For those who use the lunar calendar, today is the first day of a new year. Buddhist tradition in some Asian countries includes a type of annual zodiac that identifies years by 12 different animals, and this is now the Year of the Rat.
I just received an email from a food-related site I follow (Gastro Obscura) relating that a common treat for celebrating the New Year is a stick of candy-coated hawthorn berries–large berries that look like crab apples, the article related. This caught my eye because I first read about these treats, which the article identified as a tanghulu, when I was a child. My mom had given me one of her favorite volumes from childhood, a book titled Little Pear, about a young boy growing up in China. The book had spelled the word tanghooler, but that could simply reflect a difference in the region where the story was set. (For example, the accent in Beijing adds an “r” to the end of a lot of words–kind of like a Boston accent). Anyway, Little Pear loved tanghoolers.
Several years ago, I posted about one of my trips to China, and in that post I mentioned having been very excited to see someone near the outdoor food market in Wuhan selling this treat. Because the hawthorn berries look like crab apples, that was what I’d always assumed they were. And perhaps because of the heavy, bright red candy coating, I couldn’t really confirm that the round fruit lined up on that stick weren’t crab apples. But either way, I was very pleased to have come across this treat from my childhood reading.
It wasn’t Chinese New Year when I was in Wuhan, so I’m guessing it’s a treat that can appear any time there is something to celebrate. But it pleased me then to see (and taste) the tanghoolers, and it pleased me today to encounter them in the Gastro Obscura article. Always a fun surprise to see threads that connect different parts of one’s life. Anyway, here again is the image I posted years ago of the man selling tanghoolers in the market in Wuhan.
It’s interesting how sometimes years of experiences and ideas are brought together in a moment, and a larger picture suddenly comes into focus. That is what happened to me recently at a lecture and cooking demonstration by Grace Young that focused on her remarkable book Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Authentic Recipes and Stories.
Some of the threads that this presentation tied up stretch back decades. My mom had grown up going to Chicago’s Chinatown with her father, and so it seemed only natural that she would introduce my brother and me to Chinese food early in life. Later, when I visited San Francisco, the existence of a Chinatown just seemed natural. Even Chinatowns in Vancouver and Toronto seemed natural to me, because they weren’t that much different from the Chinatown with which I’d grown up.
Then about 15 years ago, I visited a friend in Austria. She wanted to go to a “China restaurant.” For some reason, it struck me as odd that people in a Chinese restaurant would be speaking German, but then I realized that for the Chinese, it was probably no odder than speaking English. The food was good, the flavors recognizable, but it was different. Then a few years later, I was visiting friends in Ecuador. Again, I came across Chinese food, again, recognizable but different. Then recently, shopping at an Indian grocery store in Chicago, I found prepared meals identified as “Indian-style Chinese.” Continue reading
Tea Bushes in Japan
Remember saying you wouldn’t trade something for all the tea in China? Well as it turns out, there is quite a lot of tea in China—more than a million metric tons in 2006, as a matter of fact. As impressive as that is, China now jockeys for first place with India, which sometimes pulls into the lead, but even when behind, is close to the same quantity of tea. So with the world consumption of tea just a little over 3 million metric tons per year, these two countries are clearly the biggest players—though they are by no means the only players. However, of all the countries producing tea today, China has the longest history.
Camellia sinensis, otherwise known as tea, actually originated in China. Legends place its first use somewhere around 2700 B.C.—but interestingly, the legends are so mundane that scholars think it likely they relate closely to the truth. The story goes that an early Chinese emperor instituted the practice of boiling drinking water to make it safe. Wherever he traveled in his realm, his servants would boil all the water that he and his entourage would need. At one point, in some small village, leaves blew into the boiling water, et voilà, tea was born. (An alternative version of the legend has this same health-conscious emperor intentionally adding different leaves to his boiling water, to see which ones might have medicinal properties.) Continue reading
It is interesting sometimes to consider the threads that run through one’s life. We all have interests we’ve accumulated that have nothing to do with what has gone before, but there can be a special gladness in making connections from old loves to new.
When I was a child, one of my favorite books was Little Pear, which had been my mother’s book when she was a child. It related the adventures of a little boy growing up in China. I remember quite vividly Little Pear’s favorite treat, something the story identified as a tang hulur, half-a-dozen crab apples on a stick, all dipped in candy. Of the many things I saw in China during my first visit to the mainland, a vendor selling this simple child’s treat was certainly not the most astonishing, but it hit me with a jolt of delighted recognition that “bigger” sights did not offer. Eating one was like finding that a decades-old promise had been kept. Continue reading