- 章节名：第六章 味之本
- 2018-08-05 15:32:00
Life in Chengdu in the mid-nineties appealed to this old longing of mine for the fundamentals of cookery. There were no shortcuts. Centuries-old methods of food preservation were used in most households. On sunny days, the backstreets were hung with cabbage leaves, which had to be half-dried before they could be rubbed with salt and spices and packed into jars to ferment. There were coils of drying tangerine peel on everyone’s windowsills. And as the Chinese New Year approached, people started to smoke bacon and make sausages, hanging them out to wind-dry under the eaves.
In contrast, there is the notorious ma la wei (numbing-and-hot flavour), which combines chilli heat with the tongue-numbing effects of Sichuan pepper. It can be quite overwhelming if you are not used to it, but it’s not meant to be like slamming your tongue with a sledgehammer – more like rousing the palate and awakening it to the other flavours of the meal. There are other permutations of the chilli-and-Sichuan-pepper mix, like hu la wei (‘scorched chilli flavour’). Here, the two spices are sizzled in oil until the chillies are darkening, but not yet burnt and bitter: a marvellous taste. Throw in a bit of sweet and sour, and you have gong bao wei, the sweet-sour-scorched chilli combination found in the famous Gong Bao (or Kung Po) chicken. And so on.
This emphasis on flavour makes Sichuanese a robust and confident cuisine. It doesn’t rely too much on specialised local ingredients, like the cuisines of the eastern Chinese with their delicate water vegetables and acquatic creatures. You can’t make a hairy-crab beancurd without a hairy crab, but you can make a ‘fish-fragrant’ dish or a ‘numbing-and-hot’ dish with anything. Perhaps this is why Sichuanese people are so open-minded and open-hearted compared with people in other parts of China: they don’t have to worry that contact with the outside world will deprive them of their own identity. Just cover the outside world in a fish-fragrant sauce, and you will make it Sichuanese.
My kitchen notebooks from that time are smudged and stained, splattered with cooking oil and batter. The words strewn haphazardly over their pages are written in a mixture of English and Chinese characters. It was often easier to write in English, but I had to use Chinese when I wanted to be precise about the name of an unusual vegetable, or to record one of the countless untranslatable cooking terms. There are also sketches and diagrams, reminding me how to wrap a new kind of dumpling, garnish a dish, or cut up a soaked dried squid. In some places there are herbs or flowers flattened between the pages, restaurant namecards, tickets for a Taoist temple or a train. Sometimes you can see that my notebook has been taken over by someone else: an old woman listing remembered delicacies from her childhood, a chef writing out the names of some obscure ingredients, a noodle-shop acquaintance directing me to a favourite restaurant. (The work always feels like a collaboration, not mine alone.) Some notebooks cover a period of a month or two. Others, written feverishly during a period of intense learning, are filled in a matter of days. And it’s not all about food, either. When I’m in China, these notebooks are my life. They contain train times and shopping lists, records of anxieties and inspirations, dreams and memories; descriptions of the view from a train or the swishing sound of bamboo in the wind.
Most importantly, my notebooks are filled with recipes. Daily, I stood at the wok or pastry board, watching, writing swiftly in a mixture of Chinese and English, whichever was fastest at any particular moment. I became astute at judging quantities by eye. A tablespoon, a rice-bowlful, a handful: I knew my own measures by then.
刚到成都的时候，城里只有两栋高楼：岷山饭店和蜀都大厦，而且就连这两栋楼也没那么高。现在，新的建筑都雨后春笋般地冒了出来。我经常坐在绿树浓荫的小巷子中安静的茶馆里，喝着茶、嗑着瓜子，沉浸在牌九与闲聊的舒适氛围中，结果一抬头发现，巨大的摩天大厦在木屋顶上投下影影绰绰。“这是怎么冒出来的？”我自问。在我周围，一个全新的城市正挥舞着闪闪发光的抱负往未来狂奔，似乎暗中计划了很久的厚积薄发，让我措手不及。 有条我特别喜欢的街，太平上街，就在锦江的南岸顺着河水延伸。拆迁队每天带着大锤来“蚕食”这条街。一开始，墙上、门上都用粉笔写上了中国字“拆”，仿佛无法治愈的传染病。茶馆和小店关门大吉。老房子被拆得只剩空架子，再变成地上的一堆废木头。家家户户的人们都被分流安置到郊区的公寓楼里。最后一座房子快要拆完的时候，我偷了一块写有街名的门牌留作纪念（现在挂在我伦敦的公寓里）。 一方面，这样的拆除实在是个悲剧，是我个人的悲剧：竟然爱上了一个正如此迅速地消失着的地方。我对饮食烹饪的研究，初衷是想记录一个生机勃勃的城市。后来我才明白，从很多角度来说，我都在书写老成都的“墓志铭”。我感觉这也是成都人的悲剧，虽然他们并没有意识到。这个城市是多么迷人、多么独特啊，现在要用一个中国任何地方都存在的城市取而代之，暴殄天物、可悲可叹。 另一方面，九十年代的中国似乎又洋溢着满满的生机与乐观。之前那种功利主义、禁欲主义、千篇一律的呆板与单调乏味消失不见。全国上下都在动起来，十二亿人团结一心、一致向前。在英国，哪怕拆除一栋破旧的老楼，我们都会烦恼苦闷。而在四川，他们一路挥舞大锤，把整座城市都拆平了！这无所顾忌的信心让人不得不佩服。他们坚信，未来会比过去更好。 所以，尽管经过那些被夷为平地的街道时我的心还是会痛，但同时又被这充满活力的乐观鼓动着、躁动着。我也处在一种不稳定的状态，我的人生也在改变。我在挖掘潜在的创造力、在交很棒的朋友，像一条蛇一样慢慢蜕皮。
Chengdu, meanwhile, was changing at surreal speed. One week I would be cycling through a district of old wooden houses on my way to school; the next, it was a plain of rubble, with a billboard depiction of some idealised apartment blocks overhead. Narrow crossroads metamorphosed suddenly into vast open junctions. Familiar landmarks just disappeared. It was like a dream, in which familiar places appeared to me, unmistakeable in their identities and yet strangely unknown. Luckily, I have inherited from my father an internal Global Positioning System that is very reliable, so I always knew where I was going, even if I couldn’t physically recognise my location. When I first knew Chengdu, there were only two high-rises in the city – the Minshan Hotel and the People’s Department Store – and even they weren’t very high. Now, new buildings were sprouting up like bamboo shoots after rain. All too often, I found myself sitting in a peaceful teahouse in a leafy alley, sipping tea and nibbling watermelon seeds, lost in the mellow atmosphere of cards and conversation, only to glance up and find that there was an immense skyscraper looming up over the wooden rooftops. ‘Where did that come from?’ I asked myself. A whole new city, futuristic in its gleaming ambition, was rising up around me, as if by stealth. One of my favourite streets, Upper Heavenly Peace Street, which lined the southern bank of the Brocade River, was eaten away, day by day, by the demolition crews with their sledgehammers. First, the Chinese character chai, ‘demolish’, was chalked up like a sign of hopeless disease on the walls and doors. The teahouses and small shops closed. The old houses were reduced to skeletons, and then just stacks of timber on the ground. Household by household, people were shunted out to apartment blocks in the suburbs. When the last house was about to fall, I stole as a souvenir the sign which bore the name of the street (it now hangs in my flat in London). On the one hand, all this destruction was a tragedy. It felt like a personal tragedy for me, to fall in love with a place that was vanishing so quickly. My culinary researches began as an attempt to document a living city; later, it became clear to me that, in many ways, I was writing an epitaph. It also felt like a tragedy for the people of Chengdu, although they didn’t yet recognise it. To start with a city so charming and distinctive, and to replace it with one that might be anywhere in China – what a waste. On the other hand, there was something so vital and optimistic about China in the nineties. Gone was the utilitarianism, the sexlessness, the uniformity and the stultifying boredom of the tail-end of Chinese communism. The whole country was mobilised for action, moving forward by the collective will of 1.2 billion people. In England we agonised over the demolition of every old shack; in Sichuan, they just went ahead and flattened whole cities! You had to admire the brazen confidence of it, the conviction that the future would be better than the past. So though my heart ached as I cycled through the ruined streets, I was simultaneously buoyed up by this dynamic optimism. I was in a state of flux too, my life was changing. I was rediscovering my creativity, forging fantastic friendships, shedding skins like a snake.
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