Where food is medicine

This week my husband and I both started our doctoral programs. We have five (+) long years ahead of us, and already our lives are busy like they haven't been since our undergraduate days: long study sessions in the library; excuses when friends suggest meeting up; little time for day-dreaming; and meals grabbed on the fly.
This last point, as some of you may know, is of particular worry to me. I have spent so much time learning to pay attention to food that I cannot easily give up the central place that food, and its preparation, have played in my life during the last few years. I know that my studies will cut down on the amount of time that I can be a butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, but I am not quite ready to cede that time.

Thus, right when I should be focusing on other
 things, I find myself absolutely fascinated with Asian cooking. My bedtime reading of Corinne's Trang's Essentials of Asian Cuisine certainly is not 
helping matters, nor is the amazing Korean kimchee soup that I made last week, or the pad thai and watercress that were tonight's dinner:

My husband and his family are from China, and although he grew up eating Cantonese fare, most of what we cook together is Western in inspiration -- a bias that I am working actively to change. The months that I spent in Beijing with Chuan before we got married were amazing, foodwise and otherwise, and I am surprised that it took me this long to decide to try to replicate some of the recipes that we had there, like noodle soups and dumplings, sticky rice with pork and green bean congee. My first forays into food exploration (rather than restriction) began in Beijing, where I must have been the only foreigner who didn't long for ketchup and cheese and wine; indeed, I felt no inclination whatsoever to eat any of these foods, and set my sights on more interesting dishes, like jiao zi (dumplings), Peking duck, 
huo guo (Sichuan hot pot), and skewed beef and yogurt, Uiguhr-style. We lived in a neighborhood near Tsing Hua university, where lots of Japanese and Korean students studied, and so we learned how to eat Korean barbeque and consume large bowls of udon soup. In short, we ate well.

Perhaps the food in Italy this summer was so beguiling to me that I overlooked how deeply Asian food -- its preparation, presentation, and consumption -- speaks to me. From scallion pancakes made by street vendors in Beijing, to the pungent aroma of Korean pickles, to the austerity of Japan's sake and soba, there is something -- what is that? -- that I love about Asian cooking. 

I love the sense of balance that the cook strives for in every meal, the attempt to include sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and spicy tastes in every banquet, and various textures and colors, too. I love the idea, inherited from traditional Chinese medicine, that food is medicine, that food is 
the first medicine, and everything else is a second resort. I love the way my in-laws drive half-an-hour for groceries in order to find the freshest fish and right kind of dried mushrooms and shriveled scallops, and the way my husband slurps his soup and always, always, has second helpings of rice.

In China, where most meals are served in banquet fashion, one large plate after another placed on the table for all to nibble on, I learned to pace my meal and eat only what I needed (what some call "eating intuitively"). I began to listen to what my body really needed when I sat down for a meal, instead of planning out every 
morsel ahead of time. Often I didn't even have the words to order my own food, so when the meal came, I had to eat what was before me. Not knowing what to expect, I loosened up a bit. So what if I ate something that I didn't want to eat? So what if that dumpling was made of wheat, not rice? So what if I over-ate or under-ate at one meal? I would get another chance, and the next meal would be something different, likely something that I never had eaten before. 

And so my eating changed, bite by bite. I left China and never looked back -- until now. In our home, Asian food is comfort food, and so I'm back to scouring the shelves of supermarkets looking for mirin and chili paste, dried shrimp and rice noodles, just as classes start and more responsibilities pile on. We are far, geographically speaking, from the rice paddies of our photos, but could not be in greater need of the reassurance afforded by a simple bowl of rice.


Victoria said...

This is so beautiful it simply takes my breath away.

Good luck to both of you.

Tiptoe said...

Asian foods have always been very comforting for me. They can be both simple and complex but always flavorful. Every ingredient has a meaning and purpose which is similar to the food as medicine approach.

Though life will be busier for you, I encourage you to keep cultivating your inner chef. You've made great progress in your recovery.

By the way, the book Trail of Crumbs--a memoir searching for self and home, has some interesting recipes--a few are Asian, many European, and others American-influenced.

ania said...

Dear Ai Lu,

This is a lovely post - photograph and word composition alike.

With gratitude....

Ai Lu said...

Thanks for your suggestion on that book! I had heard a review of it on The Splendid Table (an NPR show about food) and have happily browsed that book in Borders on occasion. I may pick it up again when the semester dies down a bit and I have more time to read.
Victoria and Ania: Thank you for your encouragement. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to write my posts, and it is so rewarding to get positive reader feedback!
~Ai Lu