When I was nine years old, I read Pearl S. Buck’s book, The Good Earth. From that point to the day I arrived in China, I dreamed of a China gridded with fields and earthen homes.
Living in Beijing, Buck’s China is nowhere to be seen. One day, my explorations of home-style recipes led me into the China I thought was long gone. I took a train from Beijing south to Jinan and boarded a bus that delivered me to a station in Zhāngqiū.
I was introduced to a young lady named Ma Pei, through a family friend working at the Institute of Medicinal Plant Development (IMPLAD). Ma Pei also works at IMPLAD. She invited me to meet her family in Shandong. I spent a weekend at her home in Zhāngqiū and on the first day, her father drove us to Pǔjí Zhèn (普集镇), a small village on the outskirts, where his mother and brother share a peaceful existence.
Ma Pei’s father lets us out before a path, too narrow for cars, and we walk towards grandmother’s house. Ma Pei’s mother, Song Āyí, walks with us, pointing to various plants and spices found in Chinese dishes.
Huājiāo (花椒, Sichuan peppercorn) grows on a tree as little green berries that turn red after dried in the sun. Xiāngchūn (香椿, Chinese Toon) towers over us while Song Ayi explains only the spring’s tender shoots are used in cooking. All of a sudden, I feel a warm and slightly painful sensation coming from my right elbow; I am exposed to the elements of the countryside and have been stung by an insect.
We walk past village neighbors, signs of rural living, gardens, and walk upon broken pavement until we enter the courtyard home of Ma Pei’s grandmother and uncle Ma.
Ma Pei’s grandmother sits near me and speaks a dialect I am unable to understand, but Ma Pei translates. Her 88-year old grandmother left school in the 4th grade and traces her name in Fantizi (traditional Chinese characters) against the palm of her hand. Smiling as though equally entertained to impart her story, she removes her right shoe and her hand brushes the shape of her little foot. It isn’t until I notice her tapered toes that I realize she is sharing with me the story behind her bound feet. She explains her feet used to be smaller but have expanded a bit since they were unbound.
It hurts to walk but she manages to walk the narrow levies between rows of vegetables to tend her garden.
Ma Pei’s uncle serves us Tie Guan Yin tea, refilling our cups as soon as we sip them dry.
I am curious about two holes flanking the doors. Ma Pei’s father explains the house is over one hundred years old and used to belong to a rich landowner. A cylindrical timber of wood barred the doors for safety. The barrier no longer exists as there is no longer a threat.
Ma Pei’s uncle, father and Song Ayi commence the cooking in the kitchen so I follow and begin learning their favorite family home-style recipes.
The kitchen window opens to the garden. The kitchen is a separate building from the living room, bedroom, garden shed and water closet.
Ma Pei’s father gathers young lettuce leaves from the garden and her grandmother removes the roots.
Ma Pei’s uncle prepares ten dishes on an electric plate. There is no gas stove or wood-fired wok.
One of my favorite dishes from the afternoon are yóu zhá huāshēng mǐ (油炸花生米, fried peanuts) — so simple, yet so delicious! Ma Pei’s cousin visited recently, bringing black peanuts (a rarity!) and wild pork meat, both of which they generously used for today’s meal. Ma Pei’s uncle mixes the black peanuts with red ones and fries them in oil over low heat for 15 minutes before seasoning with salt. When they cool they are toasty with an airy crunchiness. I can’t stop eating them and I fear appearing greedy.
Quick recipe for fried peanuts
- 200 grams raw peanuts with skins
- 1 tablespoon sunflower oil or peanut oil
- salt, to taste
Heat oil in a wok. When oil is hot, turn down the flame to its lowest possible. Add peanuts and toss for 10 minutes. Tossing keeps the peanuts from burning. When the peanuts are fully fried, you will feel they are lighter and rattle in the wok in contrast to their raw dense state. Remove from heat and salt to taste. You can also add other seasoning like chili powder or ground cumin.
During our meal, I learn to say ‘Yòngxīn!’ (用心, literally ‘use heart’). Ma Pei’s uncle gives his heart in all his efforts.
He replies explaining, ‘We knew each other in a past life and despite our distance we will meet each other again in this lifetime’. Yǒuyuán qiānlǐ lái xiāng huì. 有缘千里来相会。
The warmth and hospitality the Ma family gave endears me to the day. From the rustic setting to the heartfelt sharing from the family, I feel like I have found the China I’ve been waiting to see.