Chinese food traditions   [locations: China]

Tofu for String Quartet [Excerpt]

I.  At The Mill. Andante

Out of the deep silence, the first tints foreshadowing dawn creep upon the sleeping Chinese village. Random, unorchestrated noises flutter briefly as the peasant villagers spring awake, stoke the fire in the stoves and step out of their homes, the whites of their eyes like twin moons on their faces, shining in the predawn.

Sisters bridle the donkey and lead him to the stone grinding mill. They sprinkle a layer of harvested soybeans to be crushed into small bits. The scene benefits from the softness of indirect light, the eastern glow that belies the imminence of sunrise.  The sisters coax the donkey along with a swat on the behind.  He pulls the ancient millstone walking blindfolded and muzzled, plodding circle after circle; the women follow, brushing the crushed soy into ceramic crocks to soak in water. The pace of the donkey and the women’s movements are smooth and natural, organic, like the pace of a daylily opening its blossom, timed in natural rhythm to the stride of the sun and the spin of the planet. As the donkey leads the grindstone, a cantata of creaks breaches the silence cradling the early-morning village, as if Donkey is an organ grinder as well:  high-pitched creaks from the friction of stone and wood rubbing against the iron pole holding bedstone and runner-stone together, lower-pitched creaks from the interaction of harness rope, chains and wooden bars holding Donkey and runner-stone together, accompanied by the lonesome clomping of weary hoofs.

Subtly embedded in this traditional tune, like the ting of a triangle hidden in the lush sounds of an orchestral overture, are the sounds of the village path that passes by the mill and leads down into the valley and to the water spring.  Villagers with tin pails of water dangling on each side of a shoulder pole pass by; old men and adolescent children with enormous packs of alfalfa strapped to their backs; cows pulling carts at the side of their masters; women with baskets of golden-needle daylilies which have to be collected before sunrise if they are to taste good, before the bloom opens up.  Footstep after footstep, shoes made of hemp quietly crush the iron-laden soil beneath them as if they are tiny millstones while the donkey snuffles and crushes the soy.

This is the opening melody for a morning of tofu preparation.

While the musicians turn their pages to the next movement and the backdrop is changed for new scenery, I’ll explain myself – the audience.  I was a guest in the tiny hamlet of Dang Jia Shan, a peasant village in the arid loess plateau of northern China. It’s the home village of Dang Anrong, who headed an ethnographic research project in which I volunteered to collect data.  His family hosted us; we lived in a recently abandoned yao – a traditional cave-home – while we documented the ways by which the peasants live their remote, impoverished lives. The primary diet of the northern peasants, day-in and day-out, is millet soup.  But one morning Anrong woke the research team up early. “You must come see how to make dòufu,” he said. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes, stabbed some barrettes into my greasy, unwashed hair, and trundled out into the dim light.  When the sisters had finished at the mill, I shuffled up the hillside, past the bleating sheep, to Papa and Mama’s home. Older Brother in his camouflage jacket, and Papa in his Mao-era blue pantsuit, were mumbling quietly to each other – probably of family and land, for here, there is little else to talk about.

II.  In the Courtyard.  Largo

On a tiny wooden stool, Older Brother sat in the chilly, gray light at an electric grinder with a small vat of coarse soybean slurry beside him. Another deep, wide ceramic bowl lay beneath the chute of the grinder.  Slowly he ladled the beans and water into the machine and it spat out a thick, white liquid.

An electric grinder is not cheap (for a poor peasant), and it will be used by a family very seldom. It’s not an investment in their everyday lives; rather, into the most important days of their lives – Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) and weddings.  Otherwise, it’s rare for traditional peasants to make tofu. They don’t just make food willy-nilly, whatever they feel like eating.  Many types of food—particularly pastas, breads, dumplings and tofu—are very specifically prescribed for consumption during, and sometimes only during, special occasions. Many Chinese festivals and social rituals are marked almost exclusively by the preparation of certain foods.  It’s not about particular activities, certain songs or decorations or gifts, but particular foods to eat. An occasion may call for noodles to be served, but a noodle is not just a noodle; it completely depends on what it’s made from to determine its role in the ritual.  For instance, sometimes potato noodles are to be eaten or delivered to a relative, and sometimes noodles made from wheat—they are not interchangeable.  When a holiday is celebrated with jiăozi dumplings (made with pasta-like skins), bāozi (bread dumplings) may not be substituted.

When the bowl beneath the grinder’s chute was nearly full of the cloudy liquid, First Sister (the eldest) emerged from the yao and pulled it aside with her scrawny, aging arms. The roots of her black hair had turned white only along the left side of her part. Though this step of the tofu preparation was what the family was probably most proud of – using a modern electrical appliance – its magic trick was intolerably boring.  I had to walk circles like the donkey to stay awake.

Just as a ray of sun made it high enough in the sky to shine down into the courtyard, Older Brother shut off the grinder and carefully cleaned out the innards. He receded into the background and the women moved in, swarmed briefly and then separated into individual components, working together just as masterfully as a well-oiled machine.

III.  In the Kitchen. Allegretto

I instantly perked up as a whir of human motion took over the yao.


end excerpt



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