Daily Prompt Food for the Soul (and the Stomach) Tell us about your favorite meal, either to eat or to prepare. Does it just taste great, or does it have other associations?

I’m not a “foodie.” I don’t find food intrinsically interesting. I like it and there have been periods in my life I’ve been a good cook but food as a subject of contemplation, reverence and enthusiasm? No. In fact I think it’s kind of weird the fetishism around food these days, but there are many things I don’t understand.

Food has a different importance in a country where it’s not easy to get and where you cannot be sure what you will have to eat. Food was interesting to everyone in China when I was there because most people alive then (1982) had lived through at least ONE period of lean times if not real hunger. Famine has been a problem in China for millennia. This is why the Chinese do NOT greet each other with “Ni hao, ma?” (You good?) but “Chi baole ma?” (Have you had enough to eat). That says everything.

I grew up eating Mexican food. I’m “white”, but, as some of my Mexican friends have said, I have a “Mexican heart.” I also learned that food becomes important when you are a long way from home. In China, I was a little homesick for Colorado — only at times. I think when we are in situations of rapid change and a steep learning curve, as I was in China, we want to retreat to our normal life for a while. I missed green chile.

We shopped in an open-air market in the village of White Stone (Shi Pai). Fish hung from strings as advertising. Vegetables — picked and carried in on trains by peasants in the early morning — were spread out on boards under blue, pink and white striped plastic canopies. It was a scene from National Geographic. Our meat was allotted by the Central Committee (meat was rationed) but chances are that sometime during the week we heard, off in the distance, our future pork being slowly bled. It is not the kindest way to kill a pig, but as our meat had lived its life untethered and roaming freely around the village and roads, its last moment was the one dark moment in its life.

Chinese pork is great. There were chilis in abundance in the market. I had a good recipe. But what could we eat them with? No tortillas! We begged permission for a trip to Hong Kong with empty backpacks filled on the return trip with cheese, white flour (no cornmeal), dried beans and some other “normal” food. As soon as we got pork, we went to buy chilis. I set out beans to soak and then boiled them. That afternoon, after class, I came home and made chile verde. Then I made flour tortillas.

I always bought chilis from one woman. I don’t know why, exactly, but I liked her. She was funny. Most of the peasants working in the market spoke a dialect of Cantonese. I didn’t speak even Cantonese, only Mandarin. Most of the peasants were illiterate. Well, for what it was worth, when it came to Chinese, I’m pretty illiterate as well. I didn’t know that what I was saying in Mandarin might as well have been English for some of the people selling vegetables, but that was so. I don’t even know if my favorite vegetable vendor understood me at all — but I think she did. Money and numbers make sense to everyone and there was (is?) an underground in Chinese culture of people who had fine educations hiding in the countryside to avoid the PLA (Peoples’ Liberation Army) during the Cultural Revolution. “My” peasant could have been an intellectual.

Then, one sad day, chilis went out of season. I had never lived in a world that was dependent on nature like that. NOTHING goes out of season in the US, though I remember when one couldn’t buy strawberries in January except frozen and then even frozen strawberries were not in giant bags but in small white boxes that cost a lot and were only for dark moments of strawberry desperation. My vendor was there, and when I approached, she said in Mandarin, “Mai yo! Mai yo la jiao!” — “I have no chilis.” She attempted an explanation that I could somehow understand and I knew I’d have to wait for more chili verde, but how long???

Three months. A season passed. Then a day arrived that I arrived in the market and she called out, “Ma Sa! Ma Sa! La jiao! La jiao!” holding out both hands filled with Serrano chilis! I wasn’t just thrilled by the chilis, but by the fact that she knew my name! I bought 5 mao worth (1/2 jin, more or less 1/2 pound) and went home and made chile verde.

I wonder how many homesick Americans have gone to China and eaten Mexican food?

8 thoughts on “Chiles

  1. That was very interesting. In my travels I always did my best to melt in with the locals. Not everywhere has food in abundance as we do. Mediterranean countries that have been invaded by the english for the summer holidays now offer bacon and eggs on the menu or fish and chips. No thankyou, when in Rome do as the Romans do. I like my food to be spicy and put a pinch of chilli in almost everything I cook. The only problem I once had was the Maroccan dish of Bstilla (pigeon pie) which reminded me of lifting the lid to a grave and seeing the bones beneath.

    • We had two cooks in China who prepared three meals a day for us, but I found I didn’t want a big breakfast and I liked cooking dinner. I had no idea I’d want my “normal” routine but I found I did. We had lunch in the dining room with the other teacher, sometimes two. And supper many nights. Chinese street food was amazing and I came back from China with two dishes that are actually as meaningful to me as green chili — ma po tofu (spicy beancurd — and I had a great one in Zürich!) and jiaotze (meat dumplings). I love Swiss food — especially bratwurst from St. Gallen. 🙂

  2. Great story. I learned to make all kinds of things in Israel that I had bought ready-made in the States. English muffins. Toasting bread. This was before bread machines, so it was real bread baking. Jelly donuts. Chile. I learned how to use a pressure cooker — I’d never used dried beans before.

    Produce was, probably still is, seasonal there. They have a 10 month growing season, but artichokes (for example) are in season when they are in season and not available at all when they are not. Oranges are unavailable in September. Tomatoes vanish in November, causing an annual panic. I learned to eat a lot of whatever was the current crop. Eventually, to really appreciate middle eastern food … which I miss. It’s harder than anything else I cook, including Chinese and Caribbean. All those flaky crusts and stuffed things — I have no hand for pastry.

    I’m not a foodie either, but I appreciate good food. We live in terrible food central, so I’m back to making it myself if I want to eat anything other than bland.

    And the world goes round and round 🙂

    • We had bread every day because the campus bakery made it for foreign teachers. We had to go line up for it with our coupons. If there was milk anywhere in the city (and it was yogurt) we heard it through the grapevine and got on our bikes and went wherever it was and bought it. I often made big bowls of yogurt from one of the bottles we bought and powdered milk. I made my own granola from oatmeal I found somewhere. It was a great time and that adapting was part of it.

  3. Great post! I can certainly relate.; when we lived in Algeria, I made everything, and I mean EVERYTHING by hand.

    In order to have a chicken sandwich, for instance, I had to buy a chicken (thank heaven I didn’t have to butcher it), roast it, tear the roasted meat from the bones, bake the bread, make the mayonnaise, and finally, put it all together. Voila, chicken sandwich! Oh, I nearly forgot the lettuce, which had to be soaked in a mix of bleach and water to prevent cholera, I think it was.

    I even tried to make my own ham once with a wild boar my husband and his friends shot. It was decidedly NOT a success, and the Algerians were, of course, horrified that we would even touch the pig, much less eat it!

    Ahh, those were the days. Today, I love to eat….as long as someone else is doing the cooking.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s