If anyone had ever told me as a child growing up in the United States that a flower could flourish in the coldest days of winter, a flower that bloomed straight from the bare branches of a tree, I would have thought they had a vivid imagination or a penchant for spinning tall tales.
Yet years ago in late February, while strolling the eastern shores of the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, with my husband, Jun, I encountered a spray of brilliant pink petals cascading over tree branches, which looked as artfully windswept as a bonsai. That striking shade, more typical of spring and summer flowers, seemed utterly defiant against the melancholy gray of the overcast sky and the mournful silhouettes of other trees, their leafless limbs stretched upward as if praying for an end to the chill of the season.
I almost didn’t believe my eyes at first. Surely flowers couldn’t bloom like that, direct from the branch, without the usual green leaves? And how could they thrive in this weather, where temperatures that hovered just above freezing had led us to don our warmest down jackets and even hats?
After my astonishment, I felt a certain appreciation for this ethereal beauty before me, painting the otherwise dreary February landscape into such a gloriously hopeful hue, promising better times just around the corner.
That is the power of the plum blossom, one of the most distinctive and cherished flowers in China.
All those years, I had it all wrong about maqiu, a traditional winter solstice food for my husband Jun’s family in rural Zhejiang province.
Whenever Jun mentioned the sesame balls he had eaten for the holiday while growing up, I had always imagined a version of tangyuan, those delicious glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet sesame or red bean paste typically enjoyed in southern China. Except, he called them sesame balls or maqiu, not tangyuan. So I thought, maybe maqiu was just another name for tangyuan in the local dialect?
But then years ago, one night before winter solstice with Jun’s family, I watched my mother-in-law prepare maqiu in her kitchen and did a double take. She dropped inch-sized balls of glutinous rice dough, made from glutinous rice flour and cold water, straight into a wok of boiling water without tucking anything inside. Had she lost her mind? Where was the muss and fuss of filling the dough with sesame paste that I’d had to slog through all those years before, when Jun and I used to live in the United States?
Once the rice balls floated to the top, which took only a few minutes, she fished them out of the boiling water and then rolled them in a sweet mixture of toasted black sesame seeds and white sugar that coated every inch of the dough. That’s when I realized it－it was my mistake, not hers.
Late autumn, in the days I lived with my in-laws in rural Zhejiang province, meant the arrival of one of the warmest companions I ever had at the dinner table－the huotong.
Imagine a wooden, thimble-shaped stool that’s half-enclosed, with one side open like a stage, cradling a metal receptacle built to hold burning embers, and you have an idea of what this traditional piece of dining room furniture looks like. Whenever the first chilling winds of the season would sweep through the village, my in-laws would fill one with a generous helping of warm cinders from their fire-powered wok, and place it near the table, usually right where I used to sit.
They were no strangers to my aversion to the cold of winter in a province that didn’t enjoy the steam heat typical of northern parts of China, nor the heating vents I relished at home growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, where almost every school year saw at least a handful of snow days or times that proved too frigid for us to attend classes. As a child, I would rush home from school in January and February and immediately ensconce myself in front of the heater.
Who would have imagined I would marry into a family accustomed to winters of wearing multiple layers of clothing and your jacket at all times, even at home.
Not surprisingly, my winter strategy at their home involved heavy use of an electric mattress pad and excessive layers of blankets. I felt loathe to leave the cocoon of warmth I had built for myself in the bedroom, including when mealtimes arrived. For me, that made the huotong such a welcome addition around the table.
When my husband and I spotted a dusky brown bird bobbing on a rock in a stream not far from the family home in rural Zhejiang, a feeling of excitement swept through me.
“That’s a dipper, I’m certain of it!” I whispered in his ear, prompting him to reach for the camera draped over his shoulder and snap a photo.
The last time I laid eyes on such a bird was in Yosemite National Park, while trudging up switchbacks that rose 1,000 feet from the valley floor to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls. There, I encountered a bird perched on a rock near the cascading waters, and my hunch was later confirmed in the pages of the North American bird guide in my backpack: I had seen an American dipper.
The sweat slathered across my brow as well as sore feet and legs seemed a worthy trade-off for a glimpse of the only aquatic songbird in North America and one capable of “flying” underwater, as a nature documentary on TV had revealed.
It didn’t count as a rare sighting, since the dipper isn’t endangered. Still, the majesty of one of America’s most picturesque national parks framed the moment, leading me to cherish this bird — one not native to the Cleveland, Ohio, region where I grew up — all the more.
Never did I expect that, instead of spending hours on a strenuous hike up the granite cliffs of Yosemite, I only needed to venture on a short walk from my husband’s family home, tracing a mountain creek that cut through the valley.
You can read the full piece online, where you can also listen to an audio recording of me reading it. And as always, if you like it, share it!
Photo credit: By Robert tdc – https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/4427599266/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9771334
When I think of a golden autumn, my mind often turns to one of the great jewels of the season－sweet osmanthus, a tiny flower that has charmed generations of people every fall with its unforgettable fragrance.
This blossom, which measures only 1 centimeter across and grows in clusters scattered about evergreen branches of the osmanthus tree, truly exemplifies the idea that size and appearance aren’t everything. After all, even when painted in the most eye-catching bright orange or buttery yellow hues, it could never rival the more showy peony or rose on looks. But the osmanthus bloom doesn’t have to, because its real strength lies in its honeyed scent, which, much like being in love, will leave you feeling a little giddy and lost in the moment, even when standing meters away from the flowers. If dreams had a fragrance, they might just smell like the osmanthus, imbuing a touch of paradise to even the most ordinary of places.
The osmanthus tree in the front yard of my in-laws’ home in rural Zhejiang province left me wonder-struck one early October morning when its flowers unfurled their magic. The alluring aroma, which had wafted indoors through an open window, enveloped me as I was descending the stairs. It brought me to a standstill for a few seconds as I breathed it in, along with this sensation of pure, unfettered happiness. Dreary clouds blanketed the entire sky above me and yet, even to this day, whenever I recall this memory, my mind bathes it in sunshine because of that intoxicating natural perfume that surrounded me. It’s that uplifting.
I’m certain this kind of wondrous effect factored into why my father-in-law refused to sell that osmanthus tree to horticultural dealers who would continually come by to inquire about its cost. “It’s not for sale,” he would simply tell them. Surely he already understood that nobody could put a price on the experience of having such a delicious fragrance right outside your doorstep every year.
It’s one thing to see history on display behind a museum glass and another to experience it right beneath the soles of your hiking shoes, just as my husband Jun and I did one afternoon while wandering the hills within sight of the family home in rural Zhejiang.
That ridge, one of a chain of undulating hills that encircled the village, looked like every other we had climbed before. It had the usual assortment of bamboo, pines and rhododendrons in its canopy. And the sinuous trail we followed swept through the same tangles of bracken ferns, satintail grasses, mugwort and clover we always walked through on our hikes.
But at a small clearing on top, we discovered an astonishing marble historical marker, etched with Chinese characters designating the fertile ground beneath our feet the site of an ancient civilization that flourished 4,000 to 5,000 years ago.
How could such a seemingly ordinary ridge hold such an extraordinary secret? The marker offered scant introduction to the civilization, beyond that it thrived during the Neolithic Age and occupied the crest of that hill.
Still, even this historical crumb left behind by a team of archeologists thrilled me more than gazing upon one of China’s national treasures in a museum, because we had stumbled upon it right in the backyard of the village where my husband grew up.
A photo of three teenage Jewish boys on a table tennis team, wearing matching T-shirts with their school logo, are among some images of children at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum that American author Rachel DeWoskin saw one summer, inspiring her new historical novel set in the 1940s in Shanghai’s Hongkou Jewish settlement.
“There was so much evidence of how devoted these kids’ community was to creating a sense of normalcy, giving the children a childhood, even though the context of an occupied city at war was excruciating,” says DeWoskin.
“Many of the refugees had no idea where their family members were or whether they were OK. Many had fled Nazi-occupied Europe and landed in Shanghai, destitute and disoriented. Yet they created schools for their kids, ran camps, music lessons and table tennis teams. And shirts. I found those small insignia so moving, and the combination the photos evoked－of danger and resilience to be worthy of literary exploration.”
DeWoskin imagines this world through her character Lillia, a 15-year-old aerial acrobat from a circus family in Poland who flees in 1939 with her father and 1-year-old sister to Shanghai, where they struggle to survive as she wonders if her mother is still alive.
“Lillia is suddenly on her own for the first time in her life, and in a certain sense responsible for her sister, which is intense and complicated, especially given that she’s in an unfamiliar city. But she finds her way, as kids so often do－with grit, grace and practical application of her skills, with warmth and by way of friendship. She figures out how to keep her hope alive even though she’s also full of dread.”
The title Someday We Will Fly, which echoes Lillia’s circus performances, emerged in response to what DeWoskin says is Lillia’s “desperate desire to have a view of her own life that offers some possible future escape from the constraints of war. She wants, as I think we all do, to transcend her circumstances”.
The dedication at the beginning of American author Rachel DeWoskin’s new historical novel, Someday We Will Fly, includes the following: “And for Shanghai, a haven for so many refugees in the 1930s and ’40s”.
She honors the city – and in particular, its Hongkou Jewish settlement that offered wartime refuge to some 20,000 Jews – through her fictional story of a 15-year-old girl named Lillia, an aerial acrobat who flees to Shanghai from Poland with her circus family in 1939.
DeWoskin recently appeared in China to promote her novel. She was in Beijing at The Bookworm on June 6, as well as in Shanghai at M on the Bund on June 8 and through an Historic Shanghai tour on June 9. But to write Someday We Will Fly, she spent seven summers in Shanghai, immersed in the Hongkou Jewish neighborhood, whose landmarks helped give rise to and shape the narrative.
In a banquet room with a view of the historic West Lake in Hangzhou, a chef revealed to me a source of inspiration as legendary as the scenery just beyond the windows: the celebrated poet and gourmet Yuan Mei who wrote Suiyuan Shidan (Recipes from the Garden of Contentment), the seminal manual of Chinese gastronomy published in 1792.
Suiyuan Shidan, which I had only discovered months before after reading the first English translation of the book, has long been hailed as the first great guide to Chinese cuisine. No other work before it had ever gathered together such a comprehensive selection of recipes and information on Chinese cookery, all filtered through the discerning eye and palate of Yuan Mei, a man born in Hangzhou whose exceptional standards for food and dining earned him distinction as one of the finest gastronomes in Chinese history.
This has made the work invaluable to many chefs, despite the fact that the vast majority of the recipes are more rough sketches or descriptions of dishes that novices might struggle to replicate. After all, Yuan Mei, a member of the literati class, had probably never entered the kitchen, instead dispatching his cooks to learn the recipes that he later recorded. So as experts in the art of preparing food, chefs can glean more insight from this esteemed culinary Bible, turning to its pages to refine their talents as well as their offerings on the table.
Chef Fang at the Hangzhou Restaurant, an eatery that has served up authentic Hangzhou-style food since 1921, stands as one such example.
Never mind the harsh humidity, the relentless sunshine or anyone complaining of unbearably hot summers in China. Who has time to worry about that in June, a month that, for me, is inextricably entwined with the arrival of what I consider the country’s most enchanting fruit－yangmei, also known as the waxberry or Chinese bayberry.
This uniquely summer indulgence grows primarily in China, with much of the fruit produced in my husband Jun’s home province of Zhejiang. If you’ve never tried the juicy goodness of yangmei, imagine a mouthwatering, sweet-tart mix of pomegranate, strawberry and cranberry flavors, packed together into a cherry-sized sphere with a curiously bumpy surface and, when fully ripe, the deep burgundy color of a fine red wine. It’s a little piece of ecstasy that will dance across your taste buds and probably dribble onto the table or your summer clothes. But you won’t even care about the mess because it tastes so amazing.
Yangmei, which has been used in traditional Chinese remedies for more than 2,000 years, also has high medicinal value. The first time a Chinese friend brought a bag of the fruit to my apartment, she told me, “Yangmei saves your life,” a popular saying I would come to hear echoed by many others, including my father-in-law. Studies have shown that yangmei provides a rich source of antioxidants such as vitamin C, and may be useful for tackling inflammation, diarrhea, intestinal ailments, cancer and even diabetes. It’s no wonder people have dubbed it a superfruit.
No matter your reasons for eating yangmei, chances are you might end up just like me－in love at first bite. Consuming the fruit is now a yearly ritual for me and my husband, and every mouthful brings with it sweet memories of summer days.
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