Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Salad Seasons

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.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Early this morning, I woke up with a strange sensation. I felt hushed and expectant, almost as if I were in a church. The air outside my window was cool, the light dim and grey. For a moment I thought that these things alone were responsible for the still, listening mood into which I seemed to have awakened.

Then I heard the music. It was a recording of the Tallis Scholars singing Gregorio Allegri's Miserere, and it was coming from the kitchen. Apparently one of my students wanted to listen to it while he ate his breakfast.

Well, that wasn't such a surprise after all. Allegri's Miserere is my student's new thing. He wants to have it near him all the time. I don't know how he can stand it, myself -- Miserere strikes me as so thoroughly exalted and celestial, so pure in its sweetness, so haunting in its crystalline articulation of the essential, ineffable longing that seems to lie at the core of the human spirit, that there's only so much of it you can take at one time.

Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea, et a peccato meo munda me.

I mean, come on. At breakfast?

But the thing is, this little boy gets very, very interested in whatever interests him, at breakfast and everything, so I guess that's that.

What surprises me, in a way, is that his taste alighted on this particular piece. Don't get me wrong, I'm not faulting his choice. In my totally untrained and ignorant opinion, Allegri's Miserere is, without question, the most unutterably lovely piece of music known to man. It's just that, in the context in which I introduced it, I'd have expected a more tempered response.

After all, the whole thing happened pretty much by accident. My students had spent the previous day (starting at five in the morning) at one of the innumerable academic competitions that seem to be the lot of the average eight-year-old in Beijing. During their English/Latin lesson that afternoon, they were understandably too tired to do the exercises I had planned, so I scrapped the main lesson and hauled out some recordings for them to listen to instead.

I had kind of expected them to get a kick out of the first recording I played, which was "It's Witchcraft," performed by Frank Sinatra. For one thing, we're in the midst of reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, so the idea of enchantment and its various ramifications is much on their minds. And for another thing, they are always asking me about jazz (I don't know why), so I had imagined that related musical genres would also interest them. But the big band sound seemed to leave them pretty cold.

So, I switched gears again and told them the next piece would be a Latin psalm. They perked right up at that. They don't actually know much Latin, but they love the idea of it (which is, after all, the main thing -- you can't teach that) and they also love the idea of the Christian liturgy. Anyway, I played it for them, not expecting much except the few minute's peace which the this-is-Latin-so-be-good-and-listen-to-it trump card usually furnishes.

In the event, they weren't quite as attentive as I'd have liked while the music lasted, but then when it was over one of them said to me, quite seriously, "I think maybe I have heard this before. In a movie, maybe." I told him that this was quite possible; it is, after all, a famous and much-loved piece and is certainly featured in some film scores.

(In fact, I had briefly considered playing's extremely successful spot "The Human Cost of War" for them, so they could see the way the music contributes to the power of the ad. But then I decided they would find it too upsetting, so I didn't. I mean, come on, they're only eight.)

Then I played them a Bach prelude -- Julian Bream on solo guitar, and then the lesson was over. As we packed up our books and papers, I asked them which piece they had liked best, and they both plumped for the Miserere. William said it was the best music he had ever heard. He said this a few times. Apparently he told his mother the same thing later that evening. Then he borrowed a copy of the recording from me.

We had Miserere again at lunch today, and I suppose we'll have it yet again at dinner, and tomorrow at breakfast, and so on for some days until William has had enough of it, or perhaps until one of us confiscates his iPod. In the meantime, I have looked out a Chinese translation of the 51st Psalm (luckily it is readily available online, so I didn't have to repeat the Horace adventure) and have promised to teach them the Latin version in our lessons.

Fitting out their Latin and Chinese translations in preparation for today's lesson, I was reminded of a story I told them yesterday: according to tradition, only the choir at the Sistine Chapel was initially authorized to perform Allegri's Miserere; anyone else who tried it did so under threat of excommunication. Then Mozart came along and (so they say) wrote it down from memory after hearing it once. After that, it could not be contained. As William has so effectively demonstrated, it now belongs to everyone, everywhere.

Of course, that's the thing about music, isn't it? It is a function of the laws of physics -- it inhabits the material universe in which we also live and breathe -- and yet it is disembodied, as if it were a being of pure spirit. It has a way of spilling over walls and stealing through windows. It floats on the wind and lodges in the heart.

Since I'm writing a dissertation about a closely related topic -- about the transmission of music by means of poetic description, actually -- I feel rather as if I ought to have something more to say about William's new discovery. But I don't seem to come up with anything. I mean, it's kind of all been said, hasn't it? As the Chinese Record of Music has it, "Music unites." And, as the philosopher Xun-zi pointed out, "Music is delight."

On that note, tomorrow we'll be doing The 59th Street Bridge Song. I am hoping that my students may be coaxed into connecting the line "I've got no deeds to do, no promises to keep" with another poem they have already studied:

But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

As the fellow said, "When a friend arrives from far away, is it not indeed a joy?"