This month, March’s Smackdown winner, Katie, gave all us contestants a real challenge. We were all to think of a book, novel or otherwise, but NOT a cookbook, that could inspire our entry this month. As I started to read her post, my mind went blank, but by the end of it, I already knew the book that would inspire me. I first read this book as a teenager, at perhaps 14 or 15 years old. I didn’t read it for a school assignment, but simply because I came upon it in the library and decided to read it. What I DO remember is that this was the first book where descriptions of food captured and intrigued me. This was partly because, at the time, I had never encountered this particular cuisine–other than what my mother tried to make with a poor, American-ized version. The food items seemed exotic and strange, even though the characters were quite poor and for them, such things were everyday fare. What would those things taste like? I wondered. How would they look? Smell? I hadn’t read the book in over 30 years, but Katie’s challenge brought it back to me full force. And, in an amazing coincidence (or perhaps not) a paperback copy of that very book lived in this house when we moved in. So, there it was. The book was there for the re-reading and I was ready to be inspired.
Oh, the book? Well, yes, I guess that might help. I don’t know how popular it is today, if it’s taught in school or not, but if you haven’t read it, you must, as well as all her other books. It’s The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck.
This book is set in China, probably somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, certainly before WWII. The story follows the farmer Wang Lung from his wedding day as a young man until he becomes a grandfather, and how his life is shaped by the land he lives on, works and comes to own. The first food reference is tea, made by tossing a few leaves in hot water and described as “drinking silver”. When Wang Lung goes to pick up his unknown bride, bought from the great house in the village, the second reference: “He went to the market, then, and bought two pounds of pork and watched the butcher as he wrapped it in a dried lotus leaf (what is that?) and then, hesitating, he bought also six ounces of beef. When all had been bought, even to fresh squares of beancurd (??? what on earth??) shivering in a jelly upon its leaf, he went to the candlemaker’s shop and there he bought a pair of incense sticks.”
So exotic, so appealing! Incense and beancurd. Definitely intriguing for a teenager who had never been anywhere. Later, after the “wedding”, the new bride, O-Lan, prepares the wedding feast:
“But in his heart he was proud of the dishes, for with what meats she had, the woman had combined sugar and vinegar and a little wine and soy sauce and she had skilfully rought forth all the force of the meat itself, so that Wang Lung himself had never tasted such dishes upon the tables of his friends.”
And so, I was inspired. It would be years until I ate in a “real” Chinese restaurant, taken by my first boyfriend when I was in college. Until then, I had to make do with my mother’s attempts with round steak and canned LaChoy vegetables. So, on many levels, this is a nostalgic challenge for me.
When I started thinking about it, of course I did peruse a couple of cookbooks from the library. But I quickly put them away for a couple of reasons. One, the non-cookbook is supposed to be the inspiration and two, O-Lan never had a cookbook. O-Lan couldn’t even read! Therefore, away with written recipes. Stick to the simple. I decided to do two dishes: Tofu (beancurd) with scallions, mushrooms and spinach, and a little pork and bok choy stir fry. I do keep some oriental sauces in the kitchen, so I used a little oyster sauce and fish sauce and other spices to marinate the tofu. I pressed it the way I did for Battle Tofu and got a VERY firm block that I cut into cubes and put in the marinade for about 48 hours. By the time I got to cooking this morning, the tofu had soaked up all of the marinade and it was quite flavorful. I also decided to pick the first spinach from the garden and chiffonade a big bowl of that which I knew would cook down to a serving or two. Then I added a couple of scallions and three mushrooms. So simple.
Then, I added a little oil to a hot skillet, and tossed everything in. Because the tofu really doesn’t need to cook, and because you want the veggies in a stir fry to still retain a certain amount of rawness, this took all of five minutes:
In no time, I had this in the serving bowl and was ready to go on to the next dish.
At the same time I prepared the tofu, I sliced up two small, thin-cut pork chops and put them in to marinate in O-Lan’s mixture of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and a few spices. Heating a bit more oil, I tossed in my rough-cut bok choy:
Then, in went the pork and the marinade. I also added about a teaspoon of hoisin sauce:
Just another five minutes and it was ready to go in the serving bowl, too:
A bowl of brown rice completed the meal. Quick, simple, fresh:
I had this for breakfast this morning, and it turned out better, I thought, than any of my other attempts at Chinese-type food. Simplicity is definitely the key. It was light, but still filling. I was reminded that that amount of food above, in Wang Lung’s world, would have fed at least five people for the entire day, during which they would have spent at least 12 hours doing hard labor in the fields in order to grow the crops to provide that food. Just another inspiring reminder of the abundance that lies all around us every day. Thank you, Katie, for such a wonderful challenge this month!