Melissa Block

A Magical Meal From Humble Surroundings

I want to tell you about one of the best meals I've had on my trip here so far. It wasn't the fanciest by far. No lacquered bowls or Chinese lanterns or lovely waitresses in embroidered silk cheongsams. No tablecloths or glassware. Instead, there were eight of us huddled knee to knee around two tiny tables, every inch filled with a hodgepodge of shallow bowls.

I was visiting a 12-year-old girl named Huang Meihua at the "transitional school" where she lives with her mother, Yan Xiaosong, and her father, Huang Sheqin. (You'll hear more about Meihua during our May 4th broadcast week on All Things Considered.) Meihua and her parents share a small room in one of the ubiquitous prefab barracks sprinkled all over Sichuan province as temporary post-earthquake housing. The barracks are cold in the winter; boiling hot in the summer. There's no soundproofing and precious little privacy.

At one end of the room the family has set up a low platform with a rice cooker and one gas burner for their wok. No sink, no refrigerator. Somehow, out of these humble surroundings, Yan Xiaorong created a seven course country feast.

A Chinese feast. Photo: Melissa Block, NPR.

hide captionFive of the seven dishes Yan Xiaorong cooked for lunch. Clockwise from center top: sliced cucumber with pig's ear (very spicy - I didn't try); cold noodles with scallions; la rou, or cured pork, a wonderful speciality from the Sichuan countryside; zhiergen, an earthy, chewy, sour leafy vegetable; peas with cabbage. Not shown: smoked tofu stir fried with pork, and jue cai, a sort of Chinese fiddlehead fern with a sweet taste.

Melissa Block/NPR

Earlier, Yan Xiaorong had taken four buses and a ferryboat to go back to their flattened village to get the cured pork and the jue cai for our lunch.

Now, this meal posed an etiquette conundrum. These are people who've been left with virtually nothing and are living in hardship. Their lives are tough enough; the last thing we wanted to do was create more work for them and have them pay for our food. At the same time, it would have been rude in the extreme to turn down the food that Yan Xiaorong so carefully prepared. So, we figured out a middle path. We decided to supplement their generous meal by bringing in additional food prepared at a local restaurant (not nearly as tasty, I might add.) See - no matter where you go - Chinese takeout to the rescue!

Chinese takeout. Photo: Melissa Block, NPR.

hide captionForeground: Yan Xiaorong's pork with smoked tofu. Background: Chinese takeout.

Melissa Block/NPR

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