Tuesday, April 7, 2009

China journal, March 2009

This narrative has been compiled from journal entries and emails written during my visit to China
in March. For additional photos,
visit my Facebook page.

March 6

Flying from Chicago to China, we are in daylight the whole time. The 747 cruises along at 37,000 feet on a trajectory that bears north, not far from the Arctic Circle, and stays one step ahead of the sunset. We fly over rugged, snowy terrain for hours, then a strange tundra full of snaking frozen rivers, then desolate scrublands, then rice paddies. Finally, after 15 hours in the air, we touch down at the Shanghai airport.

My carefully planned airport rendezvous with my friend, Niki, who’s in China to attend literary festivals in both Shanghai and Beijing and to research her next novel, and my son, Rio, who’s been hanging out in Southeast Asia with his dad for a few months and has flown in from Bangkok, goes off without a hitch. We grab a taxi into town, and Rio and I are happy to relax and let Niki use her fluent Mandarin to point the cabbie in the right direction.

It only takes a few moments on the road to realize, with a touch of despair, that China’s widely lamented pollution lives up to its grim reputation. What passes for air is a nearly palpable brownish-gray haze that blurs any object more than a few dozen feet away and drains the color from everything to the faded sepia of an old photograph. I’m tempted to pretend it’s fog, but the burning in my eyes and pressure in my chest tell me otherwise. Just about every façade is a filthy-looking gray; even those structures built only six or eight years ago look much older, prematurely weathered by the heavy doses of particulates in the air.

Our hotel in Shanghai, the Old House, is just that: an old, atmospheric, yet chicly remodeled three-story townhouse located in an alley in the French Concession (or, as the Chinese government prefers, the Former French Concession). An area of about six miles square once designated for the French, it's known for its European-style streets and lively commerce, though the ambient haze and the gnarly, still-bare trees that line its streets make for a somewhat muted cityscape. The hotel is in an alley around the corner from the Hilton (pronounced something like Shrah-tern in Chinese—Rio and I quickly give up trying to master it, and simply show the Hilton hotel card to taxi drivers to get us back into the neighborhood).

The traffic is sheer bumper-car chaos. Drivers plow directly into each others’ paths and play chicken over every available inch; they don’t seem to have gotten the memo that two large hunks of metal cannot coexist in one physical location at the same time. In just one taxi ride today, our cabbie nearly collided with three buses in a row. It was so blood-curdling we would close our eyes for several seconds, then open them just in time to see another narrowly avoided near-accident. Whipping at full speed around corners and through red lights, our cabbies, like other drivers, also seem terrifyingly ready to mow down pedestrians. They show no mercy even to families holding babies caught in the middle of the street, who simply scurry without any visible sign of indignation out of their way.

Niki, who has written three novels set in China, is a featured author at the Shanghai Literary Festival. We dropped into an opening-night cocktail party so she could pick up her author packet and meet and greet a bit. It was quite a scene—a couple hundred noisy, hip-looking expats gabbing it up in the dramatically mirrored Glamour Bar, which could easily be in New York, London, L.A., or Miami.

Since Niki also writes about Chinese food for Gourmet magazine and maintains restaurant listings on her Web site, nicolemones.com, one of her main goals in coming to China was to revisit some favorite restaurants and try some new ones so she can keep her listings current. Of course, Rio and I are happy to go along with that agenda. I’m a bit intimidated at the idea of eating in actual Chinese restaurants as I’m not very good with chopsticks, but Niki advises that the Chinese don’t really care how you get the food to your mouth; awkward technique or even resorting to fingers is A-OK if necessary.

After the cocktail party, we ventured out for our first meal at a funky place that looked something like a Western-style joint in the U.S. but served extremely spicy Hunan food, including baby eggplants gleaming in an oily sauce and cumin-encrusted ribs that would have been irresistible—except that they were also covered in a rub of hot red pepper flakes. Niki shared with us a Chinese homily about regional cooking styles, loosely translated as: “Szechwan cooks don’t fear heat; Hunan cooks fear lack of heat.” The food is enticing, to be sure, but way too spicy for me. No worries: I’m tired anyway, and not exactly underweight. Then it was back to the hotel for a jet-lagged—and not entirely successful—attempt at a night’s sleep.

March 7

It’s much colder than we had anticipated—I brought a wool blazer that, even accessorized with a thick cashmere muffler and leather gloves, wasn’t nearly warm enough, and Rio, who spent the last two months in Thailand and Cambodia, showed up in jeans and a hoodie! So he and I hit the boutiques of the French Concession and, after trying on literally dozens of coats and jackets that were obviously designed for Chinese people far more petite than us, we found a nice wool serge pea coat for Rio that makes him look a bit like an English rocker. I ended up with a strange, two-tone, vaguely retro baggy wool overcoat with appliquéd pockets and a stand-up portrait collar that makes me look like an extra from The Changeling. But the good news is that, unlike the many more stylish but doll-sized numbers I had tried on first, it not only fit me, but accommodated all my other layers under it.

Another literary festival event today: Thanks to Niki, we slid into a sold-out talk by the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who has just published his third book. Tout le expat monde was crowded again into the very plush Glamour Bar, which overlooks the iconic Shanghai view: the futuristic skyscrapers of Pudong, across the Huangpu River. Fallows very charmingly held court on the state of international relations, the stirring promise of President Obama, and the challenges and rewards of living in China, which he has for the past several years. The key thing about living here, he says, is that you stop thinking of it as this monolithic entity—CHINA—and realize it’s really a billion Chinese individuals making their way in the world. These seemingly simple words resonate powerfully in my mind in the days to come, as I move through the crowded street scenes and bustling activity that constitute the crush of daily life here.

The language barrier is daunting. Chinese is, of course, incredibly complex and difficult; after a few days, I’ve pretty much learned the sum total of my Chinese vocabulary (fractured pronunciation all mine): “Nee-HOW?” (hello), “Shay-uh, shay-uh” (thank you), and, my favorite, “Jo can can ISH-ya” (I’m just looking a little—very handy for window-shopping). And, though we arrogant Americans might have imagined (or hoped) otherwise, very few Chinese speak English, which makes the simplest transaction a challenge and, of course, precludes any sort of actual conversation.

Still, the sheer energy of China is palpable and the mood seems, for the most part, ebullient and friendly. Unlike when traveling to, say, Europe, no American can have a prayer of “fitting in”; we stick out like sore thumbs. We are sometimes regarded with what appears to be distracted puzzlement rather than warm curiosity, but it seems more an indicator of how busy the Chinese are with their lives in their own country than any particular opinion about ours.

This evening, we went to an early dinner at Chun (“Spring” in English), a tiny restaurant of just four tables, where rumor has it that its owner, an energetic, tiny Chinese mama, will cancel your reservation if you are even one minute late. After compulsively arriving ten minutes early, we are brought an astounding array of dishes in record time. No menu, no ordering; you just eat what she feels like making that night, then you’re briskly shooed out the door to make room for the next seating. She’s kind of like a benign Soup Nazi in Chinese drag.

This meal introduced me to the Chinese convention of starting a meal with cold plates so that the guests can, after enjoying them, proceed to hot dishes that have been cooked on the spot after they’ve arrived. Another revelation was the discovery that rice doesn’t typically come with a Chinese meal, as it does in the U.S. In fact, Niki advises, rice really isn’t routinely provided at all—it’s offered or requested only as an afterthought, if the diner is still hungry after all the other food, which of course rarely happens. There were some wonderful tastes: a large local fish, cooked whole in a brown sauce; knobby chunks of slow-cooked pork knuckle, bite-size and irresistible; cold duck slices drizzled with a savory brown sauce redolent of garlic. Other dishes were somewhat less diner-friendly, such as an angry-looking hairy crab, his stomach plate removed over his apparently passionate objections to reveal a dun-colored internal cavity dominated by the muddy taste of uncleaned crab innards. A mound of small crawfish in a clear, mild sauce provided mildly pleasant flavor, but a highly problematic ratio of work to sustenance—getting each nibble intact out of their heavily armed little bodies was a challenge.

Afterwards, our hostess brought a strange, soupy, purplish rice dish for dessert and wouldn't accept Niki’s insistence, in her fluent Chinese, that she was full; she had to slurp the whole thing down as the hostess looked on, nodding approvingly. Rio and I smiled vaguely, trying to look puzzled, and managed to avoid the same fate.

March 8

This morning Rio and I walked the Bund, a historic area on the Huangpu River with

a procession of almost absurdly imposing European-style buildings on one side and wacky Buck Rogers-style skyscrapers and towers on the other. Then on to Nanjing Lu, Shanghai’s main shopping street and one of the world’s busiest. It’s a huge boulevard with oversized signage worthy of Times Square, swarming with hordes of fashionistas, families, and furtive hawkers who appear with unnerving suddenness at your side or in your path, insisting they have cheap Rolex watches “just for you.” I made a few forays into the huge, six-story department stores, but since everything seemed to be a size 2 or 4, I lost the shopping bubble quickly.

We then found our way to Shanghai’s Old City, which includes a busy bazaar and is packed with Chinese tourists jostling through an assortment of flamboyantly picturesque structures perched above a meandering waterway. Tucked deep into the Old City is Yu Gardens, ingeniously designed to create multilayered natural spaces, broken up by intricate landscaping, courtyards, and pavilions, within just a few walled city blocks. Amid all the puffy dim sum, cotton candy, and small, forlorn bronzed corpses of grilled calamari, Rio zeroed in on some excellent street food for us: We enjoyed two servings of thick, chewy noodles mixed with leafy greens and crisp, canary-colored sprouts for the equivalent of about $1.30.

Tonight we went out to dinner in the French Concession with Niki’s delightful young Chinese-American friends ZZ and his wife, Jen Jen. ZZ, sassy, sharp, and funny, is a graduate of Brandeis, a corporate lawyer, and the author of an upcoming memoir, China High. Jen Jen is a beautiful, vivacious businesswoman who works in her family’s enterprise—running schools for aspiring practitioners of Chinese medicine—in Florida and Atlanta. We all ate family style at a very small, noisy, brightly lit place, surrounded by cheerful groups clearly enjoying each other’s company as well as the food. Our selections included more of those wonderful barbecued pork knuckles; drunken chicken, of which I am not a huge fan (the bird, skin and all, is marinated, poached, then covered in cold rice wine and served in all its flabby, pale glory); and a giant mound of pork shoulder, lounging in warm dark broth, which revealed meltingly tender slabs of meat beneath vast tracts of fat. My favorite dishes over the last few nights were somewhat similar. One was a very simple preparation of slivered savory tofu, mixed with macerated green herbs and drizzled with sesame oil. The other was composed of macerated greens mixed with pine nuts. (A recipe for my attempt to create a combination of these two dishes follows at the end of this journal.)

March 9

This morning we took the bullet train to Hangzhou, a comparatively placid burg (compared to Shanghai, that is) of only 7 million people. After a ride of just over an hour, we arrived to what seemed like Shanghai redux: more hectic streets, more flimsy skyscrapers and apartment buildings looming through a brownish haze. But a short taxi ride took us to what seemed like a time-warp parallel universe: the tranquil environs of West Lake. Our eyes, starved for color after the monochrome cityscapes of Shanghai, soaked up the sparkling lapis surface of this magically beauti ful manmade lake and the graceful green trees and wide lawns lining the lakefront park. Look in one direction, and you see only undulating hills; look in

the other direction, and you see the hazy high-rises of Hangzhou. We took a pleasure boat ride to an island in the middle of the lake, then debarked to explore its lovely landscaping, boardwalks, and interior waterways that cleverly echo the layout of the lake itself.

From there, we went for lunch to an imposing government-run restaurant perched on a bluff in Hangzhou’s botanical garden. Three stories tall, it’s staffed by dozens of energetic young wait staff bustling about in colorful, quaint uniforms and run like a Swiss watch by the managers. We had the house specialty, fish head soup, made by furiously boiling said fish head to extract its protein and beneficial fats, then extracting it and adding a large slab of fish, fish balls (like very pristine, delicate, white gefilte fish), mushrooms, more crawfish, various greens, etc. It comes in a giant, elegant bowl that could easily feed 10; amazingly, we proceeded to make a fine dent in its offerings. Another highlight was a dish of long stringy fibrous roots of some kind, unidentifiable but delicious, mixed with slivers of tofu and chicken (or pork?) in yet another lovely brown sauce.

Another taxi ride whisked us back into the city—this time, just a few steps away from a quaint open-air bazaar, lively yet laid back, that went on for blocks and had all manner of intriguing shops (including a huge apothecary, dozens of boutiques, and a scissors vendor—Hangzhou is apparently famed for its sharp way with these implements). In the golden late afternoon, after we had strolled for a few hours, we found a massage studio (they are everywhere) to get our tired feet rubbed. Ahhh…how can you resist an hour-long foot rub for about $7? We hailed a taxi back to the lake for dinner at another landmark restaurant. The centerpiece here was beggar's chicken, marinated, chopped, and cooked in lotus root husks, with a savory, five-spice-scented tangle of other roots and meats inside. We tried to get the slivery roots in brown sauce dish that we had enjoyed so much for lunch and ended up through a miscommunication with an eel dish that looked very much the same and tasted like a somewhat more rubbery and briny version of it. Then yet another taxi (though all this taxi-riding sounds extravagant, each ride cost only a few dollars) to the train station and back to Shanghai.

March 10

On our last day in Shanghai, we had a Western-style lunch at M on the Bund, a drop-dead elegant restaurant overlooking the Bund and Pudong that, along with its sister business in the same building, the Glamour Bar, had co-hosted the literary festival. Thanks to Niki’s star status as one of the festival’s featured authors, the owner/chef, an ebullient Australian woman, insisted on treating us. After our Western-style breakfasts at the Old House Hotel, featuring breads and cheeses that were slightly surreal analogs of those in the U.S., my expectations for this non-Chinese meal were modest. But all of our appetizers and entrees—including carrot soup with coriander, skate wing, and gnocchi—were delicious, as were the elegantly presented desserts of chocolate ganache and clafouti.

Afterwards, we went to the Shanghai Art Museum for a few hours. It’s a circular building designed to resemble an ancient Chinese cooking vessel, perched right next to the chaotic highway that connects the Bund with the French Concession. Stepping into its softly lit exhibition halls, we were immediately transported hundreds of years back in Chinese history via an impressive assortment of bronzes, ceramics, and brush paintings—including some lovely, multi-panel scrolls depicting West Lake, the very area in which we had strolled so happily in Hangzhou the day before.

Then it was on to the Shanghai train station to catch the overnight sleeper to Beijing. Gazing out the taxi window in the gathering dusk, I was filled yet again with awe and admiration for the hardiness of the residents. Walking or bicycling through clamorous and aggressive traffic, narrowly avoiding being run over nearly every second by dusty vehicles bearing down on them at breakneck speed, they are truly intrepid souls.

Yet Shanghai has been, in many ways, a ghastly dystopia to my eyes: a sea of ugly buildings, unbreathable air, and unbelievable traffic broken up here and there by some intriguing eye candy and interesting history. The pollution, which I had gamely tried to ignore, was finally getting to me: My chest was hurting, my eyes were burning, and I began thinking about donning those dust-masks (like those worn by some Chinese) Doug had taken from his workshop and tucked into my luggage, just in case. But…not just yet.

March 11

On the overnight train to Beijing last night, we shared our nicely appointed sleeper compartment with a large, round-faced young electrical engineer who practiced his English on us for awhile, then clambered into an upper bunk and promptly passed out, his loud irregular snores trumping the lulling rhythms of the train. So much for sleep. I read, dozed a bit, and looked out the window in amazement as we passed several large cities between Shanghai and Beijing without stopping; I didn’t know the names of any of them.

After checking into our lovely courtyard hotel and resting a bit, then helping Rio find a place to get photos taken for his Vietnamese visa (where he is planning to go after China), we went for lunch at a small restaurant that specializes in Peking duck and at which luminaries including Al Gore, Dianne Feinstein, and various ambassadors have dined (on the walls of their entry hall they have the "grin and grip"-type celebrity photos you usually associate with corny Italian restaurants to prove it!). Besides the lusciously indulgent classic duck dish and its customary fixings, standouts included snow pea sprouts (so fresh and delicate, and, alas, proba
bly impossible to find in the U.S.) in garlic sauce and fried duck intestines—slender, crunchy, savory strands that are utterly irresistible.

Then we walked for awhile around our hotel neighborhood, the northern lake district of Hou Hai. Here, as in much of Shanghai and Beijing, the color scheme is the drab gray of low-rise concrete block buildings and the rubble of constant demolition, punctuated with brilliant red and orange shop signs and lanterns. Rio and I snapped dozens of photos, drunk on the visual paradoxes of picturesque alleys with Rasta bars and young beauties in miniskirts and hennaed hair strutting past old men who look like they just stepped out of 19th-century opium dens. Niki helped us attune our ears to the different accent of Beijing—in contrast to the staccato style of the Shanghainese, the locals here speak with a distinctive "burr," adding a growly, nearly gobbled syllable after many words.

Tonight we had dinner in a restaurant tucked away down another gray alley. We entered to discover a surprisingly elegant atmosphere (this alchemy of creating comfortable, welcoming, chic environments in the most humble and unassuming settings seems to be a Chinese specialty). A gathering of University of Pennsylvania grads and assorted friends and associates living in or visiting Beijing, the group included news bureau chiefs, freelance journalists, and authors (including Jen Lin-Liu, who recently published a book about Chinese food, Serve the People).

This meal was a true groaning board of dishes in the mild, delicate Yunnan style (nearly the polar opposite of the extremely spicy Hunan style). Though mountainous and rugged, Yunnan Province is highly fertile and blessed with a rich variety of vegetables. Standouts for me were some long sliced mushrooms that were so tender, pale, and chewy that at first I thought they were abalone. Also on hand were various beef dishes, a chicken dish, and a large fish cooked in red sauce and served with clear herbed dipping sauce on the side. Despite the prevalence of veggies, and the custom of using one’s chopsticks to pluck modest bites of communal servings onto small individual plates, I'm starting to feel like a force-fed goose. I’m hopeful that our daily outings to see the sights and soak up the street life are burning up at least some of these calories.

March 13
Niki and I walked down the alley for a breakfast of transparent little dumplings in an unheated hole-in-the-wall joint that, despite the plastic flaps on its door, was so cold we kept our coats on. Then she went off to an appearance at the literary festival, and Rio and I went to the Forbidden City. Northern winds blew the smog away and created the brightest, clearest day yet. But they were also bitterly cold, and walking across those vast courtyards in the biting gusts was not an experience to treasure. I realized that I find the small alleys and street life of Beijing much more interesting than the grand sights anyway.

Afterwards, we walked several long blocks to a large nearby shopping street, stopped in a very crowded Starbucks for lattes and green tea cheesecake (!) and made it to our real destination, the Foreign Language Bookstore. There we picked up a phrasebook for Rio, and I got assorted items including an offbeat Chinese textbook, a soft-cover book of contemporary Chinese paintings, and a couple of books of short stories in translation by Chinese women authors (including Eileen Chang, author of Lust, Caution).

Tonight we went to a great little Malaysian restaurant, Cafe Sambal. It’s just off one of the main drags in Hou Hai, with cave-like rooms separated by windowed interior walls, glowing with candlelight, and oozing with inviting atmosphere. There we had not one but two servings of marvelously crunchy four-sided beans in an unctuously delicious candlenut sauce. I asked the proprietress for the recipe, and she warmly obliged: The sauce is basically equal amounts of ground candlenut (similar to macadamia or brazil nut) and pureed garlic, with a smattering of hot chili paste. Next came tiny spring rolls that included slivers of mango and a seafood fried rice that was quite good. For dessert, Malaysian comfort food: tapioca pudding with lots of cinnamon. Mmmm.

March 14

This morning we went to the "dirt market,” which is what the Panjiyan "ghost market"—so called because of the ghostly pall of vendors and shoppers in the dim early morning light—turns into as the morning wears on. It was an amazing, seemingly endless array of merchandise: handicrafts, homewares, bronze, bogus antiques of every description, beads, pearls, visual art, Tibetan fabrics and cloth bags, and mountains of ceramic vases and plates. I managed, with some difficulty, to confine my purchases to a handful of small charms, a few dangly pairs of earrings, and two small contemporary prints.

Then we went to the official Yunnanese provincial restaurant, a short taxi ride away in an anonymous-looking office complex. You walk into one of the buildings, make your way through a ho-hum hallway of terrazzo floors and beige walls, and suddenly you are in an astounding space flooded with light, bursting with flowers and greenery, and crowded with happy diners. My favorite dish (again) was the mushrooms, similar to those we'd had a night or two earlier, rich yet so delicate. Then it was on to the Temple of Heaven, a handsome compound with a procession of stately blue-roofed circular buildings built for ritual religious sacrifices in the 15th century and bordered by an elegant park that looks like something out of Paris.

Tonight we went to a handsome restaurant hidden in yet another tiny alley and met some more of Niki's friends: a garrulous food writer named Lillian Chou (she has a quite entertaining blog at lillianchou.com); Richard, a consultant and former journalist who has lived in Beijing for 19 years; and a lovely young Chinese-American woman named Annie. Rio and I left the ordering in their hands. Among the seven or eight dishes we shared (I lost count) were a viscous yellow soup of some kind that was improved greatly by a squirt of garlic vinegar, and "thousand-layered yak's ear,” which seemed to be, basically, pieces of yak's ear in slices of brown aspic. I really wished the poor yak had been able to keep his ears rather than lose them to this odd rubbery dish.

I drank a lot of beer and to pee had to walk a few hundred feet down the alley and thrum my business into one of the many public toilets (which, in the typically Spartan style of these facilities, had no door, no paper, and no sink) as Annie kindly stood guard.

By now I’ve gotten used to the plumbing in China, which involves lots of squatting on crosshatched metal plates, damp floors, and bring-your-own-tissues. However, I still smile in amazement at the memory of this hand-scrawled sign in the Peking duck restaurant bathroom: The single hole in the floor was covered with a metal grate, and thus simply could not accommodate anything but a pee.

March 15

Today Rio and I were again on our own. We walked around the lovely lakefront of Hou Hai, fueled up on cappuccino and packaged cookies at a small café, then hopped into a cab and went to the 798 art district, a contemporary art compound on the outskirts of town. We walked up and down its broad rectilinear streets, went into dozens of galleries and art spaces, and saw a lot of stuff—some corny, some cool. Up a flight of stairs in an alley, we found a simple but packed restaurant and proceeded to gorge ourselves on four dishes (including some very good sautéed green beans), three Coca Colas, and five bottles of water, which came to 91 RMBs (about $14). Rio pronounced it one of our best meals yet.

Our culinary luck was not to hold, alas. Rio and I were so tired tonight that, rather than accompany Niki to another large meal with her friends in the University district a half-hour metro ride away, we decided to go for dinner at a cute café we had seen on our morning walk in Hou Hai. Unfortunately, it was a very bad meal—the less said about it, the better. Luckily, it was the only one we had during our whole time in China!

March 16

This morning—my last in China, at least on this visit—we visited Prince Gong’s mansion, an elegant and impressive residential compound with nine courtyards, built during the Ming Dynasty, which had been passed among various potentates before falling into its last owner’s hands. With its multiple levels, water features, and rock gardens, the complex seems even larger than its actual size—it’s like the Disney World of dynastic pleasure palaces. Niki and I quickly zeroed in on a series of lovely rooms off a shady, intimate courtyard as the ones we would most like to live in, before learning from our trusty TimeOut guidebook that Prince Gong’s wife had made the very same selection.

Then on to lunch at a quaint yet surprisingly high-tech dim sum cafeteria: Diners put a certain amount of money on a card, then hand it to various vendors displaying their wares along a long rustic interior hallway, to swipe in the appropriate amount in exchange for savory, mostly fried morsels of various types. With a big pot of chrysanthemum tea to wash everything down, a most satisfying meal.

Strolling back to the hotel, we shed our wool layers in the early afternoon sun. It was our mildest day yet; with temperatures in the 60s, spring is definitely in the air. Beijingers, alas, have only a narrow window of opportunity for springtime pleasures. For several weeks each April, while temperatures are probably perfect, the entire city is coated with a fine layer of silt blown down from the Gobi Desert.

After ten days of knocking around in these amazing cities with Niki and Rio, my time in China had, deceptively, begun to feel like “the new normal.” But my visit was at its end. I grabbed my luggage from the hotel room, climbed into a taxi, and gawked out the window during the half-hour ride through yet more smog-smudged skyscrapers to the huge, gleaming, and somewhat sterile-feeling Beijing airport. A few hours later, the jet lifted us out of the polluted Chinese air. I settled into my seat and began to read my book of short stories by Eileen Chang—who, by the way, is an excellent writer. Traveling east, the jet pushes through a foreshortened afternoon, then a condensed night of about four hours and on into morning. The flight from Beijing to Chicago is 12 hours, exactly as long as the time difference between the two cities. So I left Beijing on Monday, March 16, at 4:20 p.m. and arrived at O’Hare at 4:24 p.m. on the same day!

Now, a few weeks later, I have finally shaken off the stubborn jet lag and lingering disorientation of the journey. I was dreaming about China, my subconscious busily examining and reassembling all of those countless sensory impressions, until just a few nights ago. As my visit recedes into the past, I begin to think that going to China is a bit like childbirth: intense and nearly overwhelming in real time, and a source of awe and wonderment in retrospect.

* * *

Tofu, Greens, and Pine Nuts

(a recipe based on two of my favorite dishes in China)

One block of “tofu cutlet” (baked tofu)

Two to three cups of greens (spinach, bok choy, mustard greens, or a combination of these and similar greens)

About half a cup of chopped cilantro

Two finely slivered scallions

Two pressed garlic cloves

About a quarter cup of toasted pine nuts

About a half-teaspoon of dark sesame oil

About a tablespoon of rice vinegar

About two teaspoons of soy sauce

Sliver the tofu cutlet into julienne-style strips, as slender as you can possibly manage (I tried to put it through a mandoline, but it broke apart, so I just ended up doing it by hand). Cut the greens into slender shreds, then steam or microwave them for just a minute or two to wilt them. Combine the tofu, greens, scallions, and cilantro. Drizzle with the oil and blend; mix the soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic, and add, stirring gently. Season further as desired with hot pepper flakes, chili sauce, or chicken sauce. Top with the pine nuts (toasted sesame seeds would also be good). Makes two to three servings.