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Salty, Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Umami

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  • By Bei Dao
  • Issue 18
  • EssentialJanuary 2017

I took a pinch of MSG from a jar and sprinkled it into the hollow of my palm, licked it with the very tip of my tongue, firing off the taste-bud nerve clusters, impulses shooting through the brain layers and triggering an electrifying buzz—as if savoring the vast ocean refined and purified, that sensory experience called “umami”! I gradually increased the dosage, the high continuing to rise, until the umami taste completely faded. Finally, I just dumped the half-filled jar of MSG into my mouth, causing the signals in my cerebral cortex to misfire or short-circuit, leading to dizziness and nausea; I collapsed headfirst onto my bed. I suppose this must have been similar to a drug trip.

“Who spilled all the MSG?” Father and Mother complained.

The inner roar of puberty: during that torturous period as my body matured and transformed, I secretly started to eat anything in our house, from the chlorella algae in the fishbowl to the viscous lecithin doled out by my parents, from calcium tablets to dried wolfberry, from mustard tubers to soybean paste, from dried shrimp to scallions. My parents tried to ‘fortify the walls and raze the fields,’ but couldn’t hinder my appetite, which expanded with each passing day. Cod liver oil turned into a kind of candy for me—the antipathy disappeared. I’d first bite open the capsule, wait for the oil to leak out, and then delicately chew the gel, which had the texture of Cowhide Sesame Candy.

Whatever I ate, I devoured with MSG. Much later in life, after settling for a period in America, whenever I dined at a Chinese restaurant with non-Chinese, they usually said, “Please, no MSG.” Each time this happened, with their words ringing in my ears, my heart would become so motherfucking vexed.

***

The turning point came when the white yams on the balcony started to rot. The smell of rotting yams transformed into one word: dropsy.

From an interview with my mother:

I remember a three-year period of hardship when there wasn’t much food to eat; the children cried out from hunger and I told them not to run around outside and play but to lie down in bed and rest more. I bought two chickens with the hopes of raising them for the whole family to eventually feast on. I asked Zhenkai to go downstairs to let the chickens out for a bit, never expecting that someone would steal them. Ji Nian got so angry, and even beat his own son. Once, I felt so hungry my hands trembled and my body broke out in a cold sweat; it was truly agonizing, and so I stopped by a Sichuan restaurant on my way home and ordered a bowl of soup. Back at the apartment, I saw how the rest of my family was starving, too—my heart sank with anguish; Ji Nian tried to console me, saying I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. He said that even in our suffering we should try to enjoy ourselves. And so the following Sunday we went to Purple Bamboo Park together for an outing. I remember Ji Nian and I seeing the malnourished condition of our children that day; we gritted our teeth, and at a fresh-fish house in Purple Bamboo Park, spent twenty-six kuai on a meal of fish….

The fresh-fish house stood just inside the east gate of Purple Bamboo Park, with an aquarium in front where they kept their catch, ready to net and cook. So-called hongshao yu (“red-braised fish”) is just simmered in soy sauce, with a dab of oil that blooms onto the surface. Compared to the wages at the time, the cost of the one dish was shockingly expensive. Finally, only bones remained on the plate, the three of us siblings still licking our lips, eyes widening, blinking, staring at each other in blank silence.

Chao bing, doughy noodle-strips fried with cabbage and garlic, proved to be a much better deal than red-braised fish. Every Sunday our family visited a small restaurant on Xi’anmen Street to eat chao bing. This establishment used more generous amounts of oil than other places.

From my father’s notebook:

From 1960 to 1961 I worked at the Socialist Institute…. Those were really difficult times, the three siblings coming to the Institute to eat the better meals there. We looked at our children and felt wretched; sometimes we’d buy them some fancy candy, which they devoured with glee, and that comforted us a little.

As the eldest son, I felt obligated to help my parents maintain the ecological balance of our family, looking after my little sister and brother, making sure they received at least the minimum intake of calories. My brother and I ate lunch in one of the communal canteens that had been popping up everywhere, our stomachs still constantly rumbling with hunger; our little sister attended the July First Kindergarten, where the food wasn’t so bad and on occasion she could even bring home half a steamed bun. The tricky meal was dinner, which demanded meticulous planning and calculation, each person allocated no more than two taels (less than half a cup) of rice. Though Qian Ayi possessed divine skills, she couldn’t conjure miracles. She went through a spell of making vegetable steamed buns day after day, the outer bun a thin skin with lots of filling within. I tried to set an example, facing my little siblings and preaching the benefits of eating one less steamed bun, but I couldn’t fool them.

My Uncle Da Gufu got his doctorate in Germany; after Liberation in 1949 he became one of the esteemed “first-class” engineers in the country and enjoyed special perks from the state. It was during this time of the Great Famine that he re-gifted his Chunghwa and Peony cigarettes to my father. My pangs of hunger intertwined with the clouds of smoke pouring from my father’s mouth, as if a fantastic hallucination swirled around me. 

Toward the end of the month one evening, my father gave me a one mao coin plus a couple of almost-expired ration coupons to treat myself to a bowl of wonton soup. There was an outdoor wonton shop on Dingzi Street in the Xinjiekou district. Even as I waited to be seated, the clock neared eleven, leaving only an hour before the coupons turned to worthless scraps. I handed over the coin plus the crumpled pieces of paper to the shop assistant who verified the coupons, then smoothly pinched some tiny dried shrimp, scattered them into a bowl, rinsed five or six wontons in a bamboo strainer, and ladled out the pork-bone broth from a huge pot, the generous steam rushing past my face. My stomach rumbled with hunger, and yet I didn’t immediately pick up my chopsticks; this being my first time dining out alone, I wanted to prolong the pleasure for as long as possible.

***

Yifan and I wanted to buy two juicy tomatoes, so we pooled all the coins in our pockets, gulped down our drool, and rushed off with our booty. Later, stomachs rumbling like a windlass, we decided to go pick some sour pears to ease our hunger. The pear tree wasn’t tall and grew in a corner where two walls met—three to five little dusty gray pomes drooped down from the highest branches. After climbing onto Yifan’s shoulders I shimmied up the middle of the tree and headed up. Just as I spied a pear and reached for it, the back of my hand felt a sharp jab—a “foreign stabber,” one of those spiky slug-moth caterpillars, had ambushed me.

I climbed down from the tree and sucked the stinging red welt, though I felt no relief, the stinging refusing to ease. I fished out a few little pears from my pocket, wiped one on my pants, and took a bite, the taste as sour as tart could be, my mouth swelling with mush that was hard to swallow.

The lunchroom bell rings out—a savory whiff of pork cabbage stew wafts over.

***

Right outside the walls of the playground at my primary school stood a peddler who always tried to lure innocent souls with his hawking shouts. Like a magician, he would conjure all sorts of candy and snacks from his knapsack. From a classmate’s recommendation, I fell in love with cinnamon bark. Cinnamon bark, commonly used in herbal remedies, comes from the inner bark of the cassia tree, its spicy flavor suffused with a delicious sweetness. Two fen could purchase several pieces, which lasted longer than candy. I’d wrap the bark up in a handkerchief and, during class from time to time, sneak in a lick. Truthfully, besides the taste of cinnamon bark, the rest of my education in those days made no lasting impression on me.

The taste of White Rabbit Milk Candy—surely the King of Candy, foremost for its semitransparent rice-paper wrapper that dissolves on the tongue, triggering delight’s anticipation. White Rabbit Milk is extremely potent: they say that seven pieces equals one glass of milk, and so all malnourished children thirst for it. Some years later in Paris, a French friend of mine reunited me with the White Rabbit, offering me a piece; my heart skipped a beat, deep emotions stirred within me, and from then on I would always carry a few pieces with me.

 Bei Dao, the pseudonym of Zhenkai Zhao, was born in 1949, in Beijing. One of the original “Misty Poets,” he was exiled from China in 1989 for his perceived role in the protests of Tiananmen Square. He is the author of numerous works of poetry, essays, and fiction. This essay is adapted from City Gate, Open Up, a memoir of his childhood, forthcoming from New Directions in April 2017.

Jeffrey Yang is an editor at New Directions. 

“A Street in Northern Beijing,” 1966 © Solange Brand. Courtesy the artist and Robert Klein Gallery, Boston