Shanghai Welcome

“China slips through my fingers,” I wrote in my journal my first full morning in Shanghai.  I had just wakened to the clatter of bulldozers outside my window, something that would become familiar in my subsequent trips to this city, which is ever undergoing almost constant growth and change.  My workmates and I were staying at the Howard Johnson’s in Pudong, the high-tech district of Shanghai cluttered with dull grey office buildings built for work and business, far away from the bright lights and glamour of downtown and the Bund.

As odd as it seemed then to be staying at a Howard Johnson’s in China, it seems quite fitting in retrospect. After all, the American chain – which began as a soda fountain in a drugstore, then morphed into a large chain of restaurants before expanding into a constellation of roadside motels– is synonymous with 60’s-era travel and hospitality in the US.  The iconic orange roofs, cupolas, and weather vanes a reminder of the promise of the open highway and the road.  Finding myself now flung some 7,500 miles from home, I appreciated the comfort and familiarity of the place, and its nostalgia for a different time.

Over subsequent trips, I would grow more comfortable in Shanghai, it would become my sister city of some 25 million souls. I would discover its many treasures and come to feel tentatively at home in a place so utterly foreign to me. Much of this comfort came from the hospitality of our work colleagues there – strangers, really, who welcomed us as family, sparing no effort in sharing their city with us, most often over meals enjoyed around a lazy Susan that built the bridges between our diverse cultures. 

After many a work day, we’d take a cab to a nearby family restaurant and grab a seat at one of the big round tables scattered around the room. I’d wait as my Chinese colleagues ordered, and then watch as the elevated disc in the middle of the table was filled with exotic-sounding dishes such as Da Zha Xie (steamed crab), Beggar’s Chicken, Mapo Doufu (spicy stewed tofu), Jiya Xuetang (chicken and duck blood soup) and Xiaolongbao (delectable soup dumplings). “Try it!,” my work friends would say, rotating the tray around, encouraging me to sample a favorite dish. I loved the communal informality of dipping my chopsticks into any of the dishes that caught my eye, and placing bits of food into the little bowl in front of me to eat from.

At these meals, I’d try to sample all the dishes -- though some, admittedly, were beyond the limits of my experimentation. My favorite dish was the slippery wood ear salad, a popular dish served all over China, and one which my colleagues called simply, “fungus.” I couldn’t get enough of the refreshing mix of slightly chewy black mushrooms, glistening in a light dressing of chili pepper, oil, soy sauce and inky black Chinkiang vinegar. My hosts would watch with happy satisfaction as I munched away, eating bowl after bowl, sharing a love of a dish that formed a bond between us.

Chinese hospitality is legendary, the welcome of foreigners with food and drink a necessary element of any travel there. These meals we shared at table in Shanghai helped make China feel a bit more solid to me, a little less overwhelming. But I never really lost that slippery feeling. No matter how familiar I might become, I would always be a foreigner there, a stranger. But through this hospitality, extended and received, we could lessen the strangeness just a bit. And in its place enjoy a bond of contradiction and connection, a welcome both warm and wary.

 

Tale of Two Salads

Cooking can be a pleasure, can be a salve to a difficult day. 

I know this.  As TS Garp says in John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp,“If you are careful, if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane.”

I’ve certainly found this to be true, but it doesn’t always work out this way.  

One evening, after a taxing day at work, I wanted something nourishing to calm and restore my mood. Perusing one of my “go-to” cookbooks, I chose a salad with tomatoes, chickpeas, and a creamy yogurt sauce to complement the steelhead trout we were baking in the oven. This seemed like a good meal to cap the end of a day; the trout would come together in a snap, and the salad sounded simple enough, and on another day, I’m sure I would have found all of it delightful. But on this particular day, the recipe felt ponderous, with too many steps: season the tomatoes and let them sit over here, prepare the sauce and let it sit over there, bring together the chickpeas with the fresh herbs, then toss the whole thing together and serve. By the time we sat down to eat, I was cranky from the prep, not really hungry, and was actually feeling hostile toward the salad. In retrospect, it makes me laugh: Why was I so grouchy?  

 
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Preparing dinner the very next night, I vowed not to repeat that experience. Instead, I took a minute to check my frame of mind, and chose the meal I wanted to prepare with intention accordingly.  It’d been another harried day and, craving a pick-me-up, I again decided to make salad for dinner. This time, though, I tailored the meal to my tired-out mood. I made the salad the entire main course, piling the ingredients together in free-form fashion:  fresh greens at the base, with assorted extras on top straight from the fridge -- shavings of raw cauliflower, a handful of toasted pepitas, a few green olives, some crumbles of goat cheese, and thin slices of cold andouille sausage. 

Next, I sought to give some ballast to the salad with one tuck of something special in the bowl. For inspiration, I opened my well-worn copy of Laurel’s Kitchen, a classic vegetarian cookbook published in the 70’s. This had been one of my “go-to” cookbooks as a teenager, and just the sight of its simply-designed, dark-brown cover brought on a rush of memory of cooking dinner for my mom after she came home from work, just the two of us in the condo. Blue jeans, sandals, tank tops, music.  

 

 
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Thumbing through the pages, I found the recipe I was looking for, Laurel’s “Persian Rice Salad.” I hadn’t made the recipe in a long time, but I knew it would come together quickly through the ease of memory and steps. When it was done, it was just as I remembered it to be: a delicious combination of bland white rice balanced and flavored with the sharpness of scallions, the acidity of lemon, and the sweet smoothness of olive oil, dates and toasted cashews.

That week’s tale of two salads taught me a lesson that I want to remember. Sometimes, the answer to a hectic day is to lose yourself in a recipe with a bunch of ingredients and steps. This in itself can be cathartic and diverting. But there are also times when the answer is to keep it simple, with ingredients and steps that are mindless and few.  This can be rewarding, too.

And sometimes, the food itself is not even the point, it’s the memory or the feeling or something else altogether that you are seeking, that you find through the meal and the making.

Persian Rice Salad

Ingredients

2 cup cold rice (long-grain brown or white rice)

1 Tablespoon olive oil

3 Tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dill weed, by taste

1/2 teaspoon salt, optional

3 thin scallions, sliced thin

1/3 cup toasted cashews, or 1/3 cut toasted brined almonds

4 to 6 medium dates, cut up

Instructions

Dress rice with combined olive oil, lemon juice,  and dill weed. Add salt to taste. Combine with scallions, cashews (or almonds), and dates and serve immediately.  (If you can’t serve right away, set the cashews or almonds aside and add them just beforehand.

Makes 4 servings

Adapted from The New Laurel’s Kitchen, by Laurel Robertson, Carol Finders, and Brian Ruppenthal