Streetcart ricecakes (waiting to cross), Shanghai, China 2006.
The Chinese rabbit has been at the top of my mind for the last week.
Not the zodiac sign.
The bunny of my thoughts is the particular Chinese rabbit whose head was smoked, sectioned, ordered by my sister, and served to me on a plate in a Szechwanese teahouse in Shanghai, China five years ago.
My sister Pia became a great expert on Shanghainese cuisine while living there for the better part of the last decade. When Grant and I went to visit in 2006, she treated us to a movable feast: we paraded our chopsticks through every dining room, kitchen, streetcart, and market stall of note.
We ate egg-and-pickle doughnut pancakes from a streetcart (above) for breakfast, then dimmed sum in leather-and-lacquer Xintiandi, where the banquettes were chrome and cloisonne and the bao were all but served in a platinum atomizer. We dutifully seared our tastebuds on chili paste, cooled them on Taiwanese shaved ice. Dunked fondue.
The incredible range of Shanghainese eating is, in my memory, summed up by two of the places we ate, both of which were accessed through what were literally holes in the wall. The first was a tiny crawlspace serving Lanzhou regional cuisine, notably paomo—the best thing I ate in China—a shimmering soup from the nomadic desert West, with strips of lamb, snow-white cabbage, fragrant herbs and two kinds of noodles sizzling in the broth. The second was a swanky ex-pat bar, approached through a dark and elegant garden breezeway that seemed to end at a polished concrete wall. Five square indentations dotted the wall; Pia pressed her palm just below one of them and a doorway slid open from an invisible crack. Incredible.
And then there was the rabbit head.
I liked everything we ate on that trip except the Taiwanese food and some oily noodles (rather, noodly oil) that I ordered on a daytrip to Suzhou. We were lucky to have expert Pia do the rest of our ordering, but when I recognized “tuzi tou” (“Bunny head”) in my sister’s instructions to our waitress at the Szechwanese restaurant, I bristled more than a little.
Pia’s friend Fei Fei, a professional basketball player, was dining with us and promised I’d like it. She had a point: I’ll eat anything doused in hot sauce and, what with the Szechwanese provenance of our menu and venue, there was a large pot of potent chilis on the table. I could have eaten my shoe with enough of the stuff. But I hadn’t counted on something.
The bunny head was sliced in cross section—and when it reached our plates, there was its face: its little bunny nose, bunny brow, and (when I positioned the spoon for a cheeky shot), its long, floppy ear.
I took a tiny taste, from the temples. (It was like venison.) Little-brother behavior took over at this point, and I refused to finish the rest of dear Peter.
I was born in the year of the pig and am supposed to be very compatible with rabbits, who are shrewd and conservative to my “chivalrous and gallant” porcine qualities. Maybe it’s this celestial friendship that steered me away from the bunny (did I really steer away? I ate its face!) or maybe I just have a soft spot for floppy ears…
Speaking of twelve-year cycles, I may be due for another bunny hop back to the Middle Kingdom soon–in 2012 it will have been six years since my last visit, and twelve since my first. That first trip was a study-abroad summer in high school–I remember tour-group banquets that started with cold cuts every day and every night, and eating pigs’ feet with my host family. The second was highlighted by the breakfast omelette streetcart and the paomo shop, which Pia says is in danger of extinction from development.
C’est la Chine. Skyscrapers, soup bowls– streetcarts and secret doors. I’ve lost most of my pictures from that trip and expect not to recognize a thing when I next go back. (China won’t recognize me, either, not by the youthful looks of the boy who visited in 2006.) Luckily Pia came through for me with a copy of the bunny shot. Which is to say that no matter how fast China grows and the world changes, my mother was right all along: your sister will be there for you even when you lose your hare.
Happy New Year! 兔年欢乐、成功！