I had a Chinese cooking lesson my first week in Nanjing, from a women who asked me to call her “Auntie.” Auntie began by taking me with her to the outdoor market, where, she explained, you can buy much fresher vegetables, and better quality meat than are available at the larger chain complexes.
Chinese markets are what constitute the nightmares of health inspectors. Grim legions of flies mince spastically across the fleshy cut surfaces of melons, the floor is slick with a rancid mix of fish chum, animal blood and vegetable detritus, meat sits on the chopping block in the stifling heat. Hundreds of people shove and chatter, piercing the air with sharp wails of dismay at high prices, anemic string beans, runty eel. Auntie eyed us nervously through the thick lenses of her glasses. “Maybe you won’t like it,” she said, glancing at a bucket holding what looked like a collection of snot on a ventilator. “ It’s kind of dirty.”
Crowded and noisy, the outdoor market would be hideously over-stimulating, were it not for the placid slabs of cool tofu, the crisp colors of the heaped produce. The effect is both calming and opulent. Regardless of the heady press taking all the oxygen in the place, it would be ridiculous to feel panic or anxiety in the face of the sculpted, stolid majesty of a block of tofu. The contingency is so remote as to be unthinkable.
If you tried to freak out in front of this it would just quiver with disapproval.
Auntie weighed an eggplant speculatively. Did we have these in America? She asked. Her eyes squinted at me, expectant.
My favorite part of this picture is the beer bottle. Chinese people have no ridiculous illusions about the propriety of getting housed in a grocery store.
There is little movement in the thick air, and it is often necessary to dodge the assaults of some of the more aggressive wares, which escape from plastic buckets and crawl impotently around the stalls, viciously pinching exposed heels and toes.
Auntie saw one of these demons crawling on the floor and scooped it up. “Since he escaped, we don’t have to pay for him,” she explained, presenting it to me in a baggie. My precious pet.
We walked out of the market, harassed, yet triumphant, Auntie bearing a canvas bag full of things I only vaguely recognized, and some I had never even heard of. I pointed to a bag of yellow tubes. “What did she say that was?” I asked Fred, who was acting as translator. Auntie delivered a lengthy response, which my brother translated laconically as “Pig’s Asshole.” Oooh.
Auntie is a Chinese teacher at a Nanjing high school, who lives in a tiny apartment filled with living things. Plants and Goldfish bowls line the walls, two white Pekingese dogs hurtle madly through the cramped space, begging and whining. Small green turtles paw slowly at the side of an aquarium. Auntie’s grandmother, a deaf powerhouse of ninety three, mumbles graciously from her perch next to the television, which plays incessant music videos from 2002 and which she complacently ignores. The three rooms also hold Auntie’s daughter and her boyfriend.
“Before we can begin to cook,” quoth Auntie, appearing in the living room with a glass of tea and a pair of safety scissors, “We must prepare our ingredients!” She appraised me doubtfully. “Can you trim shrimp?”
It had never actually occurred to me that shrimp might need pruning. But after this experience I can assure you that they have an inconvenient amount of legs, which twitch galvanically even after the heads are removed, and which litter the space around you like billions of grisly filaments.
here I pollard some shrimp. In case you are interested, Great Granny’s shirt reads, “Tibet is, was, and always will be a part of China!”
One of the foods I was introduced to is the thousand year old egg sausage. Thousand year old eggs are delicious, yet extremely complicated and time consuming to make, and so even seasoned cooks like Auntie prefer to buy them. When you are going to be using a lot, or cooking for a large number of people, it is inconvenient to shell so many, and so you simply buy an amalgam paste of thousand year old egg. The color is alarming; The loaf itself is a bluish gray, and the consistency, though much like that of a hardboiled egg, is a little perturbing when paired with the pigment. But once you slice it, it is almost dazzling, like a stained glass window. The albumin becomes transparent, and the yolks form a mosaic pattern.
Auntie sliced up the pig intestine and cut thin strips of a limp yellow fish.
When everything was chopped, gutted, trimmed, sliced and peeled, we got down to the business of cooking. Aside from the preparation, Auntie told me, cooking Chinese food is extremely simple, and almost the same in every recipe. Here are some instructions I received from Auntie.
“First you heat the pan. Then, you add oil to the pan. Not too much oil! Perhaps a little more. A little more? Add some more - You don’t understand what I’m saying, do you?”
“Basic Chinese cooking uses three spices, salt, sugar and MSG. MSG tastes terrible on its own! No, don’t taste it! See, I told you it was terrible.”
“Wow, you learned very quickly to turn the stove on! You are a very fast learner.”
Auntie’s kitchen is about three square feet. Seriously. To the left of the stove is about a foot of counter space, and a sink. It makes it very difficult to cram three or four people in at once, but we prevailed.
Auntie’s kitchen is also extremely hot.
I made all this! Above, clockwise: Tomatoes with sugar (I know.) Hong Shao Rou (“red cooked meat”) Xian Cai (Chinese greens with garlic) Sigua egg and mao dou beans, chopped tofu, fish, youbao shrimp, potatoes and green pepper, pig intestine, 1000 year old eggs.
We didn’t leave much uneaten.