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Fóshān, Guǎngdōng, CHINA — After a thrilling market experience , Qiūfán brings me to her apartment. Her apartment is a stark contrast to most homes I’ve visited; complete with a car parking lot, security gate and balconies. Compared to most homes I’ve visited, her apartment is palatial. Qiūfán lives with her husband and daughter, but for six days of the week her daughter lives at school only to visit on Sundays. Without an opportunity to photograph their family portrait, Qiūfán provides me with her most recent photograph of them together to complete their story.
Taking very little time to prepare, Qiūfán minces Shājiāng (沙姜, galangal / sand ginger) then combines with soy sauce and salt for a whole chicken rub between the skin and meat. She places the chicken into the rice-cooker pot, drizzles a little peanut oil, closes the hatch and presses play. That’s it? This must be the easiest recipe I’ve learned thus far in my project. Get the recipe!
Qiūfán rinses the scallops we bought this morning of any shell bits and arranges them on a plate. Smacking then mincing two heads of garlic, she explains she is a “rough cook.” I take notice throughout the lessons how she smacks ginger, scallions, and garlic to bring forth their flavor and fragrance. She tops the scallops with the garlic, salt and a trickle of peanut oil then steams them for ten minutes. Yet another easy recipe!
Pleased with her hardiness, she slices jièlán (芥兰, Chinese kale) diagonally, while justifying why she includes the stalks. Qiūfán likes to keep the tough parts of vegetables in her recipes for their fiber. I’m reminded of a conversation once with a friend; he said, “If it’s clean, you can eat it.” What she keeps for texture, she pitches for flavor. She grates a robust root of ginger then presses the juice with her fingers; omitting the bits saves the dish from bitterness. She sautés the jièlán with ginger juice and Huādiāo Jiǔ (花雕酒, High-grade Shaoxing Wine).
A simple mixture full of flavor, Qiūfán chops squid and pork with her cleaver until finer than a meat grinder can. A bit of salt and this, too is steamed. I consider this dish ground “surf-and-turf.”
If you have read about the market adventure that preceded this kitchen scene, you’ll remember we bought 100 grams of snake meat. Imagine buying fish or chicken fillets from the market. If you don’t kill the animal yourself, there’s less to squirm about when cooking it. The vendor helped out a lot by skinning, stripping, and scaling down our snake to three-inch pieces. Imitating the size and shape, Qiūfán cut a fiesta of bell peppers with leek blossoms and sauteed them briskly.
Here was my snake meat revelation; it was good and I didn’t wriggle in disgust. I’d eat it again!
Our lunch was simple yet delectable; much how I like it. However, educating Shanti didn’t end with food. Qiūfán introduced me to three grades of Pu’er tea (普洱茶), differing immensely in flavor, color, and age. She brought out her box of cigarettes and smoked one, claiming it enhanced the flavor of the tea. I tried this and only felt my usual effect of nausea thus regretting my curiosity. Qiūfán brought Gao Jia and I to her friend’s tea shop, adorned with antiques. Her friend belongs to a club of antique collectors and while his shop makes little to no profit off of tea, he refuses to part with his historic relics. An afternoon of Pu’er, histories of bronze and jade, and conversation dusting off what I’d learned in college Asian art history and we were hungry again.
Qiūfán’s husband fetched us for dinner. In the parking lot of the restaurant, were a few cages of Civet Cats. We had hot pot with huge chunks of fish served with a condiment of ginger, scallions and soy sauce (one bottle per table). I was stuffed.
Qiūfán’s hospitality didn’t end there. We returned to her house where she opened two bottles of wine she bought in Macao during one of many trips she takes with girlfriends to explore new labels. She and her friends hop a bus to Macao and spend the weekend, venturing into shops and inquiring about most favored wines. She brought out four books on wines and a couple books on eating vegetarian. Her favorite wine is Bordeaux. I was grateful for her sharing spirit, not only because she was opening a bottle saved since 2000, but because I had drank so much tea I feared not being able to sleep that night.
Today was filled with food, wine, lessons and reflections for the soul. In Qiūfán, I hadn’t just met a sharing family member with a wealth of tasty recipes, but also an awesome new girlfriend!