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Fried rice on the road in rural China


Halfway between here and there, if the trip’s long enough, the bus stops for everybody to take a leak and have a meal.  Between Muli and Wachang is six hours.  Ludu and Litang usually five and sometimes eight.  You get the idea, the stop somewhere near the middle.

Well between Yanyuan and Dazu, at a remote crossroads, where I went to watch some wood carvers, there’s one of those restaurants.

Maybe you’ve seen pictures of the Potola in Lhasa with its tier after tier of ascending levels and stages.  These halfway restaurants look a little like this.  There’s the dusty, littered, red clay road where buses screech to a stop.  The first level is sort of a quay, a concrete or stone paved embarking place where weary bus travelers can get their land legs back.  At both ends steps lead up to a sunny or rainy veranda just above the dust, and here’s where thrifty people sit to eat food they brought or instant noodles and fruit they can buy there.

Next up is the sit down, indoor dining room. The floors are occasionally swept and the tables wiped with grey cloths. Just slightly raised is the kitchen. On up are store rooms or apartments or something.  I think. I’ve never ventured there. On the other side of the road and below is the pisser, a purgatory beyond description most passengers pass through.

After the bus stopped, and everyone rushed across the road to that crapper, most of my fellow passengers perched at the little knee high tables like the ones at all country restaurants.  I wasn’t very hungry so I wandered over to the kitchen window to order and asked for dan chao fan, egg fried rice.

It’s a sublimely simple dish I’ve never been able to duplicate myself. And it’s subtly different in every restaurant.  That’s why I like to try it in different places.  Oil for frying the scrambled egg, scallions, salt and cooked white rice, that’s all.  But you can see the possibilities and permutations.  What to cook first? What kind of oil? How hot? What part of the onions and even how to cut them? What proportion of each? And on and on.

I could barely see into the dim kitchen, but when I made my request bright eyes turned my way and the denizens of the dark looked stunned. Then they laughed the Chinese laugh that means a combination of embarrassment and eye rolling.

When I first looked in, my vision was still a little dazzled from the road glare, so I could only see the flames.  Then as my eyes adjusted I began to see a scene from the fun part of Buddhist hell. Lots of scampering, crouching near chopping blocks with huge square cleavers raised were people the size of children.  Maybe they were children. What looked like a cow headed demon was walking towards me until I realized it was just a giant carrying an ingredient.  Bare to the waist and dripping was a sinewy man bent over a pan big enough to sleep in if it weren’t glowing red hot.  The cook. His head had snapped almost owlishly around when he heard me ask for dan chao fan.  I asked, I didn’t order.

One of the cook’s rascals gently but firmly showed me to a tiny stool at one of those low, low tables, so low that, when I squatted there, I could hardly see over my knees.

Waitresses – much older and wiser looking than the modishly dressed girls usually working at this kind of restaurant, almost shamanistic waitresses – were sizing up the other customers and writing on what looked like prescription pads.

Then there was the cook himself, coming out to my table with a patched saffron colored towel thrown over his bony shoulders.  He asked me how old I was.  He felt my left pulse. He looked so closely into my eye I could smell his sweet as broken mountain bracken breath.  After a knowing nod, he ambled off to his woks and caldrons, his smoke and blazes.  This was going to be the best fried rice I had ever eaten. I was sure of it. 

Everyone else got theirs first.  At every single table, when the crone brought the dishes, faces looked first surprised and then glum or pouting, giddy or exuberant. 

I waited and waited.  Finally the same kitchen rascal who had shoved me to my crouching seat brought me three dishes.  I had ordered one, very clearly, one I knew how to pronounce, one I ate often.  From my subordinate position perching there, I couldn’t see over the rims of the bowls as he carried them my way. What he set down was pai guo – crispy fried, fractured pork ribs with little potato cubes and brown flat beans.  The second was a kind of clear, salty broth with spinach and tofu.  A little bowl had chopped pickled cabbage, green onion chips, and peanuts. 

I looked up.  The kid looked down, almost sternly, and said – Chr Fan, Eat.

The meal turned out to be an elixir.  The high was even better than the one I get from a fine tea.  I felt invigorated and rejuvenated. It was like a visit to a food spa.  There was more spring in my step, more sling as in slingshot.  I thought new thoughts.  Saw the world from another side. And best of all, remembered insights so I could mull them over, refine them, test them against reality.

Suddenly I felt as if I could hear the thoughts of the people at the other tables, smacking away in the open mouthed noisy way Chinese people enjoy food. My pleasure seemed to be magnified and melded with theirs. 

The Miao woman who had sat so glumly across from me between Yanyuan and here was singing between bites.  On the plate in front of the toothless old farmer who had kept plying the bus driver with cigarettes, his steaming food seemed to radiate.  People walked up from the veranda to see what was going on, what smelled so good.  Crones guided the almost hypnotized lurkers to seats.

At this restaurant, you get not what you order. You get what they prescribe, the pleasure remedy.

If I had just been passing through, I probably would never have seen this Shangri-La of food again.  But over the days I watched the carvers, I ate every meal there.  The cook had taken my measure on the first day, but he always came out of the kitchen when I asked for dan chao fan.  All his minions scurried into the light and we laughed at my request.  He would check the wind, estimate the depth of the stream down the road, and sometimes even smell my hair.  I’d say dan chao fan clearly, without irony or any expectation of not getting what I wanted.  Then the kitchen rascal would bring three simple but eloquent dishes. I came to realize that each meal had eight ingredients.  Sometimes three in one dish, three in another, and two in the last. The combination might be four, two and two, even four, three, one.

That four-three-one meal had drunken shrimp – live, tiny, translucent shrimp dancing until they died in a pool of Chinese gin, soy sauce, and chili; cabbage and garlic fried in oil; then a golden ingot of coarse raw sugar shaved into the shape of a frog. Where had he gotten the shrimp? Why a frog?

Meals reaching ever higher crescendos went on for the week or so I was there until I announced as I was ordering my last dan chao fan that I would leave on that midday’s bus. The water boy, the knife sharpener, the pig slopper, the garlic chopper, the floor sweeper, the fire keeper, the chopstick washer, the twin window opener and closers, the one in the hat in the field, the rascal all straightened up and gasped.  Crones cackled at my back as I faced the radish puller, the girl who slept on her back in the back, the dog, some flies, and the cook to place my final order.  DAN CHAO FAN, I shouted.

Like a strong wind on a spark in a pile of bright autumn leaves, the kitchen blazed into action. The midday busses had begun arriving. The passengers had finished peeing and were crowding the tables. The crones were writing their scrips, but nothing was coming out of the kitchen. 

Impatient first timers had shouted their orders.  People who’d passed this way before were waiting with detached smiles of anticipation. Slowly there descended the kind of silence that highlights the sparrows and the plash of the stream. 

A rumble came from somewhere and the concrete floor trembled ever so slightly as the rascal brought me one bowl.  I looked up. He looked down. Dan chao fan, I demanded this time. Ba bao fan, he said, eight treasure rice, and put down what looked and smelled and felt like a bowl of perfect food.  I savored the eight flavors so cunningly blended and the eight textures so masterfully crafted that I realized I had almost gotten used to bliss. 

The driver was honking for me to leave, but I had to thank the cook and all of them in the inferno.  More buses had come in and everyone in the kitchen seemed too busy to look up.

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