the perfume of hunan

July 4th, 2014

I’m pleased to say that my abysmal stint in Changsha ended on a very high note, thanks to a young friend named Zhou Qiaoting. How we became friends is a story in itself that I’ll save for another day.

My single, deep disappointment, after four weeks working in Hunan province was that I hadn’t experienced the local cuisine, and the reasons were many and varied, some valid, some not. This changed a few days before I returned home on a most memorable evening with Zhou Qiaoting.

We set out, in the hot rain, sharing an umbrella, up a narrow lane just off Jianxiang Road, to a tiny noodle restaurant operated by three brothers whose resemblance to the young banjo player in the movie Deliverance is uncanny. The noodles are made outside on a small counter adjacent to a large cauldron of steaming soup.

We took a seat on small plastic stools and selected a noodle dish from the photos on the wall. First came a small bowl of broth from the big cauldron. Something made from chicken stock, lightly perfumed with five-spice powder and a few shreds of cilantro. Piping hot soup on a piping hot rainy night. It was divine.

In between slurps, I watched one of the brothers stretch, twine, and whirl a ball of  fresh dough into long noodles at his outdoor counter and shortly thereafter two bowls of steaming noodles were plunked in front of us, dressed with an array of vegetables, a mild sauce, and some unknown bits of meat. It was slippery work trying to grab the noodles with chopsticks, but I had four weeks of hunger providing a dexterity I don’t usually possess. It was so good, I groaned – repeatedly.

The meal was successfully restorative, not just to my furnace but also my temple, and with a lighter mood did I return home, inspired to try my hand at something akin to the Noodle Shop’s offering. A simple noodle, a simple broth, a simple herb, and five-spice powder – the perfume of Hunan.

Hunan Soup for the Soul

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shanghaied in changsha

June 7th, 2014

Or, how I became a petty thief.

There are many situations wherein one’s morale, sanity, and general equilibrium are keenly connected to food. I’ve know this first hand, repeatedly, in two types of situation; while on tall ships at sea held from shore by weather, and while in foreign-speaking countries under challenging work conditions. What price sanity? No price too great, and that’s how I became a petty thief in Changsha, Hunan, China.

I work in a factory with a hand full of Germans, two hands full of Americans, and 80,000 Chinese. Working conditions are fairly brutal, to my way of thinking, if a lack of water, lack of lunch, lack of coffee, and lack of chairs and desks can be called brutal. It’s a twelve-hour work day, seven days a week.

I took a taxi to the supermarket today, along with a suitcase, to stock up on survival goods for the week ahead.  Oolong tea, green tea, rice crackers, dried fruits, an unknown selection of small Chinese snacks (none of which included the ubiquitous pickled and shrink-wrapped chicken foot), some paper plates, three ping-pong balls, and a paring knife. I need the knife to peel the apple I steal from the hotel every morning.

Pocketing an apple in a pair of stove-pipe slacks doesn’t work. Hiding it under a folded newspaper and sneezing at just the right moment gets one past the security/hostess stand at the 5-star hotel in which I currently reside.  An avaricious manager in the restaurant determined after several weeks that the company I’m with looked ripe for some fleecing, and suddenly started charging us $8.00 for a paper cup to carry out our morning coffee.

Apples, bananas, and an occasional yogurt were exacting prices in excess of ludicrous, and I, for one, was not going to get shanghaied in Changsha. I eat quite well now at the factory, and the golden moment in the midst of the long day consists of a sandwich, secretly assembled the night before from scraps on my plate from the dinner buffet. Small shreds of chicken tossed with a spicy Hunan pepper condiment, plopped onto some French bread and glued together with butter, swallowed into a zip-lock and dropped into the paper tote bag by my feet.

It’s really very delicious, and not simply because I steal it.

Hunan Pepper Condiment

the last of summer

September 3rd, 2013

Family, friends and strangers alike called my Mother’s father, “Pappy”.  By all reports he was a magical man who wasn’t able to leap tall buildings or move faster than a speeding train. He cared for his family through the depression, ensuring food on the table and a proper song or poem at the close of each day.  He taught his daughters to waltz and his sons to think big.

Pappy always used to say that he would eat anything if it were draped in Hollandaise Sauce, including sawdust.  I have always concurred with that statement and dare to take it a step further: anything draped in Crème Anglaise, sawdust included, sounds mighty tasty to me!  I never met Pappy, because he died before I was born, but I’ve always known him, and I’m certain that he’s somewhere nearby, in spirit.

The last of summer’s strawberries bid good-bye to kitchens regaling their many wonders all season long in the form of jams, shortcakes, and brief dips into liquid chocolate.  I was thinking some local strawberries and candied walnuts tucked into a crêpe and generously draped with Crème Anglaise would bid a proper adieu to the season, and Pappy, I’m sure, would be the first to agree.

Strawberry Crêpes with Candied Walnuts and Crème Anglaise



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second cousins

August 27th, 2013

Everyone is familiar with the famous dish from Provence known as Ratatouille, perhaps in thanks to the animated film, more hopefully because they’ve experienced this indigenous combination of tomato, zucchini, eggplant, garlic, onion and peppers, perfumed with Herbes de Provence.

Ratatouilles are like snowflakes – there are no two alike.

Its American second cousin, to my mind, has to be the equally indigenous and perhaps more ingenious dish of the Pueblo known as Calabacitas, generously demonstrated to conquering Spaniards long ago.  It features a variety of summer squash, onion, garlic, black beans, fresh corn and tomato.  The ingredient that throws Calabacitas over the top is the New Mexico chile, from Hatch Valley, which just came into season!

Preparing the dish is a multi-staged event, just like its French second cousin.  First, the chiles need to be dry roasted and peeled and then the corn on the cob is charred in a skillet until the natural sugars start to caramelize.  Other ingredients follow, with individual exactness, and then the whole lot is gently warmed in a skillet.

In keeping with the region, leftover Calabacitas contribute to superb versions of quesadillas, tostadas and Huevos Ranchero.

Just another snowflake…

Calabacitas with Fresh Hatch Chilis



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