By Ying Chang Compestine
Twenty years after coming to America, I still dream of my beloved hometown, Wuhan, the capital of China’s central Hubei province. I dream of shopping in the morning at vegetable markets along the Yangtze River, cooking with my grandmother in our small kitchen and eating cold noodles in spicy sesame-soy sauce at a street vendor’s stall.
Last summer, I returned to Wuhan with my husband and son to research my upcoming novel, Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party. We flew to Shanghai and sailed up the Yangtze River to Chongqing aboard the cruise ship Viking Century Sun, and then back down to Wuhan. I had traveled the same route with my parents 15 years ago. Along the way, my father had introduced me to the natural wonders along the Yangtze River and to some of China’s greatest cultural treasures: Fengdu Ghost City, Shibaozhai Temple and the hanging coffins in Bawu Gorge. It was our last trip together before my parents passed away.
Next: The Yangtze River »
The Yangtze River
Perhaps I’m biased, but I believe that the Yangtze flows through one of the most fascinating regions in the world. Its valley was the birthplace of Chinese civilization and the seat of power for many emperors. Situated on its banks at the crossroads of major land and water routes, Wuhan has been a critical base for Chinese rulers throughout history and was the flashpoint of the Communist Revolution. What most Westerners do not know, though, is that some of the most delicious cuisines of China come from this central region, known as “the Land of Rice and Fish.”
Next: The Land of Rice and Fish »
The Land of Rice and Fish
Shanghai may be as well known for its bustling economy as for dumplings so delicate they practically melt in your mouth. In Chongqing, the people are said to be as spicy as their food; a bowl of noodles is so hot it will blur your vision, yet so delicious that you can’t put it down. Located about 800 miles down river from Chongqing, halfway to Shanghai, Wuhan brims with fresh fish, seasonal fruits, vegetables and grains, and its cuisine reflects the best of China. One of its regional specialties, a delightfully savory-sweet rice wrapped in bean-flour pancakes, is said to have been a favorite meal of Mao Zedong.
On a warm summer evening, as our cruise ship slowly approached the city, I stood on my cabin’s balcony anxiously watching an unfamiliar landscape glide past. It had been more than seven years since I had last seen Wuhan. I tried to pick out the hospital compound overlooking the river where both my parents worked as doctors. I couldn’t find it. The old buildings painted with revolutionary slogans and draped with red flags in the 1970s had been replaced by modern skyscrapers aglow with bright lights. Neon signs danced reflections off the river and brightened the night sky above. For a moment, I couldn’t believe this was my hometown. I was overwhelmed with excitement and pride.
Then the gentle river breeze brought aromas of steamed dumplings and fish pan-fried with ginger and garlic from the restaurants lining the bank. Bits of laughter, interspersed with the familiar local dialect, brought back memories of evening strolls beside the river with my parents; learning to ride a bike with my brothers on the sidewalks; meeting my first date under the clock tower; and the farewell dinner with friends at a restaurant overlooking the river before my first trip to America.
The Flavors of Wuhan Cuisine
Although the landscape of Wuhan has changed, the food remains the same. During our three-week visit, my family and I went from street vendors to 12-course meals, eating with family and friends. The dishes we ate were the same as what my mother had served. My son was just as wild about garlic frog legs and mijo, a dessert made from fermented rice, as I had been as a child.
I came to America as a graduate student in 1986, and in the years since then I’ve found sometimes weeks pass by when I don’t have a chance to speak or write Chinese. I read Western literature, listen to jazz and play tennis. Yet, almost every day I eat Chinese food and it transports me right back to Wuhan. When I cook Pocket Eggs with Soy-Sesame Sauce or Lion’s Head Meatballs, I remember my mother telling me how fresh the eggs were and how long the line was at the butcher’s shop. When I make Long-Life Noodles with Green Tea, I recall my grandmother explaining that green tea stimulates the mind and calms the soul.
I have always believed that food not only satisfies our hunger, it connects us to others and to our past. It is by cooking the foods of my childhood that I keep the ties to my beloved China alive.
—Ying Chang Compestine’s latest book, Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (Henry Holt & Co., August 2007), is a novel based on her childhood in Wuhan. Her website is: yingc.com.
Travel: Cruise the Yangtze
Viking River Cruises has a 15-night tour of “China’s Cultural Delights,” including 3 nights in Beijing and a 9-night river cruise from Chongqing to Nanjing aboard the 153-cabin Viking Century Sun. The cruise features visits to Wuhan, the Three Gorges Dam and the Great Wall, with meals at local restaurants as well as on board. The trip starts at $3,192 per person, all inclusive. (877) 668-4546, vikingrivers.com.