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  • Writer's pictureDominika

Talking about Spring pancakes* and interpretation with Helen

Updated: Jun 1, 2018

*Spring-pancake (Chinese: 春饼; pinyin: chūnbǐng)

Nothing conjures memories of place and time more evocatively than food, and this is especially so of “old Beijing,” where specific foods were reserved for specific seasons and festive occasions. Such foods were described in detail in Jin Shoushen’s writings. He wrote about the “spring pancakes” served on the first day of spring with such relish that his account whets the appetite and is detailed enough to serve as a recipe: Mix the flour with hot water; divide the dough into small, even pieces; combine two pieces with a small amount of sesame oil and roll into thin pancakes; remove from the pan when lightly brown. The “right way” to eat these layered pancakes was stuffed with a savory filling and rolled. “The pancake should not open up, and the sauce from the dishes should not drip out—only this counts as knowing how to eat it. I once saw a gentleman who wrapped up the pancake, held it to his mouth, and ate it like a cabbage wrap. Everyone who saw him eating it could not help laughing. “Sweet flour bean paste and thinly sliced green onions were a must—“goat-horn (yang jiao) green onions are the best.”
- Yue Dong, M. in Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories

It is the beginning of March and I am driving through the streets of Beijing. I am supposed to meet my friend Helen, who has generously accepted to go out with me and contribute to my quest of discovering the why’s and how’s of Chinese food. The night is cold, even more so as I did not turn on the heating. As I am trying to blindly find the switch, I am forced to a halt. Yet another driver has decided to stop abruptly in the middle of the road –literally, to check his messages, call his girlfriend, take a selfie, or God knows what. Driving in Beijing, demands serious concentration. I wait ‘patiently’ for the young guy to remember he is still ‘driving’ and let the growing line of cars that has already started queuing behind me, pass through. He finally moves and I go back to thinking about Helen, dinner and all the questions I want to ask her.

Helen chose to take me out to eat ‘chūn bǐng’ (春饼). The bright yellow sign on top of the restaurant leaves little doubt that ‘Spring Pancakes’ –as they are commonly known in English, are in fact the place’s specialty. I let her order the meal and she does it decisively, without hesitation. While she orders, I peruse the menu myself, and find –to my surprise, an introduction to the spring pancakes and its history in English: “On the spring disc records, found in the ‘local history’: ‘where is the day to five laity, symplectic disc. Five, so the five gas”. Appreciative as I am by the effort the restaurant took, the translation soon appears to be too demanding for me. I learn, however, that the spring pancakes are also known as ‘Griddle cake’ or ‘Lotus-leaf shaped Pancake’. We will have chrysanthemum tea (jú​huā​chá 菊花茶) to go with our supper.

Her native ‘Liáoníng’ (辽宁) located in the northeastern region of China known as Dōngběi (东北),possibly lacks the allures of Yunnan or Sichuan, but the region is, nonetheless, known as the ‘cradle of China's industry’ (Zhōngguó gōngyé de yáolán 中国工业的摇篮), producing all -from ships to electronics to oil and even European cars. The zone is also an archeological Shangri-la, with the discovery of Pleistocene fossils. For tourists, the Mukden Palace – former residence of Qing Dynasty emperors before they conquered the rest of China and moved their capital to Beijing, and the port-city of Dalian are the jewels midst of all the mining and extraction.

Our tea arrives, and with it, a small bowl of rock sugar (bīngtáng冰糖). Helen takes hers sweet, I go all natural wishing to discover the hidden aromas of the flowers. As we wait for the food, she tells me about the chūn bǐng she ate growing up and about her hometown. It is one of her favorite dishes. “We ate it only once a year […] to mark the coming of the spring and to celebrate it”. The family reunited at her grandparents’ home. “Back then, you know, we didn’t have a whole lot of resources, so on the Spring Festival we would have a big meal, and after that, this would be the second biggest meal in the New Year”.

I am asking about the protocol for eating the dish. The dishes she ordered will be the filling for the wheat wrappers. “Apparently people call them the first buffet meal, created by ancient Chinese. For the first time you can choose what you [eat]”. At her home, during the years, the dishes that accompanied the pancakes suffered slight changes. Earlier on it would be mostly vegetables and less meat, since the meat was scarcer, and it was usually fattier. These meals during the special holidays were a welcome interruption from everyday life. During the year, their diet would be mostly based on steamed breads (mántou馒头), potatoes or sweet potatoes - less so on rice. How much she liked and longed for the spring meal is revealed to me with a childhood anecdote she shares. “When I was eight, or something, I ate four of these [pancakes]. Homemade pancakes are way larger, and I ate four. I didn’t feel very well [after]”. She laughs wholeheartedly, the way one does when reminiscing of times that will never again come back.

The early beginnings of chūn bǐng

The Chinese lunar-solar calendar is divided in 24 solar cycles, the first of which is Lìchūn(立春) or ‘Enthronement of Spring’. The first day of Lìchūn was considered a very important date and already about 3000 years ago great ceremonies were held on this occasion. The Emperor together with princes and ministers would head to the eastern suburbs to welcome the spring and to pray for good harvests. Upon return, the Emperor offered gifts to the ministers and enacted beneficial decrees. ‘Lìchūn is the best time to plan the farm work for the year’ goes an old saying. It was the time when farmers started preparing for ploughing and sowing.

As a contrast to the excesses of the New Year’s celebrations, on the first day of the spring, people would have ‘spring platters’ (chūn pán 春盘), with delicate, fresh and finely cut seasonal vegetables. By the third century, people would have these chūn pán with pungent vegetables such as garlic and chives – eaten to purge the ‘qi energy of the vital organs’. In the Han dynasty the word ‘bìng 并’ meant ‘to combine’, in this case water and flour. Thus, the word ‘bǐng 饼’ was mostly used to describe ‘doughy concoctions’ or what we know today as ‘pasta’. Noodles, dough cakes, stuffed buns, fried breads, doughnut-style ring-cakes, dumplings, steamed buns and pancakes were all different forms of ‘bǐng 饼’. In times of the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th century), the spring pancakes had already made their appearance and were eaten as wrappers for other dishes*.

They even made it to literature. The poet Shu Hsi 束皙 (ca. 264-ca. 304) dedicated a whole piece – ‘Bǐng fù 饼赋’or ‘Rhapsody on Ping’ or ‘Rhapsody on Pasta’, to this popular foodstuff. The Chinese ate different types of pasta items every season. Spring was the time for stuffed buns (mántou馒头), fall for a leavened product known as qĭ sōu (起溲), winter was the time for a bowl of steaming noodles and, differently from nowadays, pancakes (bó-zhuàng薄壯- in translation ‘thin and strong’), were eaten in summer:

When Wu Hui** governs the land,
And the pure yang spreads and diffuses
Dressed in ramie and drinking ice water,
We cool ourselves in the shade.
If in this season we make ping,
There is nothing better than the "thin and strong."

* Originally, the source used the Wade-Giles system to name the ‘pasta’ items. I have tried to find their corresponding names using pinyin.

** Wu Hui(吳回)was the god of fire.

Our food arrives surprisingly quickly, five dishes in less than ten minutes. A white and blue painted ceramic pot encloses the precious stack of thin and white pancakes. In its lower part there is a lit candle to keep the discs warm and prevent them from going hard. On the table, plates are placed with Sour and Spicy Shredded Potatoes (suān​là​tǔ​dòu​sī酸辣土豆丝), Sautéed Pickled Cabbage and Vermicelli (suān​cài fěn​sī酸菜粉丝), Stir-fried Bean Sprouts with Vinegar (cù​pēng dòu​yá醋烹豆芽), Stir-fried Bean Sprouts with Chinese Chives (jiǔ​cài dòu​yá韭菜豆芽) and Pork with Bean Sauce (jīngjiàngròu​sī京酱肉丝).“We should bring some sauces”, Helen suggests, and we go to a ‘small buffet’ of dips and vegetables à la julienne – reminiscent of the ones used to accompany the famous Beijing duck. She chooses sweet bean sauce (tiánmiàn jiàng甜面酱), fried bean paste (zhájiàng炸酱) and shredded cucumbers and leeks. My choice falls on chili sauce (là​jiāo​jiàng 辣椒酱), vinegar (cù醋), and shredded cucumbers, leeks and radishes. While we help ourselves, the waitresses loudly greet newcomers ‘Guāng​lín, Guāng​lín’ (光临,光临), which means ‘we are honoured with your presence’.

Back at the table, Helen lifts the lid of the ceramic container and reaches for pancakes. “Each one separates into two”, she explains. She pulls one half adroitly, goes on to fill them with the sauces and additions –first, and then with bits of the rest of the dishes. I try to follow the exact instructions, but quickly give up. I am too hungry and end up eating a half-open roll. Thankful that nothing from the inside fell on my pants, I grab the other half and proceed in the same way. I wonder what allows the pancakes to be so effortlessly separated with a couple of pulls. Helen tells me it is done by putting oil between two dough-balls and then rolling them out together into a thin disc.

Similarly, Jin Shoushen (1906-1968), a writer and expert in Beijing culture, claimed: ‘one should first prepare two flat pancakes made with dough and boiling water, spread sesame oil on each and then bake them. Between the two layers, one puts a mixture made of smoked meat, spiced pork, shredded tripe, shredded chicken and egg. One can garnish with green onions, fermented bean paste, bean sprouts, spinach, Chinese chives and vermicelli for better flavor’.

I am enjoying everything, but two of dishes are not letting my chopsticks move away. They both have a sour element in them: the delicate mung bean vermicelli with the pickled cabbage and the shredded potatoes. With every bite of the former, I am tasting the heart-warming (although obvious) flavours of the stir-frying and Chinese ingredients, but somewhere in between, the Polish notes of the sauerkraut come through and it comforts me, oh… so much. The latter, hands down my favorite, is the best version of this dish I have found in China to date. The shredded potatoes are not clear and pale -as they usually come, but delightfully shaded with a darker brown vinegar. It gives it a more complex savor complemented by the pungent spiciness of the dried chilies. And they are perfectly crunchy. I am thinking, this one is worth coming back to the restaurant for.

Becoming an interpreter, French manicure, and Beijing

We talk about her childhood. Helen was born and grew up in Shenyang. She lived with her grandparents “in the first apartment building in the area” and explains that most of the people still lived in ‘píng​fáng’ (平房) - a long row of one story small houses. She remembers looking out from the balcony and seeing only vegetable and corn fields, a very different view from what it is today. “I went back a few months ago and didn’t recognize much at all, everything was so different”, she says. She speaks in a silky, low-toned, paused impeccable English, a testament to her years of experience in practicing the profession. Even the most technical terms acquire a melodic rhythm. I could hear Helen’s voice for hours without getting tired.

I ask Helen if she always wanted to do something related to translation. “Yes, very early on”, she says. She goes on, telling me she had good English skills. Her grandparents would wake her up at 5a.m. every day for several months, to listen to a radio program broadcasted in English. “It was actually recorded by Americans”, she says. Thirty minutes every day of radio lessons, which she followed with books her granddad had previously bought for her. It was the language skills, but it was also her trying to avoid sciences that led her to choosing an English major. “I was horrible at math”, she says. “I was trying to avoid math, so I chose to be a student of arts”. I asked if by then she knew what the job entailed. “I did not know”, she says; but “the idea was somehow romantic and fascinating”.

As studies progressed, she started falling more in love with the language and growing confident she had made the right choice. She studied in Fù​xīn​ (阜新), an even smaller city in Liaoning province, further north, closer to Mongolia. It was the biggest Mining University in China and had just established a new English department. She remembers arriving the first day to the university: “When the car went through the gate …I saw lots of guys in overalls, with a pile of books under their arms and walking very fast”. It was not the college environment she had imagined for her. But she liked being independent for the first time in her life.

After three years of college she was offered a job in Fuxin as a clerk in an American consultancy. She was in charge of the office work, but also did some basic interpretation. “My first salary was 600 rmb”, she says. The company provided the apartment, so “back then it was quite a bit…you could get by, certainly, as a young graduate”. During this time, she started flirting with the idea of simultaneous interpretation and attended a one-month training course in Beijing –an experience that would prove key in the future. She worked for about five years in Fuxin, until the company went bankrupt and Helen moved back to Shenyang. For the next two years she worked as assistant to the General Manager of a company, but also doing interpretation. After this time, she quit (reason unknown), and started doing some freelance work - mainly translating two books on Islam. The job paid well, but more than anything else, it ignited Helen’s curiosity for discovering new places. Destination chosen: Pakistan.

We are slowing down our food intake. We have almost finished the pancakes but left half of the other dishes. Correction. I have mostly finished the food, since Helen has been doing most of the talking. She takes a break, she feels her throat is getting irritated and coughs a little –yet another natural side effect of long hours of straining her vocal cords.

On the plane to Islamabad, she sat next to an elegant Italian lady. “She had amazing French manicure […] that really impressed me”, she says. She couldn’t help but ask her about it and sooner rather than later they engaged in a vivid and entertaining conversation that lasted the whole flight. The Italian lady gave her a name card. “She asked me to contact her after I came back… and I did […] And that is how I met my third boss”.

She got a job as assistant/translator/interpreter to the team of Italians working on a gas pipeline project. The company paid for the moving and Helen hired a truck to take her and her belongings to Beijing. Why did she do that? “I had to travel with it [her stuff] anyway, the guy didn’t really know where to go”, she says. I admit that I would have sent the car with my things and caught a flight myself. She laughs and says “that would be wise”. I ask if there weren’t any flights from Shenyang to Beijing she could have taken. “Yeah, but I didn’t. I wanted to travel with my stuff”, she says while still laughing at the reminder of the long trip she took all the way from Liaoning.

It was not easy getting used to Beijing and life in the capital city. “It was too big. It was too cold. Cold in terms of not friendly” she says. She knew her way around in her hometown, but in Beijing nothing seemed to work in the same way. Her job was demanding and she usually worked very long hours. She stayed at this position for several months, before enrolling to two-year simultaneous interpretation training at UIBE University. She first applied for the part-time program, but a fellow interpreter encouraged her to do the full-time alternative. “I used up all my savings … and my parents supported me as well”, she remembers.

I ask about details. “It was so intense, I’ve never studied so hard until I enrolled in that program”, she says. Daily exercises involved interpreting speeches inside a booth, which were later assessed by two teachers: an English native-speaker and a Chinese-native speaker. “You should read a lot”, she explains. Reading English and Chinese texts helps to get familiar with and expand the vocabulary. Also, “practice with tapes […] we need to basically try to interpret along with tapes” she says. Then she adds that this type of exercises will help to “practice the concentration”.

Interpretation is a very exhausting job. “The working hours shouldn’t be longer than six”, she tells me. I go on and ask her if she feels tired after such a day. “Yes, [after] some of the really tough gigs I would leave the booth with a really bad headache and the headache wouldn’t necessarily go away ‘til the next morning”. Freelance interpreters can adjust their schedules and the amount of gigs they accept. A one-week interpretation gig is an already long contract. One of the exceptions is work for the UN. Events usually last for two whole weeks, but “the UN has very strict rules about how interpreters work”, she says. On the other side of the spectrum, there are also times when a job would entail travelling to several countries in a short period of time or interpretation hours that go well over the ideal 6-hour lapse. She tells me about one time when she had to interpret for nine and a half hours in one day.

I ask if she ever turns down any job offers. She does from time to time. I am curious to know what has been the coolest gig she has got up to the moment. She does not need to think about it and automatically responds she loved working for one of the most renowned jewelry companies. I think to myself: “What kind of girl does not like to be surrounded by luxury and elegance? Right?”

Helen loves her work. Her busy schedule is a testament to the fact that she is a sought-after professional. “Would you recommend this job to young kids? I inquire. It seems the perfect job. You can do it as long as you want, you are not required to live in a specific place, you can be a freelancer and your own boss – all very appealing reasons. She thinks for a second, “not anymore […] because sooner or later we are gonna be replaced by machines”.

A few days later, while preparing the text for this post, I come across an article on “Chinese to English translating: Not human, but exceptional”. The piece somehow confirmed Helen’s reflections about “an AI machine translation system that can translate from Chinese to English with the same accuracy as can a human”. The piece raises an interesting, although slightly worrisome question for those who are planning to do interpretation for the living ‘when they grow- up’.

It is already past nine o’clock. We have been talking for more than two hours. The sounds around us have slowly but noticeably lowered and become more sporadic. Local restaurants in the city, especially those in less touristic areas, close around ten o’clock. I see the tables in front of me and next to us have emptied. I turn around to inspect the other half of the room and see the staff has sat to the table to have their evening meal. I tell Helen we are almost done, but I still want to do a last thunder round of questions.

- Did Beijing opened to you new horizons when it comes to gastronomy?

- “Of course [...] I was exposed to a lot more variety of tastes […] When I was living by myself I ate really simply, most of the time instant noodles”.

- Are you adventurous with food? Do you always like to try new food?

- “Yeah, when I go to a new place I always make sure that I try something new”

- When did you try western food for the first time and what was it?

- “When I was in college”. She was invited at her boss’s house and tells me she had macaroni and cheese. “I loved it”, she says.

- Is Chinese your favorite food? What other cuisine you enjoy?

- “[Chinese] It is one of my favorites”. She also likes Thai food due to the spiciness and freshness of flavours; and, German food - the pork knuckle and the sauerkraut, in particular. “It is like home” she says referring to the sauerkraut.

- Your favorite foreign dish?

- “Cheesecake […] without toppings. NY style”.

- Favorite book

- Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen; and, River Town, by Peter Hessler.

The awareness that we are one of the last customers is a feeling that makes me very uncomfortable. I call the waitress and ask her to bring me the bill. “Qǐng lái mǎi​dān​” (请来买单),I say. The girl stares at me in stupor with wide opened-eyes and does not respond. I repeat the phrase. No response –again. I feel a pinching sensation in my heart. I have tried to learn at least the basic lines in Chinese, but the look of a foreigner is still a scary vision for some Chinese. Fortunately, a second girl arrives and says she will bring it at once. I wish to take the rest of the uneaten dishes home, “qǐng dǎ​bāo” (请打包), the literal translation being “please pack to go” – a practice I appreciate, since it prevents unnecessary wastage of food.

I want to take a shot of one of the dishes on the menu, but while I do it, Helen quickly settles the bill. So, I not only come out with a great story for my blog, I also had a delicious dinner (for free) and, on top of that, I get 5 boxes for my next day’s meal.

We part and while I drive back home I think about Helen’s generosity and the need to reciprocate next time. I also think about the delicious food, but in particular, about the surprising discovery of chrysanthemum tea.

Finally, I reflect on all the things we talked about, about the funny ways life has: how what seems to be accidental turns out to be ‘meant to be’; about serendipity and how Mister M. (Helen’s interpreter friend) turned out to also be the best friend of the guy she is about to marry; and, about manicures and giving compliments. A compliment is a powerful tool. People should give them more often, if only for the sole fact that it will for sure make somebody’s day brighter and, sometimes, only sometimes, it can also land you a job that will change your life forever.

Recipe for the Spring-pancakes (春饼chūnbǐng)


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