Kitchen Chinese

Free Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah

Book: Kitchen Chinese by Ann Mah Read Free Book Online
Authors: Ann Mah
Tags: Chick lit, china, Asian Culture
centuries, closely packed and bustling with the smells and sounds of old Beijing.
    Chubby toddlers run in circles, their split potty-training trousers winking open to reveal bare bottoms. A small Pekinese prances along the gutter, enjoying his last gulps of freedom before being shut up, as Beijing law dictates, until evening. In a shady corner of the neighborhood’s playground a group of tiny wrinkled women stroke the air in the graceful motion of the Chinese martial art, tai chi. Their tranquil movements remind me of my mother’s mother, an elegant stiff-backed woman we called Laolao, who proclaimed the benefits of tai chi and a smoke-free lifestyle until her death at ninety.
    The exercise concludes and the group erupts into a cacophony of chatter. These gray-haired grannies certainly look vigorous as they mill about, swinging their arms and gulping deep breaths.
    I vow to reform my own high-fat, low-exercise existence, when I see them dive into their pockets and light up a tobacco field’s worth of cigarettes.
    I continue down the street until I reach a small stretch that’s lined with ramshackle storefronts. Here each step brings a different smell, first an acrid wave of cigarette smoke, then the reek of garbage, then the cozy, wafting scent of fried dough. It’s a reminder of how closely packed life is here, where generations share bedrooms, neighborhoods share bathrooms, and stacks of napa cabbage are stored next to trash heaps.
    I pause in front of a young woman who is deep-frying youtiao , long strips of dough, in an enormous, portable vat of boiling oil. As a kid, I used to eat these greasy, heavy wands of dough on Saturdays after Chinese school, accompanied by a salty bowl of soy milk and a stern lecture from my mother on my lack of discipline.
    The wet dough puffs and sizzles as it hits the oil’s scalding surface. The vendor, an unsmiling woman with a toddler clinging to her legs, stacks a pile of fried dough sticks and makes an impatient gesture with her tongs. “Ni yao bu yao?” she asks. Do you want one? Shaking my head, I continue down the street.
    I spot a crepe vendor and join the long line, admiring his compact, portable kitchen. He’s packed a coal-fired stove, grimy buckets of batter, and bowls of chopped cilantro and hot sauce onto the back of a three-wheeled cart, ready to be pedaled away at a moment’s notice. I watch as he swirls batter onto a flat griddle and delicately distributes a raw egg across the surface. After a jaunty flip, he sprinkles the other side with sesame seeds, cilantro, scallions, brushes it with a dark sauce, and adds a thin sheet of fried dough before folding the pancake into a square and tucking it into a wisp of plastic bag.
    The line in front of me shuffles with hungry impatience, but the vendor’s movements remain unhurried. I admire the artful twist of his wrist as he spreads the batter into a large, paper-thin crepe, the flick of his spatula as he turns it over, the meditative sprinkle of sesame seeds. By the time it’s my turn, the long line has shrunk. As he pours a scoop of batter onto the griddle, I gesture at the griddle and ask, “Zhongwen zenme shuo?” How do you say it in Chinese?
    “Jianbing!” he replies with a glance that’s at once hostile and curious. I brace myself for the inevitable question. “Na guo ren?” Where are you from?
    “I’m Chinese but I have an American passport.” I rattle off the words in Mandarin. Geraldine taught me the phrase last week and already it’s proved to be indispensable, short and tidy, though not strictly accurate.
    “Mm.” He concentrates on turning the crepe.
    “Are jianbing from Beijing?”
    He snorts a scornful laugh, and for a moment I consider snatching the pancake from the griddle and running for the hills. But then I picture Ed’s impatient face as he shouts, “What do you mean you were afraid of the street food vendor? Are you a bloody pansy?”
    Switching tactics, I smile broadly and try again.

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