Slurping up the culture on a mission to China

At one time or another in our lives, we all have walked into the kitchen and watched someone cook. Whether it's in America, China, Italy, Australia or anywhere else in the world, everyone appreciates a good cook.

In June, I watched a farmer's wife in her own kitchen halfway around the world prepare Chinese food. Our group of 12 from the Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon (including my mom, dad and two sisters) and Westminster Presbyterian Church in Upper St. Clair traveled to Sichuan Province in China to assist with earthquake relief in a mountain community near Beichuan City. The earthquake occurred May 12, 2008, and killed more than 10,000 people. The city itself is being rebuilt far from where the old city stood. However, the farmers on the mountainside are still struggling to fill their houses with furniture and earn a living.

We drove for more than four hours in a small van to get from the city of Chengdu to the village on the mountain. Along the way we saw farms and small towns where people had open-air shops that sold everything from food to clothing. As we approached the mountains, we were able to see where they had given way during the landslides that followed the earthquake.

The former Beichuan City is in ruins and is surrounded by a fence to keep everyone out, but we could see the city as we drove up the mountain on a winding road. The buildings looked like they had fallen.

When we reached the village, we walked to a wedding reception. There was a lot of food provided to around 100 or so people. It was not like the wedding receptions that we have in Pittsburgh with rigatoni and chicken with broccoli. At this reception we had cuttlefish, cooked liver, a whole turtle surrounded by boiled quail eggs that was served in broth, spicy chicken feet with pickled vegetables and a huge pot of rice.

After the reception, we stayed with a farmer and his wife in their new home. The next day we moved 1,000 bricks to where a new house was being built to replace the one that was destroyed by the earthquake. When we finished our work, we took the van back to the farmer's house, only to find that the farmer's wife had cooked at least eight dishes for us. I mean, here we are on the outskirts of the Himalayas being served a large meal while back home we may have been "happily" eating salads for lunch. It's not like the food was light, either. I'm talking about homemade tofu, fresh tomatoes, green beans, shredded potatoes, and pork with flowering garlic chives, and lots of other stuff. I did see some foods that I was not willing to try. The food was spicy, so when I saw something that was red, I did not take the chance of setting my mouth on fire.

To any moms who are reading this, I want to ask you a question. How long do you take to make lunch or dinner at home for your family? Our hostess, the farmer's wife, spent around four to five hours just to fix lunch for us. I mean, sure, we were a group of 12, but that's not the point. The lady spent a good portion of her day cooking for 12 people she didn't know and who probably smelled horrible because we didn't have any running water to take showers.

Her cooking area had two large woks that were positioned in a concrete table and were heated by wood. There was almost no ceiling, and the walls were tile. Every once in a while she would poke around in the fire and toss in a branch or two, but other than that, she was busy cooking. Her utensils were basic -- a cleaver, cutting board, rice cooker, shovel (utensil used to move the food around when cooking) and a wicker basket for holding things such as steamed buns or rice that she was reheating. She was a 60-year-old farmer's wife, who dressed in layers, as is the custom in China. Her hair was pulled back in a braid and her skin was weathered from working outside in the fields.

Because of our limited Chinese, it was hard to communicate with our hostess. We knew easy words such as tofu, which in Chinese is dou fu. How easy is that to remember? This one time, my mom went up and asked her if she was making tofu and her whole face just lit up. She grinned from ear to ear, probably because someone was interested in what she was doing. She smiled when you would ask her what kind of meat was in a dish, or even when you thanked her. The fact that she was happy when we asked or told her such simple things, it just warmed our hearts.

In China, we were not offered soy sauce. For some reason, it isn't something that you ask someone to pass at the dinner table. Eight of us sat at a small square table on benches. Since we were a group larger than could sit at the table, the husband carried a similar sized table up the hill on his back. There are no American manners at the table either, only Chinese ones. Slurping means that the food is good, and eating with your mouth open is allowed. You're permitted to pick up your bowl to slurp out your broth, and there are no napkins. You are supposed to just take things out of bowls using your chopsticks, not a serving utensil. You can either eat straight from the serving bowl or place the food into your rice bowl. It's a kid's paradise. One of the coolest things about eating was being able to slurp without being scolded.

Even though all the food we ate was great, we were really anxious to eat at Wendy's again. You wouldn't believe how much my arteries missed all that greasy food. It's amazing how two completely different foods and cultures that are halfway around the globe from each other can be so good.

Sichuan Eggplant

PG tested

This can be served at room temperature or hot. It is great either way. You'll probably get your kitchen messy, especially with the step of dipping the cooked eggplant into the boiling water, but it is worth the cleanup. For those of you who know Sichuan food, this is not as spicy as the traditional dishes so adjust to your taste.

-- Chloe Mellon

  • 4 small Japanese eggplants (about 1 pound total), trimmed
  • Vegetable oil
For the sauce
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
  • 3 scallions, white parts only, trimmed and minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon dark sesame oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon hot bean paste
  • 1 teaspoon hot chili oil

Bring a large pot of water to boil, and keep it at a low boil.

Using a sharp knife, lightly score the skin of the eggplants in a crosshatch pattern, with the lines about 1 inch apart. Halve or quarter the eggplants lengthwise to make sticks about 1/2-inch wide. Cut the sticks into 2-inch lengths.

Heat a large wok over high heat. Add enough oil to come about 1 1/2 inches up the sides of the wok. And heat it to 350 degrees. Working in batches without crowding, fry the eggplant, turning it occasionally until tender, about 45 seconds. Do not overcook it or it will lose its shape. Using a wide wire-mesh skimmer, quickly remove the fried eggplant from the oil, dip it briefly in the boiling water and then transfer it to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining eggplant, drying the skimmer after each use.

To make the sauce, heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and stir-fry until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the scallions and black pepper, stir-frying until the scallions are wilted, about 20 seconds. Add the sesame oil and transfer the mixture to a bowl. Add the vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, rice wine, hot bean paste and hot chili oil and mix well.

Place eggplant on a serving platter and pour sauce over it.

Serves 4.

-- "The Shun Lee Cookbook" by Michael Tong (HarperCollins, 2007)

Chloe Mellon, 12, is the daughter of Steve and Brenda Mellon. Steve Mellon is a photojournalist at the Post-Gazette: . First Published September 2, 2010 4:00 AM


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