Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends and family; or, more accurately for this blog readership, Happy Thanksgiving, Patch. I’ll be giving that Punkin Ale a good sippin’ tonight.
While you’re all gorging yourselves with turkey, and mashed potatoes, and Granny’s mac and cheese, and all the other delicious food that I would rather not think about right now, look in envy at my culinary treat: fresh, home-made dumplings, about as authentic and delicious as you can get. Now, anyone who knows me will tell you: I love me some dumplings. That goes double for good dumplings. And I can say, without exaggeration, that these were the best dumplings I’ve ever tasted! Keep in mind this is coming from a guy that’s been living in China for the past three months, where you can’t even walk down the street without tripping over good dumplings.
Now, even good dumplings have a kind of grey-matter paste of meat, veggies, and mushroom (yeah, you’d be surprised how often mushrooms are used to pad out a dumpling). That itself isn’t bad. Some dumplings just have a damn tasty brainpaste, others just kind of hopelessly throw in whatever garbage is lying around and hope you don’t notice. But these dumplings were different, because I went to one of Chikan’s (my local part of Zhanjiang) best markets. And let me tell you, shopping for groceries at Acme will forever pale in comparison.
Fresh. That’s the order of the day at Chinese markets. Farmers, butchers, fishermen, and other provender-providing folk travel into the city every day to hawk their wares. The result is an aggressive assault of sights and smells that make me want to give it all up and go to culinary school. Fresh veggies still dripping with water, whole pigs (and goats and cows and ducks and chickens and …) still bleeding on the butcher block, eggs – real, brown, small and large – nestled carefully in crates of hay, live chickens waiting for the guillotine of your finger to drop on them, tissue-thin wheat and rice noodles being rolled, chopped, and twisted, roots and herbs and all sorts of amazing-smelling things that make you pause, stop, smell, and appreciate the sensual mugging that is real food in a real market.
I can’t imagine making a meal without this element, and it makes me realize how sanitized and plastic food is in America. These markets provide such an intimate look at your food; it was a lot more gratifying to eat the pork dumplings when I saw the face of the pig that provided the pork, when I gave the cash for the onions and mushrooms and shrimp to the lady who (likely) planted, picked, harvested, and sold them.
Imagine putting Thanksgiving dinner together this way.
So with an arm full of fresh supplies, we brought the food back to my apartment and began to make dumplings, dough and stuffing and all. The afternoon was educational and a lot of fun, as I helped cook, chatted with students/friends, and even helped nudge a shy meimei (little sister) into speaking some English. (Amazed how much I could talk to her in my Putonghua, actually.) The finished product was simply delicious: chunks of real pork, tangible veggies, additions like carrots, mushrooms, and shrimp creating a totally different taste … simply sublime. No grey mush here, just solid, fresh deliciousness. And, bonus!, we had enough dough left over to make some great miantiao (noodles). You can check out some pictures if you like.
So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I may not be home to celebrate with you, but in my own way, I’ve been celebrating here with my friends.