Wednesday, October 1, 2008

"Basic Common Link"

What is more agreeable than the discovery, in a strange land, that the means of supplying all one's essential wants lie ready to hand -- if not in a familiar guise, then in a style that is only the more pleasing because of its unaccustomed character? In particular, what is more likely to give rise to the reflection, "What a good place the world is!" than a little foreign trafficking in nice things to eat?

I think Dorothy Dunnett understood this. In the historical imagination she unfolds for us, it is traders who make "the whole world to hang in the air." Though she does not exactly identify it as the best end of the best men, commerce does seem to provide fuel for that which is best and most constant in the best and most constant among us -- that is, the instinctive and persistent search for truth, as a compass searches out the pole. Of course, truth takes various forms, but, as Dunnett remarks, "God hath eighteen thousand worlds," each turning on its own "bright axle-tree."

And one of these, certainly -- perhaps more than one -- is made up of the fellowship found in common wants. It is essentially a fellowship born in a great metaphysical mess-hall, where we inspect one another's rations amid the steam and cabbage-smells, and where we gather together to be filled and made easy.

Thus Dunnett summons a malediction based precisely on the annihilation of this fellowship:

Je prie a Dieu, le roi de Paradis
que mendiant, votre pain alliez querre
seul, inconnu, et en etrange terre
non entendu par signes ni par dits.

I pray to God, the King of Paradise,
That you should be a beggar, seeking for your bread
Alone, unknown, in an unfamiliar land,
Not understood; not by speech, not by signs.

(My translation; apologies to those of my readers who actually, you know, speak French.)

Anyway, I found myself particularly susceptible to this sort of material comfort when I ran across it yesterday. It happened like this.

As my students have a break from lessons for the national holiday, I had planned to spend a good part of the day visiting the Summer Palace. The slanting autumn light on Kunming lake with its fringe of yellowing willows, the groves of massive cypress and the long, interlocking galleries painted in a happy mixed aesthetic -- chalky Indian pinks and yellows and the deep, clear crimsons and forest greens that would be at home as far east as Japan -- are all among my most cherished recollections from my last sojourn in Beijing, more than ten years ago.

But when I woke up yesterday I was conscious of a familiar sort of uneasiness and disorientation, and these vague symptoms soon gave way to nausea, stumbling and miserable chills (I put on two layers of wool and one of silk and I still felt them, though the weather here is warm for the beginning of October), so I was obliged to postpone my sightseeing and return to bed. When I woke up a few hours later I felt considerably better -- enough better, anyway, to think that a pancake would do me some good. So I went out in search of one.

I hoped the nearby supermarket to be open, but didn't really expect anything of the kind (it was a national holiday, after all). But it was open. I bought a fennel bun and a cabbage pancake, seaweed salad and steamed peasant rolls for dinner. Also some bottled peach juice, which was undoubtedly loaded with sugar but tasted delicious and was a very pretty pink. Also some scallions, slender as stalks of sourgrass, some cilantro, three limes, a sack of green bell peppers, a knob of ginger, some ready-made curry powder, some ground cumin and some ground red pepper.

Then I went home and ate the bun and pancake and a good bit of the seaweed. Also some of the peach juice.

While I was walking home, I was quite laden with things, and some of my layers of clothing began to feel thick and hot. Nonetheless, I felt quite buoyed up, as if my purchases had actually lightened me in some way. And, in fact, I think perhaps they had.

I think part of what made these purchases so heartening was that they did not consist entirely of ready-made foods, but also included ingredients that I would use in my own preparations. Still more to the point, I was planning to use them not to prepare a meal that would conform to the local style, but a dish of my own design, a vaguely Indian curry, which I like to have with hot buttered toast and strong tea, either as a sustaining breakfast or a comforting sort of high tea or supper.

For curious readers, here is how you make it:

Boil some lentils until they are just done. Drain them, reserving a little of the water. Then stir-fry some chopped onion, minced fresh ginger and, if you like, a little garlic, in either flavorless vegetable oil or clarified butter. Add a dry masala prepared to your own taste. I generally use a combination of cumin, coriander, cayenne sometimes turmeric and sometimes black mustard, or just a good prepared curry powder, such as the kind sold by Dean & DeLuca. Even when I use a prepared curry power I always add quite a bit of cayenne, as I like my curry very hot. Stir the masala into the onion mixture. Also add some salt -- pure sea salt or kosher salt is best. Then add some chopped vegetables, such as peppers (sweet, hot or both) and celery. Cooked cauliflower is good here, if you have some left over. Cook all these vegetables till they are nearly done, then add the lentils, water and the juice of a lime. If you have some cubes of paneer, they make a very good addition to this dish. Serve hot, topped with a heap of chopped cilantro.

This dish goes very well with crisp toast, English muffins or crumpets. Sometimes I have it with milky tea, sometimes I have the tea straight up. Sometimes I add sugar to the tea, sometimes not. It's always good.

In my Beijing version of this dish, I think I will have to substitute mung beans for the lentils at least some of the time. Mung beans are readily available, but I may have a bit of a job finding lentils.

Well, anyway, I didn't get to prepare my curry right away. After I returned home and ate my bun and pancake and seaweed I was so tired that I just went back to sleep for the rest of the day and well into the evening.

But perhaps tomorrow I will have a chance to make the curry. I am planning to join the Beijing Hikers club on a little ramble outside the city on Saturday, and it strikes me that this curry might be just the thing to bring along as a packed lunch. It is very sustaining, even without hot tea. (Of course, I might be able to bring the tea in a flask.)

While I was lumbering home with my satchel of nice things, a memory struck me. The event to which the memory referred had occurred only a week before, but somehow I hadn't quite paid attention when it happened. Last week, while I was out hailing a cab, a man with a wife and child in tow drove to the side of the road. The man got out of the car, walked up to me and asked me for directions.

1 comment:

Willow said...

What a delight to read! Thank you for sharing. I smile at the notion of those familiar morning curry smells wafting through a kitchen all the way across the world.
And, yes, the pinnacle of pride for a traveler is being asked directions in a borrowed city -- especially by a native.