In the Shadow of the Great Wall

IMG_2829I once spent a long weekend hiking the Great Wall. Rather than traveling the most touristy part, we followed a “tour guide” who helped us to, shall we say, circumvent the Chinese authorities guarding the less maintained parts of the Wall. After a full day of scrambling up crumbling staircases and stepping gingerly on narrow pathways, we descended wearily from the Wall into a village.

This village was made up of fields upon fields of corn with one-story houses scattered on the surrounding hillsides. The roads were all dirt and loose gravel, and at night, it was so dark and quiet that if you stared at the sky long enough, you could almost see the stars move and feel the earth turn. We drank warm beers because the weekly shipment of water hadn’t made it to the village yet and when the power went out after a sudden thunderstorm, we played Murderer in the Dark until finally, everyone fell asleep.

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A misty morning at the foot of the Great Wall

I awoke to the quintessential crowing of roosters and stepped out into a grey, cool morning. Our hosts were awake and already busy preparing the day’s meals, but everyone else was still asleep. I wandered down the road, passing a graveyard of discarded couches, several loud and territorial chickens, and some angry (but thankfully chained) dogs. As I walked on alongside the fields of gently swaying corn, I came upon a young girl and an old man walking silently side by side.

IMG_2546This sight isn’t so uncommon, especially in the Chinese countryside. Rural villages have depopulated over the decades as young people leave for modernity and opportunities in the cities. After passing through the minority communities of Tibet (西藏) and Inner Mongolia (内蒙古) and talking with the people there, I learned the fear of these people that their culture and even language will be lost as the old die and the young leave forever.

As the mist cleared, I walked back through the corn, past the still-ruffled chickens, and back to the house where everyone had since woken up. Our hosts placed a large pot of noodle soup on the table, made with fresh-picked tomatoes, hand-drawn noodles, and probably freshly killed meat.

As it gets colder, I have found myself thinking back to that soup they made for us after a cold night (cold for summer at least) spent without electricity or running water. I remember their small dogs, their dented tables emblazoned with the “Coca Cola” logo. I remember how warm, how delicious, that meal was after a long walk on a damp morning. But I cannot remember the faces of our hosts.

I always thought that it was the language barrier that prevented me from learning more about Chinese culture, but even after spending months in China learning how to speak the language, I learned very little about the people themselves. Now I wonder about the story behind that pile of couches, about our hosts’ small garden carved painstakingly into the hillside. 

We barely spoke to them except to say our thanks. We packed our bags. We hiked back up to the Wall. And so we became just another bunch of foreigners (老外) who had passed through their village, our tourist money merely prolonging the end.

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Goulash

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One of my friends traveled to Hungary this summer, and since then, she’s constantly raved about goulash. She even brought back some adorable sachets of Hungarian paprika (since everyone knows I’m kind of obsessed with Hungary) and requested that I attempt to recreate the goulash she had in Hungary.

As I set out to make the dish, I realized while I have blindly followed recipes for dishes I’ve never tasted before, this was the first time that I was attempting to recreate another person’s memories. I searched “goulash recipes” and one of the first hits was Paula Deen’s goulash recipe, whose ingredients include soy sauce, Italian seasoning, and elbow macaroni – all of which I’m pretty sure are not featured in Hungarian cuisine, and all of which sounded eerily like American chop suey, a.k.a. the worst cafeteria food ever created. So I put the goulash project on the back burner and kind of hoped my friend would forget about it.

For weeks, nothing. And just as I sighed relief, she brought it up again, and I knew that I had to at least try.

Among all the so-called celebrity chefs, Paula Deen ranks pretty high on my “human joke” scale. The irony of getting diabetes after decades of decadent butter consumption (as well as her whole racism debacle) makes it difficult to take anything she does seriously. However, the Italian seasoning in recipe did give me an idea: I might not have ever experienced gulyás or pörkölt, but I had had excellent beef stews before, namely beef ragù. The recipe, a mix of familiar components and new flavors, began to take shape.

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Even buying the ingredients wasn’t easy – I rarely eat beef, so I basically went through the beef cuts and picked the one that looked the “meatiest” (I think it turned out to be chuck roast or something). Then I realized there’s marjoram leaves and there’s marjoram seeds – still have no idea what the difference is. After finally acquiring all the ingredients, I tackled the dish itself, and three hours and a few “experiments” later, I finally had something to put on the table.

I looked anxiously at my friend as she took her first bite – I thought it tasted good, but would it taste right? She nodded her head. “Tastes like Hungary.” Recreating another person’s memory is a funny thing – I strayed from the “authentic” recipes and even ended up taking some inspiration from an unexpected source, all to chase after my idea of what she had experienced when she ate goulash. At the end of the process, I was glad to have taken on the challenge, and I hope that one day, I will be able to travel to Hungary and create my own memories of gulyás and pörkölt and all the other flavors of Hungarian cuisine.

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