn along the greater rivers leading to Nanjing and Shanghai. A student of Shen Congwen, Wang wrote in a lyrical style, steeped in regional sensibility and the Classics. His career as a writer was interrupted in 1957, like many others, at the onslaught of the Cultural Revolution. Handpicked to write propaganda plays for Jiang Qing, Wang did not return to his literary writing till 1977, and then for the next three decades he produced prolifically short stories and numerous essays. I like the economy in his language, vivid images, his humour and open-mindedness.
Here’s Taste :
“All mouths relish the same good taste!” (a Mencius saying) We all like tasty food. Fresh prawns at banquets are usually gone in a flash, although sometimes not. Mutton is tasty, and so goes the saying “Big sheep taste good.” The history of the Chinese consumption of mutton is probably as long as our history. I will not list the variety of ways we eat mutton, but I think the best way is eat the meat by hand. The Uyghur and the Khazak have their versions, but the Inner Mongolians make the best. People there from the various banner-groups will tell you that their mutton doesn’t smell, because their herds feed on the wild scallions of the grassland, so the characteristic smell of the flesh is gone even before the beast is slaughtered. I actually don’t mind the lamb-y smell. In Damao banner land 达茂旗, I ate blanched mutton, which they call The Prince’s mutton 羊贝子. The beast is boiled in its entirety in water for just 45 minutes – the additional 15 minutes is done in consideration for us the visitors from afar, they boil theirs usually for under 30 minutes. Everyone carves their preferred part of meat and eats it dipped in sauce. The sauce part is new, for the original garnish used to be just a bowl of salt water. Blood oozes where the knife cuts, the meat, eaten rare, is delicious. They say mutton is tough when over-cooked, and is easier to digest when under-done. That way one can eat more, too. I have been to Inner Mongolia a few times and absolutely indulged myself in these mutton excursions. On one of these trips, we had a female comrade who could not even bear the smell of mutton, let alone eat it. She would become nauseous the minute she entered the canteen and had to eat parboiled rice and salted veggies the whole time, such a poor thing she was. Actually, you see, there are many in China who just can’t take mutton.
“Fish and mutton have the most original taste of freshness.” A Hui man from Huolu County 获鹿县 of Hebei Province eats mutton all his life without knowing what “fresh” means. His wife, a native from Nanjing, however, uses “fresh” to describe food so indiscriminately he asks “what on earth is Fresh? I think of aroma when I taste something good.” It is truly not so easy to explain what this “freshness” is all about. Where I am from, this notion is best expressed in shrimps, winter bamboo shoots with shrimps, the thick soup made with shrimps and tofu. However, if you add one too many shrimp to a dish, it becomes too fresh, and your eyebrows might fall off. My little granddaughter loves my dragon-whisker noodles which I make with my special sauce, but once because I added shrimps, she took one bite and quit. “Taste’s funny,” she said.
Chilli is a favourite in many regions in China, such as Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, Hunan, Jiangxi. People in the frontiers, like the Koreans, can really take it. We say chilli is heaty, but the people from Mount Jinggang 井冈山 (in southern Jiangxi province) will tell you: “Chillies have no nutrition, you just suffer at both ends.” I met an actor who could not live without chilli – if he went off it for one day, he became constipated. I also knew a cadre in the bureau who used to lunch-in, eating his box of rice with fried chillies everyday. He was an expert and would find a way to eat every kind of chilli there was in China. According to him the Tujia people 土家人 have the best. He let me taste some once from his lunch box. That chilli was hot but so aromatic, and I think he was right. But of course there are those who don’t like chillies. I went once on a theatre field trip to Chongqing, where chilli was in everything, and some of us just could not take it. An actor took young actresses to eat sweet dumplings, one of them yelled as they entered: “No chilli please!” The vendor gave her the eye and lashed out: “Sweet dumplings never come with chilli!”
The Northerners love their leeks and garlic raw. The Shandong folks, for instance, they have to have leeks in their food – fried pancake and layered bread. A Shandong story goes, a woman had a fight with her mother-in-law and jumped into a well. When her husband came home, his mother said to him: “Oh no, your wife has jumped into the well!” He said: “No sweat!”, took a bite of leek and exhaled into the well, and up came his wife. Shandong leeks are indeed delicious. The white portion is half a foot long and sweet in taste. On the contrary, Zhejiang folks don’t eat them raw. They twist a sprig of sweet scallion into a knot, that is, the little scallion in Northern vocabulary, and use it in their fish. Those large leeks are called Hu Scallions 胡葱 (foreign scallions from the northwest) and would never appear in Zhejiang cuisine. I knew a well-known actress who refused to touch scallions or leeks, and had her own special menu prepared by the kitchen when we went on field trips. During the Cultural Revolution she was criticized for it.
The Northerners eat their noodles with a cloves of garlic. When I was filming in Changchun Studio and was late for breakfast one day, so I went to the kitchen to eat with the staff, who had just made fried pancakes. They threw raw garlic in to eat the pancake with. Astonished by its inappropriate presence, I said, “who eats fried pancakes with garlic?” A Hunanese kitchen hand said,” Hey, you just try it!” I did, and concluded, “Truly, a different take on fried pancakes.” I went home a few years ago, and having feasted on rich banquets of chicken, duck, fish and shrimp, I began to yearn for some plainer stuff. So I asked my folks to fix me a bowl of Yangchun noodles, to be served with a dish of leeks and two heads of garlic. My family was utterly shocked by the way I tucked into the leeks and garlic.
Some things you thought you’d never eat, yet after a few tries you get used to them. Once I bragged “I’d eat anything!” and because of this I was played out twice. The first time it was back in my hometown, where I had never taken to coriander leaves, which I imagined tasted like bugs. Then a manager from our family-owned pharmacy invited me for noodles on the day of Heavenly King of Medicine (Manjusri). He presented me with a huge bowl of cold noodles and coriander leaves, and said: “You said you’d eat anything, right?” I gritted my teeth and finished it. From then on, I would eat coriander leaves. Eventually, while in the North, I would generously garnish barbeque mutton with the leaves. The other time I was held to my word was in Kunming. It was regarding bitter gourd, which I would never have touched, and so had never tasted before. It was available back home, where we called it pock-marked grapes and it was really meant for decorative display in a porcelain dish. One day in Kunming a poet hosted me in a small restaurant and ordered three dishes – a cold dish of bitter gourd, stir-fried bitter gourd and bitter gourd soup. He said: “Didn’t you say you’d eat anything?” From then on, I would eat bitter gourd. People in Peking only learned to eat bitter gourd recently, they’d soak the gourd three times in cold water to rid off the bitter taste, which really betrays the nature of the gourd!
Some things one can choose not to eat but others should not be discouraged from them. Just because they eat what you don’t, you should not be prejudiced against them. The Cantonese eat snakes, they eat diving beetles; the Dai people eat morsels of meat with juices from the guts called bitter guts. The Cantonese and the Dai would never consider these dishes weird – they like eating them and so be it. Having said that, I do think one should avoid eating maggots for obvious reasons.
Anyway, one should allow one’s taste buds to open up, to become more complex. Try everything: the sweet things from the South, the salty from the North, the spicy of the East and the sour of the West. This should be the approach to food, and also to matters of culture.