Hometown cooking, imagined and real

The Chinese have always considered cuisine a hallmark of civilization. Throughout the ages we've distinguished ourselves from foreigners - and from barbarians - by our preference for cooked foods and grain over raw foods and meat. When we emigrate, our sense of taste becomes a major source of culture shock, an impenetrable barrier. We can choke down food that tastes like wax to us, but we can't make ourselves enjoy it. This barrier turns us into strangers, torn between the old country and the new one.

I have never been able to free myself from this feeling of estrangement. My stubborn sense of taste prevents me from appreciating the culinary pleasures of the foreign land where I live. Western cuisine doesn't appeal to me because I detest its two crowning glories: chocolate and cheese. I find the slightest whiff of either instantly repugnant.

In China we drink our milk hot, so that a skin forms on its surface, and its warm fragrance awakens our senses to the beauty of the morning. Cold American skim milk pales in comparison. Whenever I pick up a glass of the stuff, it reminds me of the whitewash I put on my walls.

Italian pasta is also a fright: heaped on a platter with tomato sauce and cheese, it looks like a pile of paint-smeared plastic tubing to me. Fast-food fried chicken tastes like wads of cotton compared to the grilled chicken I used to eat in Xian in central China. And since my palate is accustomed to marinated beef, biting into a steak is like gnawing on shoe leather.

Whenever I go to a restaurant and find the menu full of dishes with Italian names, I pluck up my courage and choose something to try, hoping against hope. Unfortunately, I've always been disappointed. But I've done this so many times by now that, although I still can't say I find the food palatable, at least it doesn't seem as awful as it did in the beginning.

I tried some local Chinese restaurants in search of more familiar cooking, but their dishes weren't authentic. They'd doctored their recipes to cater to American tastes. So even these restaurants lost their attraction for me, and I came to feel that there weren't any that I could go to. The only way I could satisfy my appetite was by dreaming of the foods I used to love.

My hometown food wasn't unusually tasty, but distance intensified my craving for it. I became obsessed with the humble fare that I associated with my childhood, or with familiar streets and restaurants.

Actually, my fixation and hunger were signs of homesickness, the result of sentimental memories conjured up by my stubborn sense of taste. Sometimes I'd get carried away when I mentioned some long-forgotten tidbit to my wife, or to my mother when she visited us, but they seemed baffled by my nostalgia. I even had a dream where I was strolling back and forth on a famous market street in Xian, sampling the wares at each vendor's stall.

Finally, not long ago, my dream of a culinary tour came true. I returned to Xian for a couple of weeks and made a special trip to the Muslim night market. The brick sidewalk was lined with spotless food stalls. Despite the chill of the winter evening, I didn't feel the least bit cold dining outdoors in the bright glow of the lanterns and grill fires. I limited myself to a single morsel of each item so that I would have room for everything, from shish kebab and dumpling soup to cinnamon-sprinkled dried persimmons and eight-treasure fermented glutinous rice. As if it were an "all you can eat" buffet, I munched my way down the whole street, until I was stuffed.

But to my great surprise, my hometown food seemed rather tasteless, as though my tongue were coated with thick fur. Nothing quite measured up to the delicious treats that I remembered gobbling down in my youth. Later, I visited other places and sampled more local specialties, but I never succeeded in recovering that lost sensation.

What had happened?

In matters of taste, I'd become a man without a country. I'd spiced up my hometown cooking in my imagination, turning up my nose at the food in front of me. Now I saw that my cherished dreams were hopelessly faded. I reluctantly concluded that not every meal need be fancy, and that the ancients had been right to say that plain food is best: The way to cultivate the palate is with simple everyday rice and tea.

Translated from the Chinese by Susan Wilf.

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