Archives for posts with tag: cheese

Why is it so hard to start writing this entry? I know that once I’ve written a sentence or two, the rest will start flowing more naturally. That’s how it always feels when I’ve neglected my blog for a significant period of time. It’s happened before. But three months? That’s too long. It’s time to start updating Malatang again…so here goes.

I’m writing this on the airplane from New York to Beijing, after which I will fly to Chengdu, then check into a hotel called the Verdy Herton (which will hopefully still accept me as I stroll in well after midnight). Tomorrow, I will begin volunteering for The Nature Conservancy’s Sichuan office, working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve in Pingwu County. By tomorrow, of course, I mean Friday, January 9th. But it’s still only the 7th here on the airplane, where my computer hasn’t updated to China time yet. We are probably flying over the North Pole right now. Does the North Pole even have a time zone? Traveling is confusing.

The important thing, though, is that I am on my way to Sichuan, the land of spicy stews, tingly sauces, killer barbecue…basically the Food Capital of China. Sichuan cuisine is renowned throughout the Middle Kingdom, from Nanjing to Lijiang. The very concept of this blog, Malatang, was inspired by the numbing-spicy Sichuanese soup I first tried while studying abroad in Hangzhou. Even far beyond the Middle Kingdom, Sichuan food abounds. Kung Pao chicken? Spicy string beans? Mapo Tofu? All-American staples, all from Sichuan.

This brings me to the purpose of this blog post, which is to commemorate the three glorious months I just spent at home in Vermont, gorging on fresh pomegranates, aged cheddar, and Snacking Chocolate from Costco. When this plane lands, I’ll have to turn my back on dairy and fresh veggies for a while to embrace six months of tongue-scorching Sichuan goodness. But first, I’d like to crystallize into my memory my top five meals from these last few months at home.

  1. Chinese takeout in Maine

Fitting with the theme, my #5 represents the most far-flung corner of China’s culinary empire: China Hill in Ellsworth, Maine. My family spent Christmas in Bar Harbor, hiking in Acadia and wandering around the dark restaurants and shuttered knickknack stores, closed until spring. As per Jewish tradition, Christmas dinner demanded a trip to a Chinese restaurant. With our limited options, that meant China Hill. While the food was, well, what you’d expect, this meal was memorable in its utmost coziness. My entire family was together (dogs included), and we huddled in our little rented house while winter rains pummeled the empty town of Bar Harbor. We watched a movie and pulled apart gluey dumplings, and the outside world ceased to exist. Plus we discovered a free order of pork fried rice at the bottom of the takeout bag, so that was cool.

  1. Indian takeout in Cambridge

I swear I ate more than just takeout while I was home! It’s just that this particular food was so delicious. It was listed online as the best Indian food in Boston, and the place was so tiny and so packed that we had no choice but to get takeout. I was visiting one of my oldest friends in Cambridge, the kind of friend with whom I could lose touch for several months, but then slip right back in where we left off because we’ve known each other since preschool and our families are practically relatives. I didn’t even know that she liked Indian food. Last I could remember, she didn’t. But this just goes to show that people can change, and I’ve probably changed in ways I’m not even aware of, but in the end those little things don’t matter as long as you can curl up on the couch together and watch movies and remember what kinds of tea you each like to drink. By the way, that was the best saag paneer I’ve ever had.

  1. Breakfast at Healthy Living

Number three was chosen purely for its deliciousness. Who knew that a health food coop would serve such good breakfast? My mom and I first discovered this when we had to bring the car into the repair shop next door, and we wandered into Healthy Living while we waited. These breakfast sandwiches are perfect. Eggs perfectly cooked so that the yolk is soft but doesn’t make a mess, sharp melted cheese, creamy avocado, and a touch of arugula, all held together with a perfectly crisp bread that doesn’t make everything spill out when you take a bite. Luckily, my mom and I had to make several trips to the car shop throughout my time at home, which meant that I probably ate this breakfast sandwich more than any other single item of food. As much as I love eating in China, breakfasts can be tough, and I’m definitely going to miss ol’ Healthy Living.

  1. Leftovers in Colorado

Since my time at home included Thanksgiving, I’m obviously going to include some Thanksgiving food in this list. We spent the holiday in my birthplace of Denver, Colorado, where my food-loving uncle prepared us a splendid meal. Like all splendid meals, however, the leftovers are usually even better than the main event. This is especially the case when you take said leftovers with you to a cozy cabin up in the mountains, layer them into various casseroles, gorge on them after a beautiful hike, then follow the gorging with a soak in the hot tub, gazing up at the stars.

  1. My First Meal Home

Way back in October, I stumbled off the plane from Lijiang, via Kunming, Bangkok, Shanghai, and New York—it was a long road home to Vermont. Knowing I’d be exhausted, my parents decided to forgo a lavish welcome-home dinner and instead prepared a simple meal of arugula salad with feta cheese, corn on the cob, and fresh crusty bread with real butter. These were the things I sorely missed while I was in China: raw vegetables, rich dairy, and simple meals that were considered complete even without any meat, oil, or rice. I was so happy to be home in my old house, with my family and dogs and cats, drinking tea out of my own mug and sleeping in my own bed. As time went on, of course, I got used to it again. I started to take the fresh vegetables for granted. I suppose this means I’m ready to leave again on another adventure.

I’m excited to go to Sichuan, have new experiences, eat new dishes, and write about them here—hopefully with more regularity starting now. I now know that every time I leave home on a new adventure, I come back with even more appreciation for the little, familiar things I grew up with, like seeing my family every day, speaking English to everyone I meet, walking the dogs to East Shore Drive, and real butter on the table.

Thanks for reading!

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I have to share with you a meal I ate last night. Some coworkers and I were invited to dine with the local government officials who work with TNC in Lijiang.

In China, government officials = fancy-ass meal.

Seated around a large table in a private banquet room, the nine of us (I was one of two foreigners, and one of two women, not counting the waitress) were treated to an elaborate, traditional Naxi feast.

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The meal began with an elaborate fuss between the head of our office and our government host over who should have the seat of honor, the one facing the door. It went to our host in the end, as it should, and he wasted no time in pouring us drinks (one cup of fruit juice, and one cup of potent, fruity alcohol) and passing around steamed buns. Each person’s place was a jumbled mosaic of dishes. Besides our two cups apiece, we also had a bowl for food, a saucer for bones and scraps, a bowl of dry spices for dipping, and another bowl full of spicy broth, also for dipping.

The centerpiece was a bubbling hotpot in the center of the table, filled with yak meat, mushrooms, vegetables, and various animal organs. Around the edge of the hotpot was a circular, cast-iron surface heated from below, on which slices of bacon and strips of meat sizzled. While we waited for the meat to cook, we ate mini shrimp, stewed turnips, tiny black potatoes, and made our first round of toasts.

Toasts in China are an important ritual. They do not happen between everybody at once. Rather, one person will stand and toast another person, and the two drain their cups. Later, another two people will do the same thing. It more or less evens out over the course of the meal, and everyone ends up consuming roughly the same amount. Chinese men are notorious for pressuring each other into extreme drunkenness at banquets, although I’m happy to say that this particular group was very relaxed about the whole thing. A couple of people in our party didn’t drink at all, and toasted with juice instead. I drank the alcohol, but I sipped it instead of downing it and nobody seemed to mind.

Eventually the meat was cooked and before I knew it, people were filling my bowl from all directions with yak meat, bacon, potato slices, and rice sausage (米肠, a local Naxi specialty of sticky black rice stuffed into a sausage casing and sliced). That’s another thing about formal Chinese dinners; if your bowl is empty, someone will fill it. Every time. If you’re feeling stuffed and don’t want to eat anymore, you’d better make sure your bowl looks full. “Clean your plate” might eliminate waste, but it doesn’t fly at a fancy Chinese dinner; if your plate is clean, it means you’re still hungry.

Among the sizzling things surrounding the central hotpot was an intriguing package wrapped in tinfoil. About halfway through the meal it was unwrapped, revealing a cow brain. It’s appearance can only be described as “brainy.” I was given a flabby white slice and I took a bite, both out of politeness and curiosity. It was smothered in garlic so it tasted good, and the texture was soft like tofu. I couldn’t get the thought of mad cow disease out of my…brain…however, so I elected not to finish it, and it joined the growing pile of bones and cartilage accumulating on my saucer.

Off to the side of the hotpot was another local specialty, one that offered a refreshing break from all the salty meat: cheese pastry. The cheese, 奶渣, is a soft, fresh cheese, similar to ricotta in texture but stinkier and more sour in taste. It is eaten across southwest China by Naxis, Tibetans, and other local ethnic groups. Here it was served sweetened and stuffed into a pastry, rather like a blintz.

As the meal drew to a close, some of the Chinese men were getting red-faced and jolly from all that toasting. After one last drink we pushed back our chairs and shook hands, leaving the table piled high with bones and brains, the bowls filled with leftover soup and the table dotted with spilled rice. It was a meal I won’t forget for a long time.

To celebrate Rosh Hashanah last night, I cooked dinner for my roommate and my Chinese coworker.

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It didn’t matter that they had never heard of this holiday before, and were very confused as to why the New Year would begin in September.

It didn’t matter that I almost never cook, and had to WhatsApp my mom in desperation asking how to make her signature feta pasta.

It didn’t matter that the candles were jasmine-scented, and melted all over the table because we didn’t have candleholders.

It didn’t matter that none of us could open the wine bottle, and that after nearly an hour of struggling we were left with a pulverized cork that shed little bits into the wine.

It didn’t matter that the bread, which I’d picked because it was round and vaguely challah-looking, had a surprise coconut-paste center.

It didn’t matter that we ate dinner with chopsticks, because I never got around to buying forks.

It didn’t even matter that my roommate never told me she was lactose intolerant, and she couldn’t try the feta.

What mattered was that we dipped apples into local Nanjing honey, chatted about cultures and religions, and appreciated a quiet evening together.

What mattered was that we had Ben & Jerry’s for dessert, and even my roommate tried a bite.

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Imagine Whirled Peace. Yeah, that sounds about right.