Each dish has a story

     A cold and rainy day outside, we are glad to see the warm smile of the manager who seems to be always working. My family often eats at Margaret Kuo’s, and, this Sunday, we eagerly anticipate a mid-day feast. Only being four, we are not enough to merit a lazy susan; thus, we sit at a small square table by a window on which drops of rain collect. I never look at the menu when we eat at Chinese restaurants, for my mother knows all the best dishes. So while she reads the menu, I busy myself with the two small plates that have just arrived. One contains fresh cucumber, a Chinese favourite; the other, salty peanuts. Shortly after, a white porcelain pot of Jasmine tea arrives. While the common Chinese for this tea is mo li hua cha, literally Jasmine flower tea, my mother’s family has always called it xiang pian, which means fragrant slice tea. As far as I can tell, this is a very archaic name, and I have never been able to use it with anyone other than my mother, whose family exclusively drinks Jasmine tea.

     As I am very close with my sister, we chat excitedly about her semester in California. We discuss her English courses in college, which teach Chaucer and other Medieval authors. While we talk, the first dish of the meal arrives: xiao long bao. Served in a wooden steamer, the xiao long bao dumpling contains soup inside of it. The arrival of these dumplings reminds me of my family’s summer in Beijing we lived in an apartment; we lived like locals. About five minutes away, we often walked to a xiao long bao shop across the plaza from us. Beijing was hot and dry. On the edge of a desert, the city always collected dust, except when the High Officials seeded the clouds and downpours ensued. Unused to the new rains permitted by technology, the city’s streets flooded. More often than not, however, dust ruled the city. The constant construction of Beijing also created a lot of the dry dirt. While walking to the xiao long bao shop, we would walk past an active construction site. Most likely destined to be an office building, the workers had only just begun construction, and they had only built their housing. Unlike the US, workers live on construction sites for weeks while they build. I still remember the light blue, dust covered bunkhouse.

     Not long after the arrival of the xiao long bao, the waiter brings another plate of dumplings. Potstickers are very different from xiao long bao fried, not steamed; long, not short; open-ended, not enclosed. While they cook most types of Chinese dumplings, Margaret Kuo’s does not actually sell my mother’s favourite style. Originally from Shandong, my mother’s family ate boiled dumplings. Her grandfather, my great grandfather, had left their ancestral home in Shandong to start a grain exchange and a porcelain kiln in Manchuria. Every year, just before New Year, he would gather all his employees, the kiln workers, the truck drivers, the shop clerks, along with his family, and they would all make dumplings. For three days, in the harsh Manchurian winter, through snow storms, they would make dumplings. The outside temperature would be so low that any dumplings left outside would freeze immediately. For three days, after they had made thousands of dumplings, they would eat a great feast. The true Shandong style New Year’s feast — only boiled dumplings, and lots of them. Then all of his employees would have a month holiday to return to their families; he would bring his family back to Shandong for the New Year.

     The Shandong peninsula, meaning “Mountain East,” sticks out into the sea just south of Beijing. It is a mystical, spirit half-island from which immortals depart. Lush, green, temperate, and filled with garlic farms, Shandong is known for nice people, simple food, buns, and many dumplings. My family has once been to Shandong, in order to visit the fountain from which we have sprung. We found the old style dumplings. Coarse chopped meat and small home-made dumpling skins, these were not the mass produced items consumed by the masses. Unlike the Southerners, the people of Shandong ate more wheat than rice. They consumed lots of noodles, buns, and dumplings. These dumplings had not changed since the age of Confucius. Shandong was, in fact, the homeland of Confucius and birthed much of Chinese culture. I remember driving past fields of garlic, each farm had a pile drying out by the road, past old traditional houses, each made of brick with terracotta roofs, past a little row of trees, each with lush emerald green leaves. Then a small temple hidden around a corner, came into view; built in the Song Dynasty, the temple worshipped the Yellow Emperor. The architecture differs from that of most Chinese temples — it is older and, thus, more stylized. The Red Guard had not touched this sacred place, but upon closer inspection, they had. The temple bears smashed poetry tablets and beheaded statues of scholars as the scars of war. Behind the temple lurked another sign of modern changes: a large stone pyramid built by the Communists after the end of the Cultural Revolution.

     Walking back to the car, we noticed one more modern addition — poetry carved into a free standing stone, words bathed in red ink. The Poet admonished the Red Guard and decried the damage done, the beauty destroyed, the knowledge lost. While the Central Government has slowly become more critical of the Cultural Revolution, such protest would not be allowed anywhere but in a small town in Shandong. All Chinese share a love of poetry. Scholars pursue poetry to form subtle expressions of great ideals. A famous poem lines the wall of Margaret Kuo’s. The poem describes solitude with the company of only the moon and a shadow. My mother explains this to me as our third dish arrives.

     The gong sounds, and the harbinger shouts. The chef carries the duck on a platter, then proceeds to carve it. Margaret Kuo’s has a very traditional preparation of Peking Duck. The pancakes are house-made and small and remind me of Beijing. Again sitting by a window, but on a sunny day with a breeze blowing through the open window. Nuage had an open dining room with wood paneling, wood tables, and wood chairs. Peking Duck was one of their specialties, along with many other Palace Cuisine dishes. The Emperor ate very differently from the commoner. Every night he would have a feast so large that he could not see all the dishes on his table. Some say that the cooks would only put the best dishes close to him, because he would not touch the far away plates. All the food would be in a rich sauce, with fatty meats, and fresh vegetables. Nuage preserved this luxurious style.

     Through that open window, sitting in Nuage, we could see Houhai. The man-made lake was, in the Chinese style, given such a grand name as “Back Sea.” The entire area of Houhai had once been the gardens of the Emperor. Since the upheaval, it has become the residences of various Party Elite. My great grandfather still worked in Manchuria when the revolution started to take hold. When it became clear that the Republic would lose Manchuria, his family fled south; again in Shandong, the Republic lost, and they fled south; again in Shanghai, they fled south; again in Guangzhou, they fled south; finally to Taiwan, they were ever fearful. Eventually, each one of them made it to America. Thus, we sit together in Margaret Kuo’s, enjoying a delicious meal which echos with centuries of meaning. As we get our check and walk out to our car, the sun now shining on drying puddles, I know that, even through trying, changing times, there will always be my family and our food.

-Chris Williams, The Haverford School, Class of 2017

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