I have two wonderful new Chinatown discoveries to share with you, but when I sat down to write about them, the words weren’t flowing. Several times I typed out a few paragraphs then stopped and reread what I’d written and hit “delete.” It wasn’t writer’s block, the words just didn’t sound like me. They didn’t feel right. The timing was off. It was as though something else was pressing for my attention, something else I needed to do before words could fill a blank screen.
I am a relatively private person and when I first started writing this column – I can’t believe it’s been five and half years ago already – I was careful to keep my fences up to protect my private life. But as time went by many of you wrote or spoke to me about what I had written and shared with me Chinatown memories of your own. You made me feel it was safe to take the fence down and write not only about recipes and Chinatown history, but also about what was in my soul, what was happening in my life.
A friend stopped by the Tea Room last week. She took a quick look at my face. “You must be very anxious.” I stared at her, trying to determine what I was feeling. “You’ve had too much happen too close together,” she continued. “You must be feeling as though you’re waiting for the other shoe to fall.”
She was right. Although both of them were in declining health, I hadn’t expected dear Auntie Harriet to die just two months after my beloved father. I’m sure this anxiety is a stage of grief, which I do know from experience, I will get past. In the meantime, I’m having trouble organizing my thoughts on other matters, even Chinatown and new discoveries and putting them into written words.
Cooking and cookbooks are pathways to calm for me, ways of touching in with my past as well as anchoring me in my present activities. Words are involved, to be sure, but they are a part of a sharing and nurturing tradition that is vital to my family.
Steve gave me Carolyn Phillip’s “All Under Heaven” last Christmas. This huge tome examines the thirty-five cuisines of China, dividing China into five regions – the North and Manchurian Northeast, the Yangtze River and its surrounding areas, the Central Highlands, the Coastal Southeast and the Arid Lands. I enjoyed reading this cookbook, which is like the cookbooks of yesteryear. There are no dazzling food photographs, unlike the Yotam Ottolenghi cookbooks that sit next to “All Under Heaven” on my bookshelf. Nor is it just a recipe book. It’s like a hybrid of a reference book and cooking memoir. I learned some new techniques and recipes as well as new takes on old favorites.
When I first opened the book it reminded me of my trip to our family village in China with Auntie Harriet and the time I traveled with my parents visiting various parts of China for almost a month. It reminded me of the amazing number of new flavors we tasted. The past month or so I’ve found myself reaching for this cookbook for the comfort and ease in rereading it and in perusing recipes and trying them out. Last night I made a favorite, Shrimp with Dragon Well Tea, a specialty of Hangzhou, one of the cities we visited.
This recipe for a shrimp stir-fry first caught my eye not only because tea is used as one of the ingredients but also because I remembered this dish from our trip. Dragon Well, the most popular green tea in China, is renowned for its high quality and fragrant body. It is grown in the many tea plantations among the foothills of Hangzhou, including one that we visited. Food lore says that the popularity of Dragon Well (also known as Longjing) tea stems back to the Qing Dynasty when the Emperor Qianlong made it the official tea of the imperial court.
In this recipe, the shrimp comes out juicy and crunchy with such delicate nuances of flavor, any additional salt or wine other than what is called for will throw them off. There is a marvelous balance of texture, taste and color and it is a quick and easy recipe. No anxiety here. Simplicity. Something I need in my life right now.
But don’t worry. I’ll be back in a couple of weeks with my next column. Something about China Alley, ghosts of the past and, well, I’ll see you then.