Monday, January 16, 2012

The Transparency of Food

Inspired by Chinese pumpkin soup

I just learned something that brings together a lot of things I’ve been theorizing on, and I immediately thought, now, see, this is why one has a blog – to be able to share such truth-inspiring moments. I was having lunch with the Museum staff in honor of an Israeli architect who is working on a project with the Museum (news on that to come soon). We were at a very nice restaurant, having really food (steak and sesame chicken and pan-fried fish, and shanghai-style noodles, sans the pork), when a bowl of orange soup appeared on the lazy suzie.

It turned out to be this incredible pumpkin soup. It was probably one of the yummiest things I’ve had in China so far. This is why at the end of the day I do love Chinese food – if only because it truly never ceases to surprise you. Which is totally case in point to what happened next.

I’m tasting the soup, trying to discern what is in it. I got chicken broth base, pine nuts, green and red pepper chunks, pumpkin, both blended into the soup and in big sautéed chunks, and perhaps some spice that could have been turmeric , when K, one of my colleagues, says:

“You know what they say, about Chinese food and Western food, right? That in Chinese food you cannot see all the ingredients when you look in the dish, but in Western food you can.”

“Oh really?”

“Yes. It comes from Kongzi…you know Kongzi?” This word, for those who don’t read Pinyin, is pronounced Cone-dz.


“Yes! Exactly. He said that it is not good to show everything. Imagine a rich man, who shows that he is rich…it is not good for him in the end, you see?”

“Ahh yes. Yes, I understand.”

Here is the thing. Just last night I was once again talking with someone about the opacity of Chinese food, because I recently found out that a noodle dish that I really love has shredded pork in it, and consequently every time I’ve had that dish, it might have had shredded pork in it (I found this out because I ordered Chinese food online for the first time and looked at a detailed menu. Even more shocking is that when you’re in a restaurant and you say “no pork” they don’t extend that to mean “no shredded pork”). I finished the conversation yesterday wondering, once again, who in their right mind would shred pork and for what purpose. What can it possibly add?

Well, doesn’t this just explain it all. The emphasis on texture in Chinese cuisine – because texture is hidden, subtle, you discover it only after you have committed to eating it, the complicated chunk-less sauces, which can and often do include things like shredded pork and shrimp, using spices to cover up scents and tastes (including MSG, because it augments certain tastes over others), and the fact that Chinese people are just not that picky about what meat they’re eating.

But more than that, it’s the learning of the lesson that is important. This girl knows that I’m a curious one, she and I went to a tea shop a few weeks ago, where she translated the tasting procedure of about five kinds of tea, including all the rituals, before we bought a nice bag of oolong for me to take as a gift. It was a nice bonding experience. With that as a precedent, it is so nice of her to instruct me in cornerstones of Chinese culture. You shouldn’t let everything show…I asked if this extended to people’s behavior, which I think is a question that requires a level of introspection that the Chinese rarely possess, as they simply haven’t had much exposure to other cultures, and thus don’t have much to compare their own culture with (most other cultures at least are subject to American cultural imperialism, which I think ultimately makes them wiser about themselves, among other things). She said that in the olden days people were more like that, but Shanghai people are modern nowadays.

I guess that’s true. Probably compared to how people used to be, modern shanghainese are veritable transparent people, open-minded and just letting it all show (realistically, I think they’re somewhere in the middle, between Indians – super reserved about personal stuff, and Americans – open about everything). Nonetheless, it says so much about so many aspects of Chinese culture – not wanting, ever, to lose face, or even the plenitude of rituals and traditions that accompany any meal, which are easy to understand, follow, and hide behind. Indeed, the rigidness of the culture could be construed as simply a way of not showing feelings and emotions.

What’s ironic is that part of the reason why I enjoyed that soup so much was precisely because I thought I could tell what was in it. It was simple, straightforward, a lot more like Indian or Mexican food than Chinese. It had no complicated tastes or tricks to the tongue. But I guess maybe it did, because that’s when K chose to share with me this little cultural anecdote.

Update: since then, I’ve found out that Confucius has a whole lot of laws about food, but also that he was from northern China, and thus his teachings apply to life there. Food in southern China is a whole other matter. Hopefully more on this soon. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Belated Hanukah Update

From Shanghai to the UK
JDC’s first official event in Shanghai, Ohel Rachel Ceremony and Limmud

For me, Hanukah began on December 4th, at the Community Hanukah fair. It was put together by Chabad in the Portman Hotel plaza, a big indoor hall, on a Sunday afternoon. I arrived on time to help set up for the Kids Kraft table, and ended up running the window-decorating booth. Aside from a wide-variety of crafts, there was a children’s winter coat sale, booth of community businesses selling their products and services, and of course, plenty of incredibly food.

I had a great time running my booth, as it’s been a while since I’ve hung out with kids. It also allowed me to marvel at the diversity of the community in Shanghai, and how nice it is that families have a place here to come celebrate a Jewish holiday. I ended up making a hanukia out of some weird colorful plasticky-playdough material, and it was awesome.

Around that same time, I was deciding what (if anything at all) I should do for Hanuka. In my activities with and for the community, I am constantly trying to strike a balance between what the community needs and what I am actually able to execute by myself. For example, obviously there is no need for a family event, and in any case, something like that is virtually impossible to plan and carry out alone.  So I decided that, in the spirit of Shanghai expat culture, I would find a Happy Hour rate (Shanghai is all about Happy Hours, Ladies’ Nights, promotions, discounts, and ways to go out to nice places for less or even nothing at all) at a nice, appealing club, and invite everyone I know. Everything was thought out – the date (as late as possible but before people leave on vacation, and without conflicting with other community events), the food (sufganiot and levivot from Chabad, both Kosher and festive), and the party favors (chocolate coins and dreidels). The club was a bit tricky to work with, though in the end I managed to get the Happy Hour rate and permission to bring the food in.

The Israeli Consulate and it’s wonderful employees helped me advertise the event (the picture in the flier below is from when I celebrated Hanukah in India with a group of friends), and through that and my own invitees, word got around through all the circles – Americans, French, Europeans, and of course, Israelis. People told me that they received the email from different friends, and that there was talk about it in Chabad on Friday. Other people told me, during the event, that there where people there who had not come for a Jewish event in years.

About 80 people came before 10 pm. I calculated a total of 150 people throughout the whole night. I couldn’t believe it. I realized that the time is right to bring the Jews of Shanghai together. If there is a place and a reason (religious or otherwise), they will come. It was so simple; a good party with other Jews, and many people told me they wish this happened more often.  What surprised me was that there were people from all ages and backgrounds. Certainly plenty of young, single professionals, but also lots older couples. It was great. And it didn’t step on anyone’s toes, which only added to its success.

On the first night of Hanukah, the community was allowed to use the old synagogue downtown , Ohel Rachel. It was such a beautiful event. I am realizing now that all the Hanukah activities so far have all been so different yet all so fitting the holiday, and it has been so enjoyable. This event was for the entire family, and indeed, there were many children, but also plenty of younger peope. The one age group that continues to be conspicuous in its absence here is the teenagers. There are many, many under-5 year-olds, but no over-10 year-olds. There was a small candle-lighting ceremony, some song-singing, and a lot of incredible food. It was just a nice Jewish mingling event, but the context of the synagogue made it really special. It’s such an incredible building that I think reflects what the Jews of Shanghai must have been like in the early part of the 20th century, at their strongest.

Then, on the second night, the Liberal group threw a Hanukah thing at Haya’s, the Israeli restaurant downtown. It was a family-style sort of dinner, which many young people attended. It was a different group – plenty of mixed couples, but also people who want a different scene from the Jewish centers around the city.

The next day, I flew to the UK to attend Limmud, which this year fell on the remaining five nights of Hanukah. Limmud was an amazing, intellectually diverse experience, made only more interesting by the fact that, aside from both of my JDC bosses, I had never really been exposed to British Jewry (or really, British culture beyond the really famous stuff), and it was very enriching to be in that environment.

For an entire week, I attended sessions by incredible speakers, all having something to do with a crucial part of my identity – Judaism, Israel, or the diversity of the Jewish world. There was text study (which I actually really love. Nothing like a page of the Talmud to keep you intellectually humble), panels on journalism and politics, on Jewish identity and religiosity, theater and music workshops and performances, amazing lectures on topics in Judaism – sexuality, Hannah Arendt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab Spring, and so much more.

Limmud is run by volunteers, and every presenter is also a participant. Some of the presenters are really high-level experts in their field, yet there is a sense of equality and openness about the whole experience.  Every evening concluded with the lighting of the candles – everyone together out in the courtyard, usually with musical accompaniment. It was a very intense, but also so fulfilling.

I also attended a lot of Limmud International sessions, with the hope of getting an idea of how other people around the world have made Limmud happen in their communities. I am very excited about helping make Limmud in China a very proximate reality. It will be so incredibly nourishing for both the communities and the individuals here. This is a great framework for people to give something to the whole, from which they can also take back a lot as individuals. And it’s something that is simple, uncomplicated, fully accepting, and intrinsically Jewish, because its fundamental cornerstone is something all Jews indisputably have in common – learning, in all its manifestations.