After 24 hours in the air, the concept of jet lag seems quaint. I can barely figure out what day it is, much less the time. But despite my disorientation and general mental fuzz upon landing in Beijing, when I see the “Fresh Furit Platter” [sic] on the hotel bar menu, I perk up enough to pronounce it to myself with a Chinese accent.
I end up ordering “Cream of Morel Soup,” which tastes like Campbells, without a trace of morel flavor. What the hell? I didn’t fly around the world to eat Americanized bar food. I promise myself right then and there that during my week in China, I will only eat food I can’t pronounce.
I’m tagging along with my dad, an astronomer, who himself is tagging along with a group of Chinese astronomers headed to the western part of the country to watch the solar eclipse on August 1 (at about 3:30 a.m. Missoula time).
By the time the Olympics start I’ll be long gone, but the upcoming games appear to have the entire city working overtime in preparation. The Olympic slogan “One world, one dream” is plastered everywhere, as if repeating a wishful thought will make it true. But I can’t help wondering who the dreamer is, and what the dream is about.
The day after we arrive, I wake up at 5 a.m. and take a run through the sleepy streets of Beijing, hoping to stretch my legs before the afternoon flight to Urumqi, capitol of Xinjiang province. I run past fresh displays of potted plants along the prettied-up roadsides, through stinking clouds of urban stench, past crews of trash pickers and street sweepers with grass brooms. I see early-morning dumpling makers loading their bamboo steamer trays, a young cop taking pictures of himself with his cell phone, an old security guard leaving his post after the graveyard shift, and a lone sunflower in a rare patch of dirt between two high-rise apartment buildings. I do not see a single stray dog.
I was in Beijing once before, about 11 years ago, and though I’ve heard a lot about China cleaning up its capitol city in advance of the games, Beijing remains a dreary, depressing city. The smog is thick, the hours are long, and the beauty of humanity appears in spite of the context, like weeds in sidewalk cracks. That humanity cuts through the grey haze like lemonade on a hot day. An elderly jogger with whom I cross paths, his arms held out at full wingspan as he runs, greets me with a smile. These moments appear all the brighter amidst the dreariness, but it’s also kind of heartbreaking.
While all manner of achievement, comfort and pleasure exists here, its value is diminished, if not extinguished, by the suffering this kind of success depends on. Hoping to avoid presenting an unpleasant juxtaposition at the Olympics, Chinese authorities are trying to hide the fact that Beijing was built and thrives upon the backs of untold slaves, peasants and laborers. Migrant workers have been given the month off and sent home for the Olympics. Beggars, whose numbers have kept pace with China’s GDP, have been forcibly rounded up and sent away, as have the hookers, all in an effort to hide China’s glaring social problems. Where did these people go? What are they doing right now?
Factories have been shut down and cars mandated to drive only on alternate days (based on odd or even-numbered license plates). But the smog remains. Rain, which the authorities had counted on to wash the air, has been scarce for weeks. Large buildings less than half a mile away are barely visible. My morning run probably took more years off my life than a month on a barstool at Charlie’s.
Later that same morning my dad and I wander the labyrinthine neighborhood nearby searching for breakfast. We find a place so tucked away we figure it couldn’t possibly exist if it wasn’t good.
The menu is full of mysterious, unpronounceable items, and we order by looking at the pictures. I point to what looks like a bowl of soup, snapping a photo of the menu to show Echo, our guide and translator. That afternoon she reads the Chinese in the photo (also seen above) and determines it was Sichuan-style sour fish soup.
A bowl, about a foot in diameter and four inches deep arrives at our table, containing about two quarts of soup. It has an exquisite sour taste I can’t quite place, with white, flaky chunks of freshwater fish, lots of Chinese cabbage, garlic, and two kinds of pickled peppers: fat, round, thick-skinned red ones, and small, thin-skinned green ones. Even on the other side of the world, anyone who puts pickled peppers in their soup is speaking my language.
The language of pickled peppers is one of many reminders of the humanity we share, as is my adventure in finding a bathroom at the restaurant. To explain my quest I draw a picture. I’ll spare you the details, but it brings on a flurry of laughter and eventually earns me directions to the toilet.
Next week: Grubbing at the center of Asia, farther from the ocean than anywhere else in the world.
Ask Ari: Tomato overload
Q: Dear Flash,
My tomato plants are going off, and I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I’ve still got tons frozen from last year. I don’t want to ditch the old ones, especially after putting so much into processing them. But I don’t feel like messing around with them when I have so many freshies. Can I just leave them in the freezer and eat them this winter, instead of freezing more this year?
—Too Many Tomatoes
A: First of all, TMT, the time and effort you put into those tomatoes last year means absolutely nothing. Clear your mind of what’s done, and think about making the best decision going forward. If your frozen tomatoes remain in good shape, then use them, and use them soon, because they may not last much longer. If they’re already freezerburned, then feed them to the chickens, the compost pile or, if possible, to George W. Bush.
Assuming they are still in good shape, use your frozen tomatoes liberally, in most anything you’re cooking. When making breakfast, for example, add some frozen tomatoes to the pan soon after the bacon starts to sizzle (don’t bother thawing the tomatoes first, just add them frozen). Cook over medium heat. Tomatoes hold lots of water, so when that water’s almost gone, add some chopped onions and garlic, and some form of hot spices, like pickled peppers or chili flakes. Add some beaten eggs a few minutes later. Scramble the eggs, eat them and love it.
Or add those frozen tomatoes to a stew, or a lamb leg that’s slowly braising, or a pot of green chile, or make pasta sauce. Those frozen tomatoes will disappear into just about anything, and you can save your fresh tomatoes for raw applications.
Send your food and garden queries to email@example.com.