One Saturday evening in Shanghai, I holed up in the kitchen with some long lost culinary acquaintances — angel hair pasta, ripe red tomatoes, and mesculin mix, with flavors that ranged from the bitter, toothy mizuna to the sweet baby lettuces. I wasn’t even close to being purebred Italian, yet for years, an Italian meal on the weekends was as important a ritual as evening mass at the Catholic church. It just wasn’t a week without our spaghetti and salad.
Well, in China, I had spent many a week without spaghetti or salad. And after discovering the foreign foods market just blocks away — the tawny olive oils, the deep balsamic vinegars, pasta, and even salad greens in a rainbow of colors and shapes — I schemed to dazzle my Chinese boyfriend with a taste of my childhood, and feed my thirst for something beyond the usual Chinese fare.
I cooked down the tomatoes with nuggets of garlic and a splash of olive oil, and then a little basil seasoning at the end. I boiled the angel hair pasta to al dente perfection. I washed the salad greens and tossed them together with tangy balsamic vinegar, olive oil and a little salt. And then I set the creaky wooden table, the tomato sauce crowning two steaming plates of angel hair, with two salads to start the meal.
I walked around the table, as if I was parading it before a crowd, proud of what I had done this afternoon. Oh, he’s going to just love this, I thought, the anticipation surging within after I called John up for dinner.
John pushed through the door, and surveyed the dinner spread on the table with his hands on his hips. Suddenly, the usual gentle, happy-go-lucky smile faded away to a slight grimace as he bent over to look closer at my afternoon’s work.
“Is that lettuce?” he wondered.
“Of course it’s lettuce! That’s what we eat for salads.”
He frowned. “Uncooked lettuce gives you diarrhea.” The dinner I’d spent hours on was now, according to John, a digestive liability.
If I’d spent more time at his home, I’d have known better. Years later, I would sit down at the round, plastic table in his parents’ dining room, and find, among the vegetables they prepared, a dish of lettuce stir-fried in rapeseed oil, soy sauce, salt and MSG. The lettuce of my childhood — crisp greens kissed with vinegar and olive oil, the wrinkled leaves giving the illusion that the salad was even greater than reality — drowned in sauces, and wilted miserably in the bowl. One Chinese New Year, I prepared salad and spaghetti for the whole family, and observed as John’s parents avoided the salad bowl.
It was their way in John’s home and culture. You must cook lettuce, like every other green, to avoid harmful bacteria. Eat it raw, and prepare to meet your toilet — many, many times.
The thing is, there’s some truth there. After all, people in my country, the US, have died from eating spinach and lettuce tainted with deadly microbes such as E. coli. Yet, here in the West, we worship our greens, despite the headline-making risks.
I never imagined risk until that night, seeing John’s response. But he took a risk too, and tried it.
“Mmm, that’s not bad,” he declared, munching on a few of the greens on our table. That was one small step for John, and the beginning of a new culinary love — his love of salad.
How did China change your perception of your favorite foods?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or browse the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.