Thinking about oil and chilies, thinking about 川香阁-- you might know it as MASCOT ENTERPRISES INC. or as Chuanxiangge or as Chuānxiānggé or as that one Sichuan restaurant trapped in a parking lot across an alley from a grocery store. A Westminster Highway address but tucked away.
Images / fragments1 / digressions:
Oh, but if there's anything you want, just ask and I'll ask the chef. -- Boiled cabbage. -- Huh? -- Ask him. He'll know it. And he sticks his head out of the kitchen, sticks his head past the grimy aquarium.
He knows it, he knows it. And: a ceramic tureen of 开水白菜...-- boiled cabbage: the simplest of simple. A heap, a pile. But, actually, almost ironically presented here. A plate of boiled cabbage-- a dish of surprising complexity, a classic of Huang Jinglin's kitchen (the kitchen that prepared it for Chiang Kaishek during his slow inland retreat).
The boiling water is boiling water but also: a stringy hen with muscular dark dinosaur legs, dark # boiled boiled until its fats and flavors seep out; a careful handful of dried seafood-- pearly, cracked scallops-- allowed to infuse, give up their particular, complimentary, breezy flavors. The stock is cleared and we see the chef adding a sip of wine # barely any, okay? a sip; a snip, a shred of ginger and a shred of green onion # dunked inside to swim one lazy lap across the pot, then pulled back out. A tall white cabbage is brought into the kitchen, its jacket removed by the maître d'hôtel... its shirt unbuttoned... down and down until we are left with a faintly yellow and much smaller and tighter version of the same cabbage. Faint yellow, the color of the stock. A leaf goes in, floats and then is sucked into the stock, which is heated until it might just boil but doesn't. This is boiled cabbage.
Beer posters. Folk art. Lights too bright.
A plate comes out of the kitchen, past that same aquarium and those same posters for Yanjing: a ring of deepfried pork, coated and deepfried the color of the caramel in a Twix, and dotted with dots of red pepper and pineapple. Appreciative smiles. From another table.
Later: Oh, I was a waitress in Zhuhai, too. I stopped eating spicy food down there. People down south can't really eat spicy food. Sometimes, I'll hear someone here speaking Sichuanese and they can't even eat spicy food anymore because they've been in Canada too long, can't eat any spicy food. The chefs here, working in Canada, all worked in big hotels and stuff and they cooked Hong Kong and Japanese food or whatever, and I guess lots of people like that. This food... like, just chicken and... what do you call it... pickled peppers and... I guess it's sort of a... I don't want to say low class but... sort of a local food that you... well, you know. If people go out, they like to eat seafood and stuff like that. Lobster. A lot of people like that kind of stuff.
Digression: to Chengdu, to a section of city that still dates to unmodernized unimproved early-1990s (the last pure days before Deng Xiaoping took his Southern Trip), so the condo towers rise only in the middle distance, so the cranes are in the middle distance, so the area is still populated by apartment blocks that house people from the same work unit, still -- the sky is grey and the street is grey and there's a grey film on everything and the street is full, from sidewalk to bike lane to roadway to bike lane to sidewalk. The sidewalks, shuffling and sprinting, electric bikes chuttering and chirping among them. Late afternoon, the bike lanes, still puffed up with commuters: restaurant girls in yolkyellow military uniforms pushing home on black framed bikes, a few straggling oldtimers with bird cages strapped to the back seat, 阿姨 with bags of lettuce and newspaperbound shrimp balanced on handlebars-- coming from the market street that runs beside an industrial-looking hospital (bathroom tile-style, faded from the same yolk yellow as the waitress uniform to an unhappy taupe). The first half of the street is given over to ladies and girls in hats, gloves and masks (ladies, soft white cotton turned grey by the city, and the girls, whimsical, colorful, from the big lit up tables at the nightmarket), who sell the gifts one might bring to a relative staying at the hospital: walnuts, almonds, dried persimmons, longan, bags of almond milk, salted duck eggs with shells dyed red. Then...
...the cluster of 苍蝇馆... fly restaurants (we see people buzzing in and out; the room buzzes; oh, and there might be an actual fly or two, too)-- single rooms-- carved out of a run of real estate at the bottom of apartment buildings long abandoned, the upstairs hermit crabbed by cheap hotels and microbrothels and internet bars... battered tables and chairs-- seat four or five or six inside and seat twenty or more outside....
We're going to a place right at the end of the street.
Keep going, keep going.
Keep going past the crazy muddle and color of the market. Keep going right through it and past the cluster of indoor and outdoor pool halls and poker rooms and the storefront brothels with pretty girls lounging in doorways, 嗑ing sunflower seeds. Keep going down a sidestreet, firecrackers are being set off and I ask, Somebody getting married? And the answer is, Doesn't look like it. Nobody could get away with firecrackers like that for a wedding. Oh, I think it's for the crane. They do that now, when they first set up a new crane. And then we're there: another hermit crab space of inside bathroom tiled concrete, a Lanzhou noodle place beside it, run by stern, bearded men from Qinghai; and a lowrent apartment block on top-- recroom cardtables against the walls, which have been wallpapered with RT Mart ads (once glossy: lipstick red meat, bottles of soy sauce)-- a single long room leading up to a kitchen at the back, halfshielded by rigged up rough board walls-- clatter and heat of the kitchen unshielded-- outside the front door, fish flop in red plastic basins, and inside, one of the tables is taken up with basins and dishes of fresh vegetables, mushrooms, peanuts, the raw materials-- the waitress is the wife of the man in the kitchen, local people, 本地人 with local accents-- broadfaced, hair pinned up except for a wave of bangs on the right side of her forehead; lips pursed, nose crinkled; uniform of neon green tanktop and a crispy apron done up under her breasts; sweat on forehead, neck. The menu doesn't matter. We point at a few things off the table. The rest, left to chance. A salad of raw garlic and mustard oil and fresh chilies and cilantro. A plate of corn, stirred up with charred smoke-colored, curled ribbons of dried bacon fat. Tomato and egg. Pork guts lying facedown in a neon red gutter, shitting chili oil. Green beans. Lima beans. Clatter and heat of the kitchen. Warm, big bottles of beer.
Stripmall architecture. Centered around the key, the crux: plentiful parking. So, the breeze of the street, the sound of the street--hell, the street itself!-- is gone, replaced with a static display of Honda Odysseys and white 3-Series. A restaurant stuck in a checkerboard parkingscape of asphalt, modern blues, geometry. Fast turnover: change the sign, paintjob. Fast turnover: people still remember the restaurant that occupied the space before, Maotai, and, realistically, it will probably be occupied by a new restaurant soon.
Richmond doesn't have a skyline that can be viewed from street level. It's flat. Even with the condos rising along Three Road. It's flat. It's meant to be viewed from up above, maybe from the Canada Line. It is parkingscapes and, more and more, condoscapes.
Aquarium in the corner. Familiar liquor bottles on the shelf behind the cash register.
I'm from Chongqing but the guys in the kitchen, they're all from Chengdu, she says.
An empty plate: brown-red oil, half-half of anise, rehydrated dried chilies, a white pod of cardamon, a single grain of rice.
Digression: Girls. C, whose killerwhale sharp teeth gleam at me from behind red stretched lips, whose cheekbones-- just as sharp!-- are balconies for long, unintricate eyes, eyebrows in a soft charcoal line. 川妹, 川妹. Wisp sideburn running through big black hoop earrings. Neck smells like blueberry candy. 美女-- haha, I prefer 靓女. Southern-accented brittle sharp voice. Dialect stripped of growls and shushes; pure Sichuanese, Leshanese, with muted glottal stops and rollercoaster tonal shifts (not the half-Mandarin dialects of the city) (could timetravel back to Warring States days, back to a minor capital of the mighty State of Shu and be understood fiiii-iiiine). Not the dialect of the city, say the parenthetical words, and she is definitely not. 川妹, in fake Vera Moda jacket, soft fakeleather S·DEER with cardboard soles, t-shirt reads: VENICE VIP CLUB and has a picture of a red sportscar on it. 川妹, whose neck smells like blueberry candy but.... X, who comes off the Skytrain, sweeps down the steps with the smell of the place wrapped up in her hair. ---- As the dinner rush peaks, the kitchen is filled with the wokspit blaze of vaporized oil infused with fried brown pork fat and green onion and garlic and ginger (look: meat and the 五辛菜, the family of acrid flavors that are absented from the diet of the devout Buddhist for their tendency to "excite the senses"). She stands in front of a black wok protected by a moat of oily water. The caller stands under the single airconditioner, reading off tickets in southern-accented Mandarin---- The smell concentrates here: ...at the point where her collarbone meets and opens / I get an image of a woman pshhhhhing a spray of perfume onto her throat at the same point... the top of her head, the black and white whirlpool of hair... oil and green onion. ---- 油: 肉, 葱, 蒜, 姜. ---- One night, I cook her dinner in my apartment. Dented, burned up white stove with weak grey burners. Shredded beef and cumin seeds that popped in the hot oil. Peashoots and garlic. Clouds of dried seaweed, clouds of egg in salty broth. When I pulled her down beside me, she beaked her nose in my hair and said, You smell like my mom. ---- But. ---- Before she can step into the shower, I peck at her hair, pet her, kiss the oil off her forehead, peck my nose into that collarbone ravine and sniff and sigh, 真香啊. The staff meal flavors of green onion and cumin and the 东北 chef's special, pungent 炸酱 (kept in an old dill pickle jar, spooned over noodles just boiled soft and just barely coated with starched water before the sauce is painted on)... lingering in the oil on her forehead and... undressing her, shirt over arms... below those raised arms... and kneeling on the floor... below her breasts and in the small of her back. 香啊, 真香啊. G, who invites me to sit on the edge of her bed, in her one room apartment, a converted living room in a carved up old house on Three Road. She smiles down with her dark face and pulls her nightstand out as a table. On her desk, beside a stack of books and a jar of Pengzhou pickled chilies, she has a Yoplait container of chili oil. Lid peeled back, the small room is full of the smell of heat and anise and sesame. 香闺秀阁. She jots out the creaking door, down to the shared kitchen, comes back with a Tupperware container of just-yellow noodles. Noodles homemade by the woman from Henan, who lives down the hall, in a tiny back bedroom. Noodles just dipped in boiling water, then left to cool and get gummy. The bright red oil, infused with chili and cassia and anise and cardamom and black pepper and Sichuan peppercorn and sesame greases the starched noodles, until they can be swirled around in the Tupperware. We pull pickled chilies out of the jar with chopsticks scavenged from meals at the Public Market. Clink. Clink. Chopsticks on glass and the sound of the couple across the hall, arguing.
Pleasantly dated Mandopop. Beer posters. Folk art. Lights too bright. Aquarium. A quick repaint. Stripmall architecture.
葱香腰花 and 千层猪耳-- products of the butchershop.
Kidneys perfumed with
a basic, canonical dish (I think) of pork kidney sliced to open, bloom when it hits oil.
Floral kidney, flowershaped kidney. Heaped with green onions as greenfragrant as mulch pulled out of the bag of a mower, as a garbage back of shake. The secretly pleasant pissy smell disappearing under fresh mown scallion. Also green: stemmy stewed slices of celtuce dipped among the kidney scallops, caped with green onion.
Thousand-layer pig ear... Biblepaperthin pork ear: seethrough skin and white cartilage. Cold as ice. The sensation of: ice cold + chili heat, ice cold + vinegar sour, ice cold + pork fatskin thicknesscreaminess, ice cold + black bean pungent. (I once read a poem by Wang Dilei, about swimming in the Yellow River, which tells us about a girl who climbs back on the muddy beach with her brassiere soaked through and "as transparent as pig ear"). The chili oil squeaks with those undefinable dusty tastes produced by dried spices that I don't know the name of (start with anise, then cardamom, then move down the list until you can't name anymore) that remind me of the smell of licorice and Swisher Sweets and perfume.
Digression: Chengdu vs. Chongqing... or in contemporary parlance 成都PK重庆... or, to quote from my own translation: "Talking about the difference between Chongqing cuisine and Chengdu cuisine looks insane to someone from outside the province. I hear them asking, 'Isn't it all Sichuan food?' To be honest, the two cuisines look about the same. The type of dishes that both cities make is about the same. But people from Sichuan know that there is a huge difference.
"Chongqing food reminds one of the geography of the city: big mountains, big rivers. The food is like a big gulp of fresh mountain air. But Chengdu food calls to mind a traditional courtyard home set in a bamboo grove, with a small stream murmuring away in the background. Chengdu food is a beautiful daughter of a humble family. The appeal of Chengdu food seems to be hidden away inside. What do these differences mean? If you asked a chef from Chengdu and a chef from Chongqing to cook the same dish, the end result would be two very different dishes!
"The people of Chengdu see themselves as slightly more refined than the people of the rest of the province. In Chengdu, people order food according to set rules of cuisine. The chefs in Chengdu don't dare stray from the menu. When a chef in Chengdu cooks twice-cooked pork, every step must be followed closely, from choosing the meat to making the exact cut to adding ingredients to setting the heat on the stove. Every restaurant in Chengdu claims that their chef is a graduate of the Sichuan Culinary Institute. In Chengdu, dishes become more refined each time they are cooked; there are more rules to follow when preparing them; but they become better as time goes by."2
Chengdu, dishes refined; techniques refined. Chongqing, what's new and what tastes good? Chengdu is the Bowie version of "China Girl" (mincing pastiche), and Chongqing is the Iggy Pop version (unhinged, violent).
The development of Chongqing's new cuisine follows the timeline of economic development in the south. Chongqing had a network of restaurants that became hot overnight, word of them spread via taxi drivers, who knew the chill places to eat. A small restaurant, helmed by a chef with no special training, produces a new dish that is guaranteed to catch interest, like a dish of chicken that promises to be ready to eat less than five minutes after the chicken sucks its last breathe, or over-the-top mixtures of blood and offal. Contemporary, now-canonical dishes like waterboiled fish (水煮鱼) or fish with pickled mustard (酸菜鱼), even if the method is old as hell, emerged from the late-'80s/'90s new cuisine of Chongqing.
"These Chongqing creations have something in common: the majority came from itinerant chefs who had never received training. Their creations were cult classics. They were nothing like the fussy old dishes of Chengdu. Those new dishes had little in common with a dish from Chengdu, like the classic tea leaf and camphor-smoked duck. Chongqing was all about lots of oil, lots of chili (sometimes more chili peppers than edible food). It was all about big flame, big pot, big plate. When it came to eating the dishes, the style was equally rough and tumble. Look at Springwater Chicken: a big plate of chicken with the head, liver, neck all mixed up together. It's not rare to find feathers stuck in there, too. The dish represents the outlaw spirit of the Chongqing people. In Chongqing, they say what they mean."
But. "But Chengdu cuisine is a treasurehouse of classical Sichuan dishes. The best dishes have been constantly improved. Every facet of the culinary experience has been subject to constant tinkering. In Chengdu, everything has been elevated to an artform, from selecting the best ingredients to honing cooking methods to restaurant service and management. Classical dishes are not so much about individual chefs or restaurants as they are about the character of the city. ... Chengdu customers and chefs are aware of the smallest details of even a simple stirfried dish, such as twice-cooked pork. A Chengdu chef could turn out a lengthy essay on the intricacies of the dish. The art of its preparation would be passed down from master to apprentice, for generations. In Chongqing, a chef would summarize twice-cooked pork like this: meat, chilies, bean paste. That's it; that's all. Even in the smallest restaurant in Chengdu, a plate of stirfried spinach is spectacular. If you wandered over the whole of the country, you would never find its equal. In Chengdu, they say that stirfrying vegetables is very difficult. You could not find anyone to agree with that statement in Chongqing. In Chongqing, they do not worry about the intricacies of cooking vegetables. I won't even bother mentioning what a plate of stirfried vegetables is like in Beijing. ... With every dish they cook, a Chengdu chef is careful to ask, what goes into it? what kind of pot should be used? how hot should the flame be? how do I garnish the dish? how should the plate be placed on the table? how should the table be decorated? But in Chongqing, the food comes out mixed up on a big plate. The waitress carries it out of the kitchen with her thumb stuck in your soup. When you see that, you can imagine how the food was cooked. When you talk about Chengdu food, you are talking about homestyle dishes and street food that has been refined for decades or centuries to its present state.
"It would take a month of solid eating to sample all of the generations-old dishes of the Chengdu streets. But the street food of Chongqing pales in comparison. Very few are from before the 1930s, and many were invented elsewhere.... Because the inventions of Chongqing cuisine never stick around for long, the chefs of the city never pay much attention to refining them.
"They say that Brother Zhu, who invented fish with pickled mustard, lived the high life for a few years but is now back to to his tiny roadside restaurant, waiting for the customers to come back."
(It's interesting to think that Sichuan cuisine as we know it (the canonical dishes, etc.), was a product of the last thirty years. The methods are very old but there are dishes that we know the names of, which are on the menus of restaurants on four, five continents, which were created a decade ago, two decades ago. I guess this is what is meant by 新派川菜, the four characters that Chuanxiangge use to describe their food, newstyle Sichuan food).
I'm from Chongqing but the guys in the kitchen, they're all from Chengdu, she says.
Your server was: Phoebe.
Phoebe, with mismatched apron and jeans and soft pink sweater and collars climbing her neck. Phoebe, who each time I arrive says, 你很久没来了!-- has it really been that long?
Phoebe, this is as much about her as it is about stripmalls or pig ear.
Phoebe, who is a utopian, who believes first and foremost in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.
Phoebe, who glows like a porcelain doll. Phoebe, who embodies a certain ideal of feminine beauty. Phoebe, who can be described in crude terms of, say, proportion-- the way her improbably big eyes light up over a perfectly cut nose, or something like that-- but, why would you want to? She glows. She is beautiful.
Phoebe, who is a utopian, who believes first and foremost on the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, the "end of the age" (Matthew 24:3), when everything will be swept away and... but for now, she believes in the utopian possibilities of urban melting pots: Hong Kong or Shenzhen or Vancouver, where everyone seems young and... "Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth'" (Genesis 11:3) but the outcome is the opposite, she hopes, and people will be gathered, gathered, gathered into a new world.
Phoebe, who has perfect teeth, oh, but, except one grooved by a habit of cracking sunflower seeds. Phoebe, who I walk home with my eyes closed for, so that I might describe her better here.
I'm from Chongqing but the guys in the kitchen, they're all from Chengdu, she says.
A dish from Chongqing: 歌乐山辣子鸡, Geleshan-style chicken with chilies. New cuisine classic, Chongqing-style. Zoom in to Sichuan, in to Chongqing, into Shapingba District, in to a town called Geleshan. Taxi drives would congregate up there, look for something to eat after running tourists up to Lin Garden, a sorta lowrent forest park, with an oxygen bar and some statues dedicated to revolutionary martyrs. A place nearby, over by a nearby tourist trap preserved old town, came up with this dish.... It's a dish with a history of only a couple decades, but clearly comes from a greater tradition of Sichuan cuisine.
At Chuanxiangge, then, the chicken has been cut up on the bone, oil-puffed. Bony 1/10th size McNuggets. Haystack of red chili. Charred ginger. Wings of anise. Whole cloves of garlic wearing scorched brown jackets to protect innards as soft and white as bocconcini. The smokiness of the dry pan. The oil drags the flavor of the dish around, turns dark yellow.
A dish from Chengdu: 夫妻肺片, husband-and-wife lung slices... the idea of refining simple food, homestyle food, street food.... Chengdu was one of the largest, most advanced cities on the planet for a long, long time, so street food in the city has a history of thousands of years... when Chengdu took off again at the end of the Qing Dynasty, right around the turn of the century, the streets of Chengdu were home to teams of roving food sellers, moving through the city with baskets or pots balanced on poles, selling cheap meals to the laborers that moved the city.... The story is that Chinese Muslim butchers tossed the guts and heads and feet of the cattle they butchered and it got picked up by entrepreneurs, who boiled the stuff, the 废片, the waste pieces, with anise, peppercorn, whatever, then sliced it. They dressed it with sesame oil, chili oil, ground Sichuan peppercorn, whatever else. And the name, when it was eventually written down, was changed to 肺片 because lung slices sound better than garbage slices. And 夫妻 for the legendary husband and wife team that made it the best, if that's important.
The smell if not the taste of beef offal, of tongues and liver and stomach reminds me of an image that should be stuck in a footnote or in a note in the margins: slaughterhouse. (The stink of slaughterhouse: the barns up front that produced the undertone of grassy manure, the smell of blood that pooled on the floor and was unable to be sucked down fast enough by the wide drains, the smell of guts guts guts guts, the clean ice and meat smell of hanging sides in the freezer. After I'd gotten good enough with the knife and could stand under cattle that were freshly skinned and hanging above me, showering blood, I had the task of cutting around their thick necks, leaving the esophagus hanging down, tossing the head over to the head line, ducking back to secure the esophagus with a rubber band. Or, staring across the conveyor-belted gut line, dragging kidneys and livers and spleen into the black bucket with my right hand and dragging knife-knicked viscera and lungs and esophagus and other scraps, 废片, into the red bucket with my left hand).
At Chuanxiangge, then, papery beef stomach and tongue, with a butcher shop right next door to you while you're eating it, so you know that it's real. The stink is nothing like the creaking, winking of fermentation, or the stink of large intestine that can be described on some days as a funny slap bass riff or as a Sunn O))) drone. I smell and see slaughterhouse and barns. Not an aversion but a deeply felt association, still.
The deep roar and crackle of chili oil and ground peppercorn and the chirpy background of green onion and sesame and cilantro only intensify the beef guts smell.
Another ceramic tureen, ordered off a Sharpie and cardboard list of specials: milky soup, a dip of spoon shows it to be starchy thick. Without digging much further, slightly boney whitefish and discs of potato and pickled green chilies. Every flavor has an association, and this reminds me of salt cod and potatoes, or even fish and chips with vinegar, with neon spice glazed over everything, sparkling with the associated, imagined vinegar. At the bottom, a nest of broad bean starch noodles, softening and releasing their own tasteless taste, coating themselves with potato starch and the fish skin.
川 -- [chuān] river; Sichuan Province. Picture of water flowing. Sometimes written 巛 as a component in other characters. Compare 水 shuǐ 'water', 州 zhōu 'land'.
香 -- [xiāng] perfume; fragrant. From 禾 hé 'grain' over 日 rì, which was originally 甘 gān 'sweet'. "The sweet odor of grain" --Karlgren.
阁 -- [gé] pavilion; women's chamber. From 门 / 門 mén 'door' and 各 gè phonetic.
Rabbit heads. 五香辣子兔头, five spice rabbit head with chilies.
The first time I ate rabbits heads: a seven floor restaurant in Shenzhen, where each floor was devoted to a different school of Chinese cuisine. The 川菜 floor was decorated like the country villa of a retired Tang bureaucrat. There was calligraphy on the walls, broad and messy paintings of imaginary grey mountains with foamy spurts of waterfall coming off them. The waitresses were all Sichuanese. They were 北妹, northern girls, the catchall term for girls from Sichuan and Hunan and further north that come down to the Pearl River Delta to find jobs and screw around and make money and have a bit of freedom. One of the cold appetizers to start a multicourse meal was Shuangliu-style rabbit heads, named after a county an hour's drive from downtown Chengdu. (In Chengdu, I think, rabbit heads are associated with trips to the outskirts of Chengdu's sprawling territory, to places like Shuangliu-- and not to any specific place, I think, but in the last ten years, the name 双溜 and 老妈 have become associated with 兔头, and 双流老妈兔头 even has a branch in Beijing. Sichuan restaurants, whether in Chengdu or Chongqing or wherever, are experts at branding). The dish came to the table with the rabbit heads arranged around a centerpiece of dyed, carved radish flowers and carrot tridents stuck down their throats, a sprinkling of black and white sesame seed on top of them. Over the top. But, stripping away the carved vegetables, the same as you see them at...
...a Chengdu riverside snack stall (what do they call them? 冷淡杯?), braising in a pot, beside chicken feet and wings and beside a pan of stirfried snails...
...or at Chuangxiangge, the heads marinated and braised with anise and cassia and peppercorn and dark soy and returned to a pan for a quick toss with a ladle of oil, a toss of chilies... a plate full of rattling rabbit skulls, draped with dark brown anise-scented ragged zombie flesh. I remember, in Xuzhou, the dog meat butchers, set up near the train station with their baskets of braised dog meat, with a dog skull resting on top-- it's the real deal, see? Those rabbit heads, bobbling in chili oil, reminded me of those long, angular canine skulls, miniaturized, nibbling little front teeth instead of fangs.
At Chuanxiangge, the obliging waitress (see above) stands to my right and gives a quick lesson on snapping them open, on nibbling away at the meat wrapping the cranium (nibbling away with my one two front rabbit teeth), on licking out the creamy chunk of brain. The point is the complex deconstruction as much as it is the flavor, the gently teasing apart of joints, cracking bones to get at soft innards, tearing it down. Grappling. Getting a mouthful of bones and carefully nudging them to the tip of your tongue and then spitting them onto an empty plate.
粉蒸排骨... "spareribs dredged in seasoned rice flour and steamed (Sichuan)," according to a reliable dictionary. A study of the word soft. Like haute cuisine: "two textures." But instead of bringing out different textures in the same material, bringing out the same texture in different materials. Different materials: --- pork steamed and steamed until the fat floats out from the meat and sits in a cloud above it, before rolling down into the dish like a distilled gravy. The rice flour, shreds of chewed up rice, starch turn to the texture of, perhaps, oatmeal-- and what are they doing there? Oh, it's soaking up the juices of the meat as everything cooks. The pork turns mushy right down to the bone. The smashed rice picks up the clear distilled liquor. --- sweet potatoes, the platform, melting down into a twin softness. The steam that I nod in to breathe coats my cheeks in a thin layer of starchy steam.
Oh, but I wish I could somehow drag this food out of a salmon tablecloth, change tray, receipts-- on and on-- context, so that I wouldn't have to use tablecloth as the scale. Drag it outside on a rickety table, with two stretched canvas benches under them. Turn the parking lot into a 坐场-- look at the collection of tables and patchy grass and asphalt around the edges. Smoke. Smoke. The smell of boiled, steamed food. Rip the front off of the place and the kitchen is still in there and there's still a place to go if it rains. The smoke and smell still slips out the wide opened wall. The smoke rises above the 坐场, rises until there's a lit up column of clean white smoke (kitchen, grill, cigarettes) visible from the Skytrain. A face turns to the Skytrain window, sees the column of clean white smoke. Cars could only float by, pushed back and back by pedestrian arteries, forced further and further to main traffic arteries. (Instead, I always get the feeling of being strapped in, of being confined by highbacked chairs and tablecloth and whatnot, when the food really needs a fresh air and a kitchen roaring and cussing spitting roaring feet away from you). -- (Instead, the streets are silent).
1 -- Various parts of this longer collection of fragments have appeared in other forms, other places, just so you know.
2 -- From a frequently circulated and currently anonymous essay, "重庆菜和成都菜之大不同." (Available here: http://www.huaxia.com/jxtf/bswh/00213260.html)
Richmond, BC V6X