Next week I’ll be giving a presentation at a meeting of the Nanjing University Graduate Students Association comparing my life in the US with my life in China.
So far, I think it’ll be a bit dull.
My life in the US: read historic archival documents.
My life in China: read historic archival documents.
I’m trying to come up with some ways to spice it up, but so far, I’m not coming up with much. The presentation itself is on Thanksgiving Day; when I pointed this out to the organizers (there are two other Americans presenting, I just thought they should be aware of this), they said, “Oh, so you can talk about that holiday, then.”
Yeah, okay. Really, it’s not like I had other plans for Thanksgiving. I’ll make some mashed potatoes just because I can, and also because I think that is the only Thanksgiving staple I’d be able to put together in my kitchen. If it is possible to bake a pumpkin pie with a bamboo steamer and a wok, I certainly don’t know how to do it. (Ah, where’s Martha when you need her? Jail.) Actually, I can’t think of anyplace nearby (meaning closer than Shanghai) that sells pumpkin anyway.
To thank me in advance for my presentation (excellent thinking, in my mind, because they may not want to thank me anymore after I make it) two of the organizers took me out to dinner the other night. We went in a local restaurant, and we just sat around chatting over our dishes (spicy tofu, some assorted Chinese greens, a sort of egg omelet, spicy fish, and a mushroom and chicken soup). That place must not get a lot of foreigners, though, because when we were getting ready to leave they told us to hang on, they were going to give us a special Nanjing dish free of charge.
When the dish came, it consisted of some transparent noodles, bean sprouts, an unidentified but very clearly gray meat, and some “hei dofu”, that is, dark colored tofu. Actually, in the US you don’t see a lot of dark tofu, but I’m used to it from Taiwan, where it can be had in spades. I remember when I first tried it in Taipei a few years back; after I got over the initial disappointment that it was not, as I had hoped, made from chocolate soy milk, I thought it was fine. (For chocolate flavored soy treats, one must visit a “douhua” stand. Just so you know.) Tastes just like regular white tofu, actually, which is to say, it tastes like nothing.
My two dinner companions praised the choice of dish, called it “very special”, and insisted I attack it all alone. I was already pretty full, but in the interest of politeness, I picked up my chopsticks and got to work. The noodles turned out to be made from yams, whereas I’d only had this kind of noodle made from mung beans, so that was new. We had a reasonably dull conversation about the bean sprouts while I tried to practice being both polite and vegetarian by picking around the scary gray meat, and ate several pieces of tofu.
Watching me reach for another piece, one of my friends said, “How do you like the yaxie?” I wasn’t clear what she was referring to, so she pointed to the tofu, “The yaxie. It’s special in Nanjing. Do you like it?” At this point, I was wracking my brain for any kind of tofu product that contains a word sounding like ya or xie, and sadly, coming up empty. With a heavy heart, I finally asked how “yaxie” was translated into English. “Oh you know,” she answered, “duck blood.”
I’d been eating congealed duck blood, thinking it “safer” than the gray meat.
I put down my chopsticks and tried very, very hard to sound natural as I announced I had eaten so much already, I really couldn’t eat another bite. Really.
My new friends weren’t fooled. What evolved was one of those classic conversations where there is clearly a cultural gap that cannot be breached.
“But you were eating the duck blood, you like it.”
“No, I liked it when it was tofu.”
“But it wasn’t ever tofu, it was always duck blood.”
“But when I thought it was tofu, it tasted like tofu. When I knew it was duck blood, it tasted like blood.”
“It didn’t change, it tastes the same.”
“Yes, but now I can taste the blood.”
“But it was blood before.”
“But then it was blood disguised as tofu, so I couldn’t taste it.”
“It was never disguised, it was always just duck blood.”
“No, but I didn’t know it was blood.”
“But it was still blood.”
“I just can’t eat blood.”
“But you were eating blood.”
“Yes, but that was because it was tofu.”
“Blood is not tofu.”
“No. That’s the problem.”
“It wasn’t a problem when you were eating it.’
“It was a problem, I just didn’t know it yet.”
It finally ended with me teaching them that famous English idiom, “ignorance is bliss”, which I translated into Chinese as, “It’s better not to know what you’re eating.”
Along the way, I did accidentally get a bite of the gray meat, which turned out to be Nanjing’s other famous delicacy, pressed duck. I’m not sure what it is with duck in China; I sense that every current or former Chinese capital gets a part of the bird to cook in it’s own unique way. Beijing is famous, of course, for Peking roast duck. Nanjing has both the duck blood and the pressed duck. I wonder if Hangzhou and Chang’an (Xi’an) do anything special with bills or feet (jellied duck’s web, anyone?) So, how is the famous pressed duck? Awful. Tastes like death; there’s a reason I was so enthusiastic about the ‘tofu.’
That said, it is sold in marvelous vacuum packed bags, so I’ll be sure to bring a bag home at Christmas. We can put it out on the table at Grandma’s next to the meatballs, and not warn anyone not on this list what it is. Who knows, maybe the realization of being deprived of vital knowledge (like how bad pressed duck is) will gain me a few new “subscribers.”
Actually, what I was thinking about on the walk home from the restaurant was whether there was some sort of Chinese version of Better Homes and Gardens or Women’s Day that prints up classic recipes just like mom used to make. I was trying to picture how the Nanjing Congealed Duck’s Blood story would go:
“Now that the weather has turned cool again, it’s time for some good, old-fashioned congealed ducks blood. Drain the blood from two adult ducks, add gelatin (or, if there’s none available, simply pull the cartilage from one medium-sized cow knee), and set up on your stove to simmer. As the marvelous slaughterhouse-like aroma fills the air, let it take you back to all those childhood memories of being sent down to the countryside to Learn From The Peasants!
All day today (er, before now), I’ve been trying to get my mind off of the “duck blood incident.” My method for doing this is to read 1950s era US Information Agency (USIA) documents on how American propaganda was going to win the overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia for the Free World.
As I was reading today, I happened upon what I thought was an idea with real promise. In 1953, the some bright, young American Public Affairs Officers set up a thriving book club in Vietnam and Cambodia. The idea was that by using the informal, congenial atmosphere of a discussion group and interesting but clearly anti-communist novels, they could somehow Win Indochina For The West. The real pity is that we never got to see how this, the peaceful solution, would work out; a year leader the French would go down not quite in a blaze of glory in Dien Bien Phu and the real mess would start to heat up.
My thought is this: with all the clamoring for a peaceful solution in the Middle East, why not revive this bright idea? Okay, clearly we are militarily entangled, but that doesn’t prevent us from working on a parallel, more peaceful approach. Its just the sort of the thing my old roommate Dana, the highly confrontational peace studies student who couldn’t get along with anybody, would be out advocating. Just in case I’ve got something here, I say we send Oprah to Iraq and Afghanistan, wearing a flak jacket, with a couple thousand copies of “Tuesdays with Morrie.” It can’t hurt, anyway.
I leave you all with this, my thought for the day: “A Weasel Bit a Sick Duck”- Ancient Chinese Proverb meaning (essentially) when it rains, it pours
Two days later:
In a particularly fine example of “a weasel biting a sick duck”, my friend Matt now writes from Taipei to say that neither he nor anyone he knows has ever heard of “dark tofu.”
A Cross-Straits Investigation (mostly involving people in both Taiwan and China using “google” simultaneously, but requiring some basic fieldwork over on the Free China side) has revealed this: there is, in fact, a dark version of dried tofu (hei dou gan), which I ate with some frequency in Taipei. Odds are, however, that when it was not dried, but closer to the consistency of regular tofu, it was a duck blood product.
I had just always assumed, because dark soy milk and dark dried tofu do exist, that dark tofu was also a regular occurrence. I’d also learned early on at the hot pot restaurant to avoid the pig blood with rice cakes, and likely just assumed that all animal blood products looked alike and were therefore equally easily identifiable.
Obviously not so- essentially, this means that I’ve probably eaten the equivalent of the lifeblood of a good four or five ducks already, always (before now) none the wiser. If so, let me say this: it’s not bad in soup.
On the bright side, however, I’ve learned that duck blood is quite rich in vitamins.
That’s good; I’d hate to think I’d consumed all that duck blood and gotten absolutely no nutritional value from it, only so many empty calories.
So enough with the scary food stories.
Copyright 2004 by Meredith Oyen