The year is almost over and I’ve avoided writing about it until today. There is no point trying to sum things up neatly. I climbed a mountain, I wrote lovesick poems, I went swimming with bioluminescent plankton, I helped publish a poetry journal, I thought I was gonna die from homesickness but didn’t, I travelled alone, I freaked out a lot, ate a lot, wrote a lot. I consumed more dumplings this year than any other year in my life. This year has been my messiest yet, which is a good thing.
It’s that weird time when the dieting/exercise/weight loss ads on Twitter and Instagram triple in volume. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about hunger, guilt, bodies, and shame. Some days I have a good relationship with my body, some days I don’t. Some days, a part of my brain actively tries to destroy my love for food by turning it into something indulgent and bad that needs to be restricted. It takes conscious effort to decide not to listen to this voice. I’ve always been good at refusing to listen, but it’s exhausting. Sometimes I fail. We all often fail, and guilt takes over.
So, instead, I am going to celebrate. Below is a sort of 2016 food diary; a collection of moments that made me feel really happy to be alive, even in a world like this one.
蛋挞 EGG TARTS
Late April, our hair soaked from the rain, taking shelter inside Nanjing Xi Lu subway station next to a small bakery stall. The glossy egg tarts in the cabinet give off a golden light under the heat lamps. My friend Louise buys two and hands one to me. The scent hits me: burnt brown sugar, butter, hot vanilla. I take a bite and something happens. I close my eyes. I think it’s one of those moments of discovery I’m destined to remember forever. I’d had egg tarts before when I was young, but those were the less creamy Cantonese type with bright yellow custard and crumbly shortcrust pastry. Portuguese / Mecanese egg tarts are different, smaller, made with flaky pastry and with brown sugar sprinkled on top.
The caramelised bits stick to your lips.
The mangoes in Cambodia are huge and the flesh a deep golden yellow, just like the chrysanthemums we saw everywhere in Vietnam, spilling out of flower carts and swaying in a plastic vase on the bus.
The perfect mango shake consists of nothing but a whole mango blended with ice. We have them almost every day in Cambodia, with banana pancakes for breakfast or with a red curry for dinner. At night, giant moths with white-grey wings fly out of the dark and into the streetlights, so big you can feel the force of their wingbeats when they dive close to your skin. On our second day in Siem Reap we sit in the grass facing the main temple of Angkor Wat at 4:45am, snacking on dried jackfruit. We are sleepy and sick of the mosquitoes biting our ankles but then the sun comes up and everything shines blue.
BANH UOT (RICE NOODLE ROLLS)
Breakfast in Ho Chi Minh City: banh uot, a plate of steamed rice noodle rolls filled with pork (a variation on Cantonese cheong fan, but lighter and less slippery) with a pile of fresh beansprouts topped with chillies, mint, coriander, Vietnamese sausage, shallots and deep-fried shrimp pancakes. So crunchy you can crunch right through the shrimp head. I don’t know how it’s possible for something you’ve never tried before to taste like home, but it does.
At the market there are things I’ve never seen before, like light purple eggplants in the shape of tomatoes and yellow fruits that look like clawed hands. I am becoming obsessed with rice noodles of all shapes and kinds (thin vermicelli, thick and udon-like, the flat kind used for pho, wide sheets for banh uot) and am intent on eating them for every single meal. The colours of Ho Chi Minh City make me feel dizzy with glee. The area where we are staying has narrow streets and balcony gardens overflowing with pink and yellow flowers. The doors are painted blue and green. I realise I am in love.
After the bus trip from Hoi An to Hanoi (sand and ocean, fields of dragonfruit trees) we stop at the first noodle place we see. I order chicken pho (pho ga) instead of the usual beef. The broth tastes strongly of lemongrass and the rice noodles are topped with cubes of deep-fried chicken skin. I am so tired and hungry that it is possibly the best thing I have ever eaten.
This pho is the first of many, all of them delicious and never quite the same. Sometimes there is fresh lettuce and beansprouts, sometimes not. Sometimes there are fresh limes to be squeezed into the soup. Sometimes the broth is thicker and darker and I can smell the cinnamon. We eat pho just after a typhoon has passed, a fallen tree blocking the road. We eat fried pho for lunch with iced coffee that tastes like dark chocolate. On my last night in Hanoi I sit on a plastic stool on the street and eat pho for dinner, rain dripping down the side of the awning, the pavement scattered with yellow petals.
APPLE & CINNAMON ICE CREAM
First meal back in Shanghai in August: macaroni & cheese grilled cheese sandwich followed by apple & cinnamon swirl ice cream. This is the strangest place—in some parts of the city there are hardly any foreigners and in others, you can buy gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and New Zealand craft beer. But the ice cream is the thing I’ll remember. Spiced apple pie in scoop form, winter evenings and summer Christmases all rolled into one.
The streets are overflowing with watermelons and it’s too hot to be outside for longer than fifteen minutes. At night everything is covered in this hazy pink-gold glow, though I might be imagining it. I'm hungry for something but I'm not sure what.
糯米鸡 LOTUS LEAF STICKY RICE
In the courtyard kitchen I cut fresh lotus leaves into wide triangles like fans. They have a bitter, tea-like smell. At a cooking workshop in Shanghai, Ayi Chen is teaching me how to make a famous southern dish, sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves. The rice is mixed with pork fat, chicken, tiny dried shrimps, and a single duck egg yolk. The fat yolks glow bright orange in a bowl on the bench. Wrapping the parcels, folding the edges down and placing them in the steamer is just like making dumplings, a slow and fiddly task, the kind where I don’t need to think about anything except the feel of the cold leaf in my palm. Ayi Chen gives me boxes to take home with me. When I told her I lived alone I think she felt sorry for me. I eat them for breakfast every day for the next week and a half, sitting cross-legged on my balcony listening to Chinese indie rock until the late summer heat starts to sink in.
柚子 HONEY POMELO
There is nothing more satisfying than cutting and peeling a pomelo (like a giant grapefruit) with your own hands. Sometimes the man at the fruit shop will peel it for me. He has a knife tattooed on the back of his hand that started to fade many years ago. The blade points up towards the curve of his thumb. Someone told me that pink flesh pomelo are sweeter but I buy them because they’re so decadent and pretty to look at, like a giant gaping blood orange. They appeared in the city in late autumn, just as the leaves started to fall. The floor of the fruit shop is littered with their thick skins cut roughly in the shape of lotus flowers.
And just like that the weather is starting to get colder, so cold that I can almost remember how it was when I first arrived. But so many things are different now. I stick the tip of my knife deep into the pomelo and pull it downwards. A soft tearing sound as the skin pulls away.
茄子 FRIED EGGPLANT
Almost very day I eat at the halal corner of my university cafeteria where they serve Xinjiang food, from northwestern China, where the majority of the population is Muslim. Along with beef dumplings, lamb fried rice, hand-pulled noodles and vegetarian Mapo tofu, they make a stir-fried eggplant dish with tomatoes, onions, chilli and green peppers. They use a type of bright purple eggplant that holds its colour even after cooking, like the ones in Vietnam. I eat this with a type of baked Xinjiang flatbread that has dotted circular patterns stamped around the edges.
At a cooking class in Yangshuo I learned how to make fried eggplant with sauce made from black beans and preserved chillies. The limestone mountains loomed above as I chopped the eggplant and garlic into small pieces. A break from the roar and colour of the city. Soft sounds here that feel like home: kids playing outside, branches moving in the wind, insects buzzing through the open windows.
On Christmas Eve I stand in my friend Maggie’s kitchen while she stirs a floury mixture with chopsticks. She tosses in a handful of chopped spring onions, cracks an egg into the bowl. Twice I ask for the recipe, and each time she responds (in Chinese), “there is no recipe, it’s so easy, just watch–” so I watch carefully and take notes on my phone, which she finds amusing. A ladle full of oil for shallow frying, a spoonful of batter into the wok. These spring onion pancakes are her father-in-law’s favourite so she always makes them when he comes. We eat them with steamed prawns, fried spinach and chicken soup. I’ve had them many times before but never home-cooked like this.
I thought this Christmas would be hard, but it’s not. It’s pretty perfect. On Christmas morning my friends make pancakes in my tiny apartment and we top them with melted chocolate, fried bananas and stewed apples. The smell of cinnamon and melted butter (the smell of Christmas) lingers for days.
My new year food resolutions go something like this.
Continue to eat less meat (full vegetarianism would freak out my Chinese friends and family too much, and also ... dumplings). Make spring onion pancakes at home. Make a sourdough loaf. Make pavlova and handmade ice cream. Cooking is an act of love, so cook for yourself and others as often as possible. Be kind to yourself. Know that guilt is not necessary. Eat whatever the fuck you want.
I'm Nina (明雅). I write poems and make zines and eat dumplings. I'm from New Zealand, living and studying in Shanghai.