When food loses its charm

Hi! Are you still here? I have been gone lately, thinking about this site and whether I want to keep writing about things in the same old fashion. So that partially explains my absence. That, and the start of a new semester of grad school, ready to provide me with any number of excuses for not posting here.

To tell you the truth, food hasn't interested me much lately. I've been doing the same old cooking for myself as usual (a woman has gotta eat), but I haven't been pouring over recipes in the way I normally do. I have had friends over, and tried new foods, but my new issue of Gourmet didn't set me athrill like it did just a few months ago, and I haven't ventured beyond my Asian/Japanese phase for quite a while. I'll keep eating seaweed salads and simmered tofu and noodle soup, thank you very much -- but I just don't feel much like writing about them. They're just food, after all. I have other things to worry about, and none of them revolve around eating.

Maybe this is a good thing -- after all, many eating disorders start (and end?) -- with food obsessions. But, much to my chagrin, I haven't posted anything here in 10 days! In the meanwhile, I have been thinking a lot about other things that I want to write about, like mental illness in general (beyond eating disorders), and my experiences earlier this year caring for my father as he dealt with his own mental illness. I also want to write more about exercise, and being active, especially about cycling and the thrill of the road. And did I ever mention that I am Buddhist? Sometime I would like to write about meditation, and how I think it can help with mental illness.

So, I'm putting this out there: I'm not sure what this space is going to turn into, if it even turns into anything. I'm just open to trying something new here, writing about things that only tangentially touch upon food and eating disorders, in the hopes of opening this space up to that other thing, life, vida, that forms part of the title. Life, and happiness.


P.S. Above: Portuguese egg custards in Macao. Below: sautéed lotus root, fresh soy milk, and
natto (fermented soy beans).


Oil vegetable!

One thing that I noticed about the food in Yúnnán was the unusually fresh oil that was used to stir-fry leafy greens and other vegetables. Normally I don't pay much attention to the vegetable oil in stir-fries, as it rarely adds any flavor, but Yunnanese oil seemed fresh, almost fruity to my tongue. I started to pester my husband and mother-in-law to ask around and find out what kind of oil it was.

Chuan and I stumbled upon the answer ourselves, before much investigation could take place. We were walking along a back alley in Dàlĭ when I noticed an unusual operation taking place: a man was putting a thick, green-black paste through a large press, and a thick green oil was dripping out into a large metal bucket underneath! Chuan stopped and asked them what the oil was from, and they replied: yóu cài (油菜), literally "oil vegetable." Of course it was an oil vegetable! I thought. But which oil vegetable, exactly? Neither Chuan nor his parents had heard of yóu cài before, and the Chinese dictionary that we had brought with us didn't list it, either. A few people we met told us that it was the plant growing along the road leading into Dàlĭ, but as we left town on a bus later that day, I couldn't get a close look at the crops because the bus was moving so quickly. I suspected that it was rapeseed, as they certainly weren't growing sunflowers, and grapeseed or nut oils, like walnut or almond, also seemed out of the question.

Imagine my smugness when I looked up yóu cài in my favorite online Chinese dictionary and found that it was indeed rapeseed that we saw being pressed. Although rapeseed, or canola oil, sometimes receives bad press -- the commercial stuff is highly processed and often hydrogenated -- there was no doubt that this was among the freshest, fruitiest oil that I had ever tasted. I wanted to bring a pint of it home for my own cooking, but my husband convinced me otherwise (there was only so much room in our suitcase, and a good portion of it was already reserved for dried persimmons and hot chilies!). Still, I can't help but think of what a pity it is that so little of the oil that we use here in the United States comes from local sources. In fact, until I traveled to Italy this summer, I had never been in a place where the oil we consumed was made from plants grown and pressed in the area (in Italy, this was olive oil). Oil forms the backbone of most cooking across cultures, and yet I have never really given much thought to where it comes from, or how it comes to us. The effort that it takes to get a liter of oil from the tiny rapeseed is really quite astonishing -- look at the apparatus above! -- and so easy to take for granted when we just pick up a plastic jug of it from under the kitchen sink.

I like to think of where my food comes from, because for so long all I could think about was how many calories were in my meal, and whether or not it would make me gain weight. I like traveling to different countries and seeing how people grow and make their food, because it reminds me that human beings, across cultures, have very different relationships with food -- and yet there are strong similarities, too. I try to share some of my delight in discovering new foods and new ways of eating with the readers of this blog, because I know that you, too, struggle with eating, and sometimes learning about food from a different perspective can liberate us from a single-minded attention on one food or another. So -- oil can be scary. I'm not denying that. But there's more to oil than fat: there's sun and rain and fields and tradition and machinery and molecules and fire. There's the memory of a happy trip, and the taste of future meals, and hard work to come, all in a thin stream of green liquid.


Sweet salty sour bitter SPICY

A comment by Carrie on my latest post, where she mentioned her aversion to spicy foods, reminded me of just how varied a thing taste can be from person to person -- and even within the same person, over time.

I don't think that it is a coincidence that I developed a penchant for spicy food the year after I stopped binging and purging. When I was bulimic, the only foods that I could think about were desserts and other sweets; I could care less if someone was offering me a fantastic main course, because I only wanted dessert! Once I stopped purging, and then stopped binging, I found that I began to enjoy other foods again, too.

In China, three years ago, I wanted to eat green things. Green things, and chili peppers. At restaurants, where we mostly ate because the food was so cheap and so fresh, I would ask my husband to order at least one dish of stir-fried greens, and left the other dishes up to him. In retrospect, I find it interesting that, after eating so many sweet things for so long, my body was finally calling for other flavors. Chinese medicine would probably have an explanation for this, too: the Chinese believe that one should eat a balance of foods and flavors, whereas consuming more of one flavor may lead to ill health effects over time. For that reason, Chinese meals contain a variety of tastes, textures, colors, and cooking techniques. For example, fried whole shrimp may be balanced out by steamed dumplings, a simple sautée of field greens, and an eggplant casserole. Each person at the table is expected to each small portions of each dish, rather than pick one large dish for him- or herself. Interestingly, few foods are "demonized" in Chinese cooking -- fried and fatty foods are enjoyed just as often as baked and steamed items, but the quantities are rarely large, and they are always eaten in conjunction with other foods.

As I eat fewer and fewer sweets, it has been surprising how many other foods I have let back into my belly, or how many new foods I am now eating, like pickles, mayonnaise, and peppers, that I rarely ate during my eating disorder. I feel a loosening of boundaries, an expansive quality to my eating these days. Much of this is due, I am sure, to the fact that I have taken on so much of my own food preparation, which tends to demystify the foods that I eat. Coming back from China with a bag of Yúnnán peppers, I could hardly wait to make them into my favorite Chinese chili oil, the standard là jiàng (辣酱) that is served as an accompaniment in many restaurants in China. Fuchsia Dunlop promised an easy recipe for hot chili oil in her book Sichuan Cookery, which I picked up in China my last time around (American title: Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking). I love the British version of the book, whose cover features the very peppers that I am talking about! How delightful.

Today I got around to making the là jiàng. First I ground the peppers (lightly roasted) in my food processor.

I chose a small glass jar and put the ground pepper flakes into the jar, along with a piece of star anise.

Meanwhile, I heated some sunflower oil in a pan on the stove.

Next, I poured the hot oil over the pepper flakes and anise, and watched the flakes crackle and pop as the oil hit them.

A delicious fragrance resulted, fresh and almost sweet, as the oil chilled in the jar.

I added some of this oil to our dinner tonight, a simple chard stew over plain white rice. The oil is not spicy at all, just lightly touched with the sweet scent of chilies. I think that I added too much oil for the small quantity of chilies that I have -- but hey, you live, you learn. Next time I'll do three things differently: I'll use a candy thermometer to make sure that I get the oil to the right temperature; I'll use less oil or more chilies; and I'll seek out even hotter chilies in Chinatown, if they are to be had. What I do know is this: I'm sure to try this recipe again! It is so simple, and so much fun to see the sizzling chilies stain the oil bright red!


Christmas chilies

If you like hot food, then there is nothing more to say about it: you'll search for peppers near and far, you will eat chilies in the most unusual of combinations (a spicy Thai papaya salad, a Mexican tamarind candy with chili), and you will scoff at other people's fear of spice. When we were living in Beijing in 2005, I was one of these people: a spice-monger. Upon returning to the U.S., however, my taste-buds gradually dulled, and it is now an effort to consume chilies in the same way that I used to. That doesn't mean that I don't try, however, nor that I fail to be excited at the mention of spicy food. Spice continues to drive me like it drove the Portuguese traders who first set foot on Chinese shores, and whatever country I am in, whatever province, I look forward to mouth-tingling tastes and fire in the belly.

When we visited a Taoist temple last week in Yúnnán, I couldn't help but notice the piles of slender chilies that some temple workers were drying in the bright mountain sunshine on the temple's outside patios. The temple itself was dull, at best, and we soon moved on to explore the nearby mountain paths, following a wide trail to the source of a bubbling brook, a Taoist holy site.

It was Christmas -- did I mention that? It was Christmas afternoon, and we had spent the morning walking the grounds of one of China's largest Buddhist temples, where we ate vegetarian food at a small monastery canteen. The Taoist temple in the mountains was a far cry from the sites and sounds of the city below. It was peaceful on the mountain, and every detail stood out in sharp relief: the clanging of the gong in the temple; the whoosh of water in the toilet trough; the smell of pine and incense; and the red flames of peppers lying out to dry.

When we returned from our walk, the sun had gone down and the temple workers had gathered the chilies up for the night. But the image of the peppers drying in the sun lingered in my mind; I remembered how every dish that we had eaten in Yúnnán used a few of these peppers for extra flavor, much as the Cantonese add ginger and garlic to their stir-fries. I wondered if these chilies were the same as the ones that had given so much fire to the Sichuan hotpots that we ate in our 2005 travels, or if they were another variety, more suited to Yúnnán's climate and conditions. Chilies came from the Americas, and must have been brought to China by the Portuguese, as best as I can guess. Yet they have become such a central component of the diet of so many Chinese people, that you would never guess that they have only been in that part of the world for less than half a millennium.

Cantonese food must be the exception among Chinese cuisines, one of the few that does not rely on chili peppers for extra taste and brilliance. When my husband's parents see the amount of chili paste that I add to my plain vegetables, they worry that I might be causing myself gastrointestinal damage. "Is it healthy?" they ask. "Does it have a lot of vitamins?" I reassure them, as I always do, that I believe that pretty much anything that grows in the ground is good for us. Besides, when compared to the Sichuanese, my chili intake is pretty minimal; when people from Sichuan travel to other parts of China, they are notorious for complaining that the food "lacks flavor," and to make up for its dullness, they bring along their own chili oil and chili powders to supplement whatever they're given. This reminds me of a Sri Lankan student that I knew in college, who would sprinkle (Italian-style) chili flakes over everything that she was served in the dining hall. Once you're acclimated to spice, it seems that it is difficult to eat anything plainer.

The Chinese have their own way of dealing with spice. Pungent meals are often washed down with generous cupfuls of nut juices -- including soy, walnut, peanut, and coconut -- and on this trip I often bought a can of coconut juice from streetside vendors in anticipation of a particularly spicy meal at a restaurants (you would think that restaurants would serve the drinks, but often times they don't, and they don't mind if you BYOB). Usually, sneaking in my can of coconut juice was the extent to which I planned for spicy meals; but this time, after seeing chilies grown and marketed all over Yúnnán, my curiosity got the better of me, and I headed home with a bag of fresh, sun-dried chili peppers.

In a future post I'll let you know what I have made with these peppers, snuck back through customs like forbidden fruit. I can't wait to tell you about it! -- but there is only so much that I can write about peppers in a single day, and I hope to leave you with just enough to keep you coming back for more.

After all, isn't that what spice is supposed to do? Keep you coming back for more...


Intuitive eating, the Chinese way

Traveling through China's Yúnnán province last week, we stopped at Buddhist temples, hiked sacred mountain paths, sailed across magnificently blue lakes, and ate some of the freshest, most unusual food that I have tried in China.

Chinese food has a special place in my heart -- or rather, several such places. For one, my husband was born in China, and the food that he raves most about is Chinese fare. Secondly, I actually had the chance to spend some time in China myself, when I accompanied my husband to Beijing for four months in 2005. I was still in the early stages (the first year) of my recovery from an eating disorder, and I remember Beijing as a place where I experimented with new ways of eating and new approaches to food.

China turned out to be the ideal place to practice "intuitive eating," when you eat when you're truly hungry, eat what you want to eat, and stop when you are full. China lent itself to intuitive eating because, at Chinese meals, individual portions are rarely served; instead, each member of the table is invited to serve him- or herself from communal dishes in the center of the table. Because each meal is crafted to have a variety of flavors and textures, diners are supposed to sample from each dish (and not merely eat one's favorite dishes) in order to get a balanced meal.

At first, this way of eating was intimidating to me -- how was I supposed to know how much to eat, or when to stop, if there was no plate of my own, no portion size, and copious amounts of food to reckon with? Over time I learned to follow my dining companions, to eat slowly and rest my chopsticks often, and to focus on the people and conversation instead of on the food.

This week, as we visited the historic cities of Dàlĭ and Lìjiāng (see the photo at left) in northern Yúnnán, I had ample opportunities to practice the Chinese way of eating: whether it was a simple breakfast of rice porridge (congee) with preserved eggs and cabbage, or a lavish dinner of tea-cooked chicken and lotus root slivers, every meal was shared. I cannot decipher Chinese menus, but I found that I enjoyed letting my husband and his parents order for all of us, trusting that I would end up with something that I liked (besides discovering something new in the process). We ate many memorable meals, many of which would take years for me to try to recreate, but more than the flavors and the recipes, I want to bring back with me some of the Chinese attitude towards food: I want to view food as a communal experience; food as a healing art; and food as a slow delight.



I am so jetlagged that I am about to fall asleep in a messy pile on my bed, but I can't resist posting a few pictures from my recent trip to China. As always, I was especially interested in the food there, and I feel that I will be writing many posts in the coming weeks about the Chinese way of eating. Asian food is so vast and so varied, it is delightful and bewildering at once. And I am just beginning to scratch the surface.

To those who were concerned: this trip was just the respite that I needed from my research job, and the criticisms that I face there. Tomorrow I'm talking to my supervisor again, and we'll see how things can go from here on out. Deep inside I still feel like there is something wrong with this entire situation -- the way that I see myself is so different from how they see me -- but I also know that, regardless of how "right" I think I am, I am the one who has to change. I once heard mental health defined as the ego's ability to respond with flexibility to new situations; I hope that here I can be flexible, but I know that I also need courage and selflessness to take on this challenge without feeling resentful towards the people who are demanding it of me. These are the ordinary ups and downs of life, I remind myself, as I remember that for a long time I wasn't brave enough or capable enough of looking my problems in the face. It is a lot easier to down one's sorrows in food or exercise, then to sit quietly with one's anxiety and let it run its course, as I have over the last few weeks. But this is recovery, and I would not have it any other way.