Talking about life-changing decisions and beer duck* with Chloé
Updated: Jan 13, 2019
* Beer duck (Chinese: 啤酒鸭; pinyin: píjiǔ yā)
“Whenever there was money in his pocket, he soon found himself sitting in the ryoriten*, tasting the duck cooked in danggui** wine. He had never had a chance to taste such good food before.”
-Wang Zhenhe, An Oxcart for a Dowry
* A Japanese-style restaurant.
** Ligusticum acutilobum: an aromatic herb, the root of which has medicinal uses.
I am meeting Chloé for lunch at a Jiangxi (江西Jiāngxī) restaurant in Beijing. With more than 20 million inhabitants, Beijing is a micro-universe of regional restaurants, eateries, cafes, dinning halls, food stalls, and food markets, along with provincial government restaurants featuring star dishes of local cuisine. The restaurant is located to the east of the fourth ring, a twenty-minute ride 'just across' from home.
Chloé is already sitting at a table when I arrive. I push myself through the noisy, crowded tables and among the staff in bright blue and silver outfits as if to match the cloudy sky ceiling painted above us. I barely have time to put my things down before the waitress comes to take our order. We need more time, and so she leaves – to my great relief. Even now, after four years of living in China, I feel stressed by the mute pressure of waiters awaiting orders over my head.
Jiangxi means “west of the [Yangtze] River”. It is also called “Gan” (赣 Gàn) - short after the Gan River. The province is known, among others, for the World Heritage Site of Wuyi Mountain (武夷山 Wǔyí Shān), which it shares with Fujian province; and the city of Jingdezhen (景德镇 Jǐngdézhèn) -the cradle of Chinese porcelain. The local cuisine reflects the geographical determinants of the region. Close to Hunan and Sichuan, it shares the predilection for the chili (辣椒làjiāo), although not so much for the Sichuan pepper (花椒huājiāo), resulting in dishes that are subtly spicy and aromatic but not overwhelmingly numbing. The chilies are used dried, fresh or pickled. Being far from the sea and away from rich farming lands, traditionally local dishes featured mountain products and pork and less sea fish and vegetables. Yet fresh-water fish has been widely consumed. Dishes often include fermented bean paste (豆豉dòuchǐ), tofu and apparently tea oil. The province is also the home to a Hakka community. The Hakka people (客家Kèjiā), which literally means 'guest people' in the local dialect, are Han Chinese who migrated from Central China towards the South, about a thousand years ago. They have their own culinary traditions; the food is simple without pretension or expensive ingredients.
We are ready to order and Chloé starts reciting the names of our lunch menu: Nanchang salad powder (南昌凉拌粉Nánchāng liángbàn fěn), Yichun duck three (宜春鸭三件Yíchūn yā sānjiàn), Beer duck (啤酒鸭píjiǔ yā), Nanchang fried powder (Nánchāng chǎofěn 南昌炒粉), Vegetable crisp bamboo shoots (榄菜脆笋lǎncài cuìsǔn), and Yam ribs soup (山药排骨汤 shānyao páigǔ tāng ). Hot water to go with it. The waitress checks our choices and asks whether I can handle spicy. “I love spicy”, I promptly say, afraid she could deprive me of the chilies. She looks to Chloé for confirmation. Maybe the foreigner did not understand the question?
Chloé has been my Chinese tutor on and off for the last couple of years. Great teacher as she is, I’d rather spend hours in the market learning the names of vegetables and fruits and asking vendors how to cook them, rather than sitting at home doing homework, writing essays or memorizing vocabulary related to politics and economy. So she adapted materials to fit my interests and teach me her language through food. As a result I may be able to mumble the name of a strange ingredient or rare dish, but I lack the skills to make a simple statement about myself. The many hours spent together have brought us closer, and her warmth, honesty and openness have also helped me a lot to understand local culture in a way no book could have ever taught me.
Dating leads to marriage
I am surprised to hear Chloé has divorced. Yes, divorce rates are apparently soaring in China. Common jokes as “Have you divorced today?” (今天你离了吗 jīntiān nǐ lí le ma) reflect the unraveling changes in society, but I was convinced that in this country the family is indissoluble. In my mind, Chinese people are traditionalists. Children, money, property and reputation are of paramount importance and take precedence over any solution that would involve a formal separation. Divorce is not negotiable. Do it and your family and society will look down on you. You have made them 'lose face' after all. Chloé’s story shows me the extent of my misconceptions about Chinese society. Or perhaps, one of the many faces this society has.
Born in Jiangxi, after taking her college entrance exams (高考gāokǎo), Chloé moved to Dalian to pursue a Bachelor degree in Japanese Studies and, to get away from her high school beau. Having a boyfriend in school is unthinkable and much frowned upon in conservative China (at least it was back then). She uses the word “forbidden”, as teachers and parents had a silent agreement to guard kids from anything that would distract them from their studies. “My father wanted me to stay far away from him”, she says. Probably, he didn’t expect her boyfriend moving to Dalian a year later.
The Nanchang salad powder and Nanchang fried powder arrive. Basically, both are rice noodle dishes. The cold version is rather simple, dressed with peanuts, pickled vegetables, a drizzle of sesame oil and a sprinkle of chopped scallions. The hot noodles have slices of pork and are stir-fried with vegetables. “In the southern cities the breakfast is not the same as in the northern cities, normally we eat mántou (馒头 ) and eat bāozi (包子) and eat these kind of noodles for breakfast. For lunch and dinner, we eat rice”, she explains. I take a few bites, I like the flavors. She has some too, and nods her head confirming the flavors are right. It is real Jiangxi food.
Rice noodles are also called mǐfěn (米粉) or mǐxiàn (米线) when they are cut in thin strips, and héfěn (河粉) when they look like ribbons, or mǐmiàn (米面), and have been consumed in China for more than 2,000 years. They might have originated in the Qin dynasty (259–210 B.C.) when northerners that invaded the southern regions, left with no wheat, adapted rice for noodle manufacture.
After graduating from college Chloé moved to Beijing. “My dream was to become a teacher”, she says full of conviction. As for the relationship, it had lots of ups and downs, fights, family meddling, break ups, make ups, but eventually in time they started dating again. It did not come without its pressures though. Getting back together could only mean that marriage was, needed to be, the next step. “It is tradition”, she says.
Marriage it is
We continue talking through the resounding noise, dropping dishes, clinking glasses, shouting waiters, and to my surprise – Kenny G’s music. The Yichun duck three arrives. Domestication of the duck began in China over 2,000 years ago and it has been an important source of protein ever since. Depending on the breed (well over 30!) and on the region you may have your duck roasted, pressed, cured, salted, baked, stewed, camphor-smoked or even tea-smoked. For centuries, Chinese have enjoyed the texture of the different parts of the duck, the webs in particular, which cured in rice wine were “topics of sensuality”. The duck is a symbol of fidelity and connubial affection, and eating white or mandarin duck -in particular, is believed to have the magical powers of bringing estranged couples together. It is also deemed as “the original genius food”, in theory transmitting special powers before an important exam.
The ‘three’ in the name of the dish refers to the three different parts of the bird - feet, heads and wings, that come in the pot. Chloé tells me this is a typical yèxiāo (夜宵) or midnight snack, very popular in Southern regions (possibly due to warmer climate). Snacks can be eaten at restaurants, eateries, night markets or ad-hoc stalls usually after dinner all the way into dawn (9pm - 6am). Anything from barbecued skewers, boiled skewers in soup, scallion pancakes, dumplings, noodle soups will do, and all for reasonable fares.
I am a chicken wings lover, so the duck wings easily become my favorite of the three “jiàn” (件). Feet don’t scare me at all. From early on I learned to gobble them down together with Ecuadorean soups I grew up eating, to the great horror of my mom – herself a breast lover. The fact that this is duck only makes it tastier. The heads are a different story. I like the intense soya sauce flavor, the heat from the chilies, and the freshness of the coriander leaves, which Chloé – a coriander hater, keeps pushing aside.
“Tradition” she says. In China, parents have to consent to the kids’ marriage. Chloé’s did not, at least for a long time. “My parents said we cannot be together”, she remembers. “I had a big fight with my parents […] We fought for almost one year”. Chloé pauses for a moment, then she says: “It was so stupid, now I know that”.
They got married at the end of the summer of 2014 and shortly after she moved to Shenzhen, where he had tried to develop his private business. She left with a big box and lots of expectations and hope.
The beer duck (啤酒鸭píjiǔ yā) is placed in front of us. This is a special dish for her. It smells and tastes of memories. It smells of Jiangxi and of her granddad’s house, where her whole family reunited. To me it seems a rather monochromatic dish, with its dominant brown color. The taste of the beer has been long cooked down leaving the accent of spices - maybe star anise, maybe cinnamon. It definitely tastes better than it looks.
But things weren’t quite what she had expected, she says. Busy setting up his second company, her husband was not around much. She found herself running the retail business from home, answering mails, packing products, posting the merchandise, translating material, searching for new items for sale (including phones, Ipad and computer covers and ‘special’ shoelaces). She was also cleaning, washing, cooking. None of it really bothered her. She wanted to believe this was what she ought to be doing for them, to build a future together. It was the terrible loneliness and isolation that she couldn’t grow used to. She felt caged in their small apartment in the outskirts of the city, going out only to buy groceries and, at times, to jog around the building.
At one point, she realized she didn’t even have access to the bank accounts and credit cards (in China, women frequently are the ones in control of the home finances). She felt unsafe and unprotected. Once her husband threw a credit card on the table, but threatened to take it back if she spent too much. “At that time I started to think I really did a big mistake marrying him”, she says. After only two months, Chloé decided to leave her him and return to Beijing, but not before taping the bank card on the wall so that he would see it first thing when he opened the door.
“I told my father I want to divorce and my father said ‘no matter what you decide we support you’”, she says. Still today, talking about this moves her deeply. At first she thought her husband would be open to talk and try to mend things between them. He never did and she never looked back. “Do you think he misrepresented himself?”, I ask her. “He is like that”, she says. There is Chinese saying “狗改不了吃屎 gǒu gǎi bùliǎo chī shǐ” – bad habits are hard to change.
Starting over again
It must be the sixth time we ask for more hot water; we have been talking so much. Why is it that the same waiters that bully you into ordering at the beginning, completely ignore you later during the meal? We take a sip of the Yam ribs soup instead, featured in the menu as a specialty of the house. Soups are a staple in Jiangxi, long-simmered in clay-pots at low temperatures in order to extract all the essential flavors, aromas and properties from the ingredients.
Divorce wasn’t easy, emotionally and financially alike. Her husband demanded money for his consent to divorce and to keep running the business registered under her name. “He didn’t want to dissolve the company”, she says. They fought for months in the courts of Jiangxi but she finally won. The court’s verdict was her ticket for a new life. “At the beginning I was worried”, she says. Divorcees are regarded negatively in China, much more in the case of women. “How can I get married again?”, she worried back then. But slowly, and with her parents’ support and love she stood on her feet again. “I am lucky”, she smiles.
She says she is in a good place right now, she feels happy. And she does not worry about remarrying anymore. “Now I am ten times stronger than before and ten times more open-minded than before”, she reflects. Marriage is a serious decision and shall be honored as an important institution but sometimes “there is no reason to stay”. In China, women often rely economically on their husbands, which may be the reason why they struggle to leave. But, “just think”, she says. How much work women do at home? If this kind of effort and time was invested in their own projects, women could absolutely make a living for themselves and have a better life. “Just stand up”, she adds.
“Do you feel pressure now?”, I ask. She says she does not – for now, at least. “I want to have a guy that I love and who treats me good, I don’t care if we are going to marry or not; or if he is going to give me money or not”, she tells me full of confidence. “I know my picture looks brighter and brighter. I know what I like and what I want.”
As we pick up our things and head out of the restaurant I ask her a few last questions:
- What is your favorite way of spending time?
Traveling with my friends, painting, learning about tea, and practicing calligraphy.
-What was the first Western dish you had ever tried?
Pizza in Dalian.
- What is your favorite Western dish now?
Pasta al Pomodoro and Pizza. Beef Steak.
- Are you adventurous with food when you travel?
When traveling I eat local dishes. However, I try to avoid coriander, ginger, onion, celery, and garlic.
- Which has been your best trip until now?
- What book would you recommend reading?
Desert Flower, by Waris Dirie.
Restaurant: Bailu Dining Hall of Jiangxi Province (白鹿江西餐厅Bái lù Jiāngxī cāntīng), Shifoying East Road 304(石佛营路八里庄北里小区304号楼Shí fó yíng lù bālǐzhuāng běilǐ xiǎoqū 304 háolóu)