Spring is here. Forsythia spatters the parks and gardens with speckles of bright yellow. Cherries have begun to bloom, both the pale pink and the deep. Light zephyrs whisk through the greening willows. Magpies hop about, looking hopeful.
And, more importantly, the local supermarket has begun selling pasta salad again.
It was during my last trip to Beijing that I first realized pasta salad has actual, you know, seasons. That was a dozen years ago, when I first made the acquaintance of the Beijing summer specialty known as liangpi 凉皮, "chilled skin." The name may not sound terribly appetizing out of context, but in the gasping, humid heat of a Beijing August, anything with the word "chill" in it is pretty welcome.
Or so it seemed to me, as I stopped by the street vendor's cart and peered at his display: neat cubes of diced wheat gluten, fresh green-and-white heaps of shredded cucumber, slivers of tough beancurd peel, bouquets of fresh coriander, six or seven different sauces and, of course, the "skin" itself, which is actually wide-cut fresh pasta made of mung bean starch.
"Try it," said one of his customers, a middle-aged woman who was digging into her portion right there by the cart. "This is real Beijing fare, a traditional summer snack. You'll love it." I didn't need to be asked twice. I stepped right up and requested a helping, plenty spicy and with all the trimmings.
The middle-aged woman was right. I did love it. Chewy, tender and slippery-cool all at the same time, fragrant with coriander, rich with sesame and breathing a curious, heady, almost perfumed heat -- I had never tasted anything like it. Soon I was visiting the cart almost every day, bringing my own metal rice box so as to avoid using the styrofoam cartons supplied by the vendor. (Who thought I was off my rocker. "It's to protect the environment," I told him, but he just shook his head. Crazy foreigners.)
But, before the mooncakes left from the Mid-Autumn festival had been quite eaten up, the streetside liangpi gave way to luzi 炉子, "stovelings," which turned out to be sweet potatoes roasted in their jackets and sold from makeshift ovens fashioned out of large barrels and lugged about the city by bicycle. There were also chestnuts, both fresh and roasted. A friend taught me how to make chestnut-chicken soup. With its pale slices of chicken floating in a deep, dark broth seasoned with ginger, clove and juniper, it seemed the essence of autumn.
Then the winds rose. Yellow leaves fluttered to the sidewalks. The skies grew high and blue. Frosts set in. Piles of pale winter cabbages lined the streets like stacks of firewood. Local eateries served a rough and warming concoction of dried mung bean noodles and pickled cabbage, with pork or without according to taste. The steamed buns at the local state-run bakery were equally hearty, filled with pork and seasoned turnip.
Then, long before I was tired of turnip buns, the winds changed. Willows fluttered pale green branches. Little round toddlers were gradually divested of their magnificently colored woolly coats and jackets, one layer at a time. The luzi man told me that this was his last week selling sweet potatoes. He was most apologetic, but actually I didn't mind. The buns and pancakes at the local bakery were now filled with a pungent chutney made of chopped fennel greens, extraordinarily addictive.
When I had eaten my fill of the fennel buns (which took a while), there were tiny, leaf-green cabbages about the size of a softball. Cooked with ginger and vinegar, they made a delightful accompaniment to the miniature guotie 锅贴 or "pot-stickers" sold just outside the university gate. Unlike the various sorts of "pot-stickers" or "Peking ravioli" sold in the West, these had wrappings made of a yeasted dough rather than a pasta. They were cooked in a large press something like a waffle iron (but without the cleats), producing a delicious, intensely flavored little gobbet that managed to be crispy on the bottom but, as Mr. Woodhouse might have said, "without the smallest grease."
The days grew warmer and another kind of guotie appeared, this time wrapped in pasta and filled with a mixture of minced pork and summer squash. You could almost feel the sunshine on the broad-leaved vines. It was like eating a garden.
I was home by the time liangpi season was in full swing again. I returned for a couple of months in the autumn, but, before I had a chance to make any chestnut-chicken soup, and I found myself back home again. I didn't return for a long, long time.
Nowadays the snack stalls have nearly vanished from the streets of Beijing. If you want liangpi salad you have to visit the deli counter in a supermarket. Most people blame the grand municipal tidying effort that preceded the Olympics, during which nearly all street food was banned or at least greatly restricted, but I think we were headed in that direction anyway. Outdoor markets are disappearing. We shop indoors now. Heaps of exotic produce decorate the supermarkets all year round. They hail from every region and represent every season.
There are gleaming mounds of multi-colored peppers, purple eggplants and deep green cucumbers. There are leafy branches of kale and rape, celery cabbage and spinach, watercress, lettuce hearts, rocket, mustard, fennel, chives, cilantro and many other things I don't recognize. There are impossibly slender scallions and thick leeks, lotus roots and fresh bamboo and mushrooms of every variety. There are apples, pears, peaches, lemons, melons, berries and pineapples. Some of them are packaged in plastic, some of them are sold loose. They are nearly all spotless.
The maids soak all our produce for an hour or two before cooking it, in an effort to leach out the pesticides. My hosts import as much of their fruit as they can, for the sake of their children. But the imported fruit isn't organic either, and of course the fuels burned in its transportation merely add to the burden assumed by earth and air, seed and water.
It is natural to be tempted by the prospect of having what we want when we want it. It is hard to ask the question:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?
And it is harder still to answer it.