Talking about a foregone tofu dish, crispy beans* and life in China with Beata
Updated: Jan 13, 2019
*Crispy red beans with pickled vegetables (Chinese: 腌菜酥红豆; pinyin: yāncài sū hóngdòu)
Before I proceed to the next Chapter, because I forgot it in the first Book, I will here briefly mention the most usual, common and cheap sort of Food all China abounds in, and which all Men in that Empire eat, from the Emperor to the meanest Chinese, the Emperor and great Men as a Dainty, the common sort as necessary sustenance. It is call'd Teu Fu, that is, Paste of Kidney Beans. I did not see how they made it. They draw the Milk out of the Kidney-Beans, and turning it, make great Cakes of it like Cheeses, as big as a large Sive, and five or six fingers thick. All the Mass is as White as the very Snow, to look to nothing can be finer. It is eaten raw, but generally boil'd and dress'd with Herbs, Fish, and other things. Alone it is insipid, but very good so dress'd, and excellent fry'd in Butter. They have it also dry'd and smok'd, and mix'd with Caraway-seeds, which is best of all. It is incredible what vast quantities of it are consum'd in China, and very hard to conceive there should be such abundance of Kidney-Beans. That Chinese who has Teu Fu, Herbs and Rice, needs no other Sustenance to work, and I think there is no body but has it, because they may have a Pound (which is above twenty Ounces) of it any where for a Half-penny. It is a great help in case of want, and is good for carriage. It has one good Quality, which is, that it causes the different Airs and Seasons, which in that vast Region vary much, to make no alteration in the Body, and therefore they that travel from one Province to another make use of it. Teu Fu is one of the most remarkable things in China, there are many will leave Pullets for it. If I am not deceiv'd, the Chinese of Manila make it, but no European eats it, which is perhaps because they have not tasted it, no more than they do Fritters fry'd in Oil of Ajonjoli (a very small Seed they have in Spain and India, which we have not) which the Chinese make in that City, and is an extraordinary Dainty.
- by Domingo Fernández de Navarrete, in A Collection of Vogages and Travels
Domingo Fernández de Navarrete, a Spanish Dominican missionary that travelled to China in the second half of the seventeenth century (1657-1673), gave us what may be one of the first ever mentions of tofu by a westerner. Even though more than three hundred years have passed since he wrote A Collection of Voyages and Travel in 1704, the truth of his observations are still valid nowadays.
It is a cold Beijing evening and I am going to meet my friend Beata for dinner. I met her a few months ago at a casting audition for dubbing Chinese films into Polish. In China, opportunities –good and bad, abound. One can attempt to do new things to reinvent him/herself, or just out of curiosity. That is how we both landed at the audition, zero experience and zero knowledge of what the job entailed. Suffice to say that neither of us got the job. We did, though, exchange our Wechat accounts. There was an immediate connection.
Tonight, she chose a small cozy restaurant in the hutongs (hútòng 胡同) of Gulou (Gǔlóu 鼓楼). Contrary to other parts of the city, dominated by steel and glass of skyscrapers, Gulou, with its low constructions and narrow alleys still conserves a certain aura of older Beijing. For many of us, it may be one of the few places were we can get a glimpse of what life may have looked like before Beijing turned into the modern-day megalopolis. The old cramped, overpopulated, grey courtyards with narrow clattered passages coexist with the more attractive, retouched, newer, touristic alleys. I prefer the former. The latter, although cleaner and nicer looking, appear somehow soulless.
The restaurant is located in one of the newer hutongs. There are six or seven tables and we choose the one next to the bar counter. We are not alone; four talkative youngsters occupy the table behind us. The bar next to us has a nice assortment of different bottles and the stereo is already playing some nice jazz pieces. This place is a strange combination between a romantic cozy European trattoria and a Chinese take on regional cuisine. There are flowers on the tables, a stash of books in a niche on the wall, adorned with some European-style hanging decorations. A shelf on the opposite wall is divided in smaller slots full of postcards and photos of landscapes, people and daily life in China.
As we sit down, I can sense a tempest of emotions twirling inside Beata. “Oh Gosh, wait, I have not been here in a very long time”, she says. Intriguingly, we are listening to the French classic Et si tu n’existais pas and are getting ready to order. After a few minutes of perusing the menu she concedes: “I am afraid I don’t see the tofu dish” - the very dish Beata had chosen to talk about at the interview. I ask her what the tofu looked like, in a desperate attempt to try and find it myself on the menu. “It was… ahhh…”, she emits a dreamy sigh recalling the dish she had eaten one cold grey February night. “You see what food does to me”, she laughs. “The [tofu] was very light, covered in a yellow, intense […] marinade that dragged as kisiel, slightly sweet”, she remembers. Polish kisiel is a viscous, warm fruit dessert made out of fruit puree and potato starch. “I remember the color and flavor, it was so soft”, she continues. “Maybe they eliminated the dish [from the menu]”. I can see the disappointment on her face. I am rather happy this kisiel-like dish is not available anymore.
Left with no other choice, we end up with a peppermint salad (qīng liángbàn bòhe清凉拌薄荷 ), a pea tofu (biānjìng wāndòu fěn边境豌豆粉), Houttuynia salad (liángbàn shé ěr gēn凉拌折耳根)，crispy pickled red beans (yāncài sū hóngdòu腌菜酥红豆)，curry vege (gālí shíshū咖喱时蔬), and Thai coconut sago cake (Tàishì yēzhī xīmǐ gāo泰式椰汁西米糕).
The dishes are all meatless. “I paradoxically, always ate very little meat. Since I can remember, there was always a lot of meat at our house, in it’s natural form, because my dad was a hunter”. She frequently spent time in the countryside and has vivid images of the daily life on a farm: “I remember seeing pigs slaughtered […], how my grandma cut the rooster’s head”. Being brought up in this environment she saw it as a natural thing. Yet by the time she turned twenty she definitely became a vegetarian. “[It was] gradual, I didn’t impose it on myself […], it was a natural process”. Back then she did not mind should people ate meat next to her, but nowadays she does. “If somebody next to me is eating meat or I sense [the smell] of meat, that smell is terrible for me, it is very intense”.
I wonder how it is to be a vegetarian in China. Easy? Difficult? She says that restaurants offer a wide diversity of dishes, and in general it is ok. But let’s not forget that some dishes, even if they are featured on the menu as a meatless option, in fact are not. “For them [Chinese] when meat is cut in small pieces it equals to non-existent. There are times when I ask not to add [meat] and they still do”.
Beata is from Suwalki, a city located in northeast Poland, very close to Lithuania. I asked her if growing up she dreamed of becoming someone in particular. Funny thing: she tells me that recently, she had to answer the same question for a magazine she wrote an article for. “I wanted to be, for some time, an interior designer”, she says. “I was 8 or 10”. She became a journalist instead. She also studied Photography and Oriental Studies. After graduating, however, she worked in marketing, advertising and public relations. She was successful and the job was interesting, but it entailed responsibility and long working hours. “My Chinese sign is the rat, so, you know, I like to be the boss”, she laughs. “I have two contradictions within me, because on the one hand I am a rat –complete openness; and on the other hand, I am Virgo, totally introverted, and desire to withdraw […] and I see this in me more and more”. I tell her I am a monkey and she laughs saying that explains a lot, since rat and monkey have a lot in common.
After a few years, it was time for a change. Drastic change - as she herself admits, is something she desires from time to time. She started working as a free-lance journalist. “I knew back then it was time to travel, and I knew I wanted to travel somewhere for a longer period of time”. How did she choose destinations? “Intuitively”, she responds. “I always take these type of decisions intuitively, meaning I don’t think too much and decide rather quickly”. She knew for sure it would be somewhere in the Far East or Southeast Asia. Maybe Vietnam or Laos. And then, she thought about China, about the importance of the country in today’s international arena and she wanted to witness that, to understand. She booked the tickets the following day and arrived on February 5th 2013. The choice of date was not casual: “I wanted to fly in for the Spring Festival, the Chinese New Year”.
Yunnan – the first reason
The restaurant is “lively”, what the Chinese would call hěn rènao (很热闹). As we wait for our dishes to arrive, we talk about food - Yunnanese food in particular. I start by asking why she chose this restaurant. “Extremely difficult question”, she laughs. Yunnanese food is her favorite. Mine, too. From a Polish perspective and, particularly, her hometown perspective, there is an element of exoticism and fantasy. “There is lightness in everything”, she says. Dishes that otherwise may seem heavy, become lighter thanks to the addition of mint, tea and other fresh ingredients. The food seems to be alive, full of sunlight and energy. Yunnanese desserts seem ephemeral: “the desserts exist and simultaneously they don’t”, she laughs.
Yunnan is known as the ‘kingdom of plants and animals’ – the most biologically diverse region in China. It is located in the far southwest of the country, and already in the distant past was a transit zone. While many crops arrived to China via sea routes through the ports, other arrived overland, from India, through Yunnan. Flavours here are hot and spicy and the cuisine focuses on sharpening and bringing out the best of the main ingredients. Yunnan’s cuisine draws heavily from Sichuan but, because of its numerous borders and waterway connections, it has also been influenced by elements from Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. It is also home to 25 ethnic groups, each one with its own particularities, in food habits as well. It is famous for its preserved meats, dairy products (yoghurt, fried milk curd, cheese), due to its proximity to India, the influence of local Tibetan and quasi-Tibetan peoples, and the important settlements of Mongols in the area in the days of Kublai Khan; as well as game and mushrooms from the mountains.
The boyfriend – the second reason
We go back to talking about her choice for the restaurant. “I had my first real dinner in China here. I came here with this guy”. She met him the first day she was in Beijing, at the airport, just after landing. Why him? “Coincidence”, she says, but quickly corrects herself while laughing “Destiny”. We laugh together. Seeing how tired she was, he took her bags and helped her to the Airport Express.
She came to China with a suitcase full of winter cloths in one hand and a medium format camera in the other. Although theoretically it was almost springtime, the weather was cold and the sun was nowhere to be seen. She tells me she will remember that day forever. As she gazed from the window of the train, the picture that presented before her eyes was rather gloomy: “It was snowing heavily. I had the sensation that I was looking all the time at grey buildings with iron bars in the windows. And the smog”. Getting to the B&B was no piece of cake. It included the train ride, a bus ride and a little bit of walking. Her new acquaintance helped her almost to the end of the relay. He gave her his business card and said she could contact him if she ever needed anything. China is a country where business cards rule. You are nobody if you don’t have a business card. I am thinking I am nobody in Chinese terms.
The B&B had five or six rooms and it was run by two cousins from the North. Once she settled in, she went to a small eatery in the vicinity. And then things started getting tough: “The menu only in Chinese, zero pictures”. The problem was not so much the fact that she would have to be adventurous and experiment with some new flavors, but that she needed to make sure they were not going to serve her meat. “I don’t recall exactly how I dealt with this situation, but I remember that I ate noodles with a sauce and some kind of vegetables”, she says.
The apartment and the eatery were both located in a neighborhood that reminded her nothing of the romantic hutongs or the modern CBD skyscrapers. It was generic. And again: the snow, the awful pollution and the crates in every window. “It was a negative shock”. But as usually in life, after dark there came light. “I remember that the next day when I woke up […] the skies were clear, probably at night time there was wind and dissipated the smog. Somehow I thought everything was going to be all right”.
She woke up the next morning and went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. “I was surprised that there were no forks”, she laughs. The days before travelling were hectic, plus the whole trip was very spontaneous, almost abrupt. “I didn’t sit down to think ‘Oh my God’ I am going to China and I will be eating with chopsticks, and people will be celebrating the tea ceremony in front of me. I didn’t think about these type of things at all”, she continues. All that she had learned in Oriental Studies, everything she had read in her literature books, all her knowledge of Chinese culture was somewhere there in the back of her head; but, she felt she had to start from scratch.
She decided to go to Tiananmen (Tiān'ānmén Guăngchăng天安门广场). But these were another times. Technology-wise the year 2013 might as well have been another era. Smartphones were not so popular yet. Nobody used apps, phone maps or navigation. WeChat hadn’t taken off yet. The trip took forever. At the bus stop she found it difficult to decipher the bus schedules. But once she got there she immediately felt more comfortable. “I fell in love with the hutongs”, she says.
Not long after, the owners invited her to join in the Xin Nian (Xīn Nián新年) celebrations, and she happily accepted. At the Faculty of Oriental Studies, students were taught about Chinese traditions but up to that very moment those were only academic abstractions in her head. And now indeed people cleaned all the corners in the house, hanged couplets, watched the TV gala and, of course, prepared fish and dumplings stuffed with coins. “I even went to a supermarket to buy red socks with characters. I also gave them some Polish coins [for the dumplings]”, she adds.
The dishes have arrived and we begin eating. The mint salad, the crispy beans and the curry have all familiar flavours. The greatest surprise to me is the Hottounya roots salad. It is an herbaceous plant with heart-shaped leaves, indigenous to Northeast India and China. Also known as Chinese lizard tail, rainbow plant, chameleon plant or fish mint (owing to the fishy aroma the leaves emit), it is a culinary delicacy and prized ingredient in Chinese medicine. It comes with a dressing of chopped scallions, chili oil, soy sauce, vinegar, along with some diced peppers thrown in for extra heat. I read somewhere that you either hate it or love it. Let’s just say that I did not love it. The roots are fibrous and woody, and it has a pungent smell. On the contrary, Beata thinks it has “a very specific flavour”. She cannot put her finger on what it is that she likes about the dish. “But I really like it”, she adds. By contrast, the fresh and crunchy vibrant green mint leafs are delicious. The salad has a light, tart-sweet dressing, reminiscent of Thai flavours, with a good dash of fresh chili slices and sprinkled sesame seeds. I am loving it. “Hot, but nice”, Beata points out.
She did eventually contact him two weeks later. She was looking to meet people she could interview for an article she was preparing for a Polish magazine. She knew nobody else in China at that time (except for the two hosts from the B&B). They met at a small restaurant close to his house. “He was a bit of an untypical lad […] He was in a similar moment [in life] as I was”, she says. He also studied journalism, worked as a journalist and later transitioned to the marketing sector. “I came to China to experience new sensations and he quit his job. He also thought it was time for a change. We had very similar paths”. They talked for six or seven hours. The next week he invited her to dinner and he chose the very restaurant we are sitting in tonight. “I remember we were both very nervous. I was extremely nervous”, she says.
After a month in Beijing she travelled to Shanghai to prepare a photography project. When she came back to the capital, she only had five days left before going back to Poland. “I was taking a walk, it was spring time in Beijing”, she remembers. It was a completely different scene to the one that had welcomed her when she just arrived to the city. The clothes people wore, the greenery that started to appear in every corner, the warm sunrays, and the whole aura of the city. Everything was different. As she walked along the dusty hutongs being surpassed by all those rickshaws, she thought she might come back to China.
As for her new acquaintance, they met two or three times, and there was always food involved. She tells me it wasn’t because they were hungry, but because in Chinese culture food is an essential part of life. Food underpins everything. A meal can reveal the motive of a celebration or many things about a person: social status, provenance, habits, beliefs, position in the family hierarchy or in the company. Eating together is also a way to bring families together, prepare the ground for business deals, make new friends or enhance established relationships.
Yet, she was busy writing and working on her photography. She told herself that there was no reason for things to happen between them. She was Polish and she was going to go back to her country. He knew about it. They didn’t see each other before she left. “I left for more than a year”, she says. She told him she would be returning sometime in the future, but never expected him to wait for her. He was not a factor when she decided to come back. Did they keep in touch? “In a Chinese way”, she says. I am not quite sure what it means.
The second time around
She returned to China at the end of the summer the following year. This time she wanted to spend her birthday in Beijing. “I thought I was going to spend my birthday riding a bike in the hutongs”, she laughs. And so she did. Then she went straight to see him. A few days later they came back to this restaurant. I ask her if by then it was already clear that they were dating. “This is China, you think everything happens here normally?”, she laughs. But they were meeting frequently back then. September is beautiful in Beijing. It was like a scene taken out from the movies: lakes, hutongs, bikes, and this restaurant. “I felt like a teenager”, she says.
“I loved his simplicity, I associated him with my childhood in my village”, she says. He hailed from the Hunan province and to get to the point he was in life: to go to university, to move to Beijing, to find a good job here, he needed to go through a very long path. “How could I not love him”?”, she says in a dreamy way. Their relationship was very intense. “In one week and half we went through things that couples go through in a year”, she adds.
So what happened? “On the one hand a lot brought us together, but on the other hand, there was also such a big abyss between us”, she responds. As beautiful the time as it was, she was also feeling a lot of pressure. Renting an apartment, finding a job, navigating through the bureaucracy wasn’t at all easy. The problems were soon reflected in their relationship. He couldn’t really understand what she was going through. She couldn’t really convey with words everything she was feeling. Problems in communication derived mostly from their different cultural backgrounds. He was tired of her constant questioning of things. The need to understand the reality she was experiencing. Why? Where? How? He felt she had a negative attitude towards China. She was tired of him not clarifying well enough her doubts. “We talked very little. We didn’t explain things to each other”, she says.
They were together for one year and a half, with ups and downs. They split two times. The second time he proposed to her, but at the end they were not able to overcome China. It was China that divided them. They were both torn apart.
Staying in China
At some point she started thinking about writing a book. She went through several concepts before she finally took the pen in the hand. How is the work going? She tells me it is just not. We are meeting a few days after her return from Poland and she hasn’t switched back to ‘Chinese mode’ yet. “Maybe it is because there is so much going on […]. For the time being, I feel there is a kind of wall, something like: Me, the Great Wall, and China”, she says. Then she adds: “Maybe it will pass”.
But it happens each time. She comes back and needs to adapt again. Get to know the country again. Feel familiar with everything - again. It happens the other way around, too. “Three days before travelling [to Poland] my brain attacks me with photos and aromas from Poland. In my case: the Suwalszczyzna […], the smell of grass, the smell of a lake, grain, mown grain”, she says. She frequently travels in winter – which can be rather harsh in Poland - and, upon arrival in Warsaw, everything switches: Beijing becomes a city from a postcard, the most beautiful city in the world. She wants to come back. She cannot find her place in Poland. “I see pictures, I feel, I have moments of me riding on a bike through the hutongs. That is my first frame: Me on a bike somewhere there”, she continues. Then she takes a train to her hometown and everything switches again. She is finally home. She does not want to leave anymore.
I make her return to China. Have her experiences helped her to better understand Chinese culture? “Poles, in certain things, are capable of understanding Chinese people better that British or French”. She argues it is because of the remaining communist heritage and the transformation issues. And what about the language skills? “Many people would affirm that you are not capable of understanding culture if you don’t speak the language. […] I don’t disagree with this affirmation”, she says. Speaking the language allows you to start at a different level and set the thresholds at different points. In journalism “basic knowledge is very useful, but it is not essential”, she adds. Some journalists do not speak a word of Chinese and manage to do some amazing work. Many great reporters did not speak local languages and frequently hired translators.
We continue eating. We both agree that the crispy red beans take the gold medal that evening. They are warm and fried in a starch batter. The addition of small pieces of Yunnanese pickled vegetables creates a nice contrast in texture and flavor. Simple but effective. Although I have rarely seen bean dishes in Chinese restaurants (other than red been paste for sweets made out of azuki beans), beans have been part of the Chinese diet for millennia and were already used as staples during the Zhou dynasty. In the period of the Warring States, the small red beans were common and a cheap foodstuff in northern China. Archaeological records show that azuki beans (chì xiǎo dòu赤小豆) and possibly other vigna species were major foods during the Han dynasty and continued to be so during the Tang. By the time of ascent of the Ming dynasty, soy, mung, broad, dolichos, sword beans, peas and cowpeas were in use, while other varieties from the genus Phaseolus came from the New World in the 16th century, for example the red kidney bean. When it comes to beans, a differentiation is made for plants coming strictly form the New World (genus Phaseolus) and those from the Old World (genus Vigna). The Asian Phaseolus have also been reclassified as Vigna.
I tell her that books on China not always have to be written by Sinologists. Some expats will have a deeper understanding of certain aspects of life in China, as an effect of their own circumstances. Those with higher allowances, working for multinationals and diplomats are living one type of life. But there are other realities. People like Beata are perhaps the best conveyors of such realities. She agrees. “When I speak to sinologists, they don’t have any idea about some of the things here, normal things [...] I don’t judge if that is right or wrong”, she says. “These are not people that are forced by life to have to go to register to the police station, rent an apartment by oneself, search for a job by oneself, getting a contract that you absolutely don’t understand, fight over salaries”, she adds. Or to deal by oneself with crime – a clear reference to her place being burgled causing her loss of all her electronics, including her beloved medium-format camera. “China gives a lot, but I don’t know whether [China] ends up taking more from you that it is giving to you”, she laughs.
She feels expats are frequently seen as an opportunity for business at every level, and may be taken advantage of. Sometimes, it all gets extremely entangled: work, life, documents, language and there it is hard to function in the midst of all this, especially if you are not Chinese and are alone. “Maybe this will sound little humble, but I have a sensation that because of the things that I have had to go through, of course, I am not saying in the same degree [as Chinese people], I have had to face situations that Chinese people face as well”, she says.
Besides writing her book, Beata has worked in several Language Academies. She explains that, in the past, she has had to struggle at work -just as her colleagues- and has had to learn how to approach problems in a ‘Chinese way’. It is not about telling the truth or not, saying something foolish or smart, it is not about presenting the correct argument. It is about looking for an argument that will win. At a previous job, she had to argue in a way that she would had never done back in Poland, just to make sure her bosses would comply with what had been previously agreed in a contract that was as clear as mud. “I had to leave the Polish/European honor behind”, she says.
We go on to talk about her writing. She says that from a journalist’s perspective, China is a dynamic scene. There are always new developments. “This is one of the paradoxes of this country. We are probably in one of the most interesting places to describe in many aspects […], but working here is very hard”. There is a lot of unpredictability. “There are a lot of impermanent ingredients […], this lack of constancy is actually the only constant”, she responds.
Does she feel China has changed her? “Yes”, she responds. “There was a moment when I really started to reflect on what kind of person will I be when I leave this place - morally speaking”, she continues. We talk about the geographical and cultural determinants of morality: How foreigners perceive the approach of certain Chinese towards money. Money has become for many the most important element of every day life, pushing feelings to the side. Also the family politics and the rules of the family unit. She argues that in our countries there is a destruction of the family ties. Here in China, it is not like that. However, she senses that what holds families together is not always love – it is rather money or other “musts”.
Marriages are still arranged. Kids are raised as adults, often under immense stress. Parents’ expectations are huge. Public and even less-public displays of affection are frowned upon, also in a mother-child relationship. As a teacher, she says, she has to be careful not to open wounds that lie on the surface. Once a kid started crying because she simply asked what he had done with his parents over the weekend. She sometimes felt the need to go home, sit and just cry. (A few days after our talk, I came across an article in the Economist that versed on the issues of marriage in China and expectations lying on women).
I hear the music again, which I have mostly ignored during the whole meal. I take a few more sips of the chrysanthemum tea we had ordered. It tastes bitter, it has been brewing for too long. She has another bit of the coconut sago cake. She says she likes it. We have been talking for hours, and we could keep on going for many more. Fortunately, the restaurant has had other customers, which has made me feel less stressed that usual. I do not have to rush because they are closing on us. We are both in a good mood and decide to have another glass of wine at a friend’s bar not far away. But before we head out, I ask the last few questions.
- First Chinese dish you ate here?
- Noodle soup
- Favorite cuisine?
- “Now I would in fact say home food, and mom’s or grandmas’ soup”
- Favorite polish dish
- “There is a lot, but for sure it would be something from our regional food”: Babka ziemniaczana (Potato Cake), Zupa ogórkowa (Pickled Cucumber Soup) or Zupa pomidorowa (Tomato Soup). “There is not a single day without tomatoes”.
- Favorite book
- Big Breasts and Wide Hips, by Mo Yan
- Have you had contact with him?
- “No, never again, only food and memories are left”.
As I am driving back home I am thinking about how different Beata’s experience has been to mine. Her life in China has just been like the shelf hanging in the restaurant with all those different postcards and photos: her stormy relationship, friends gained, friends lost, the hutong bike rides. It has been full of ups and downs. Easy? No. And definitely …not boring.