Hungry Ghosts, Floating Lights, Chinese Fishes: Symbolism and Life in a Tornado

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says don’t curse the darkness – light a candle. I had no idea how appropriate that quote would come to be when I began pulling the threads together for the 9th week of the International Vintage Recipe Tour. If life had gone according to plan, this post should have gone out on Wednesday, March 4th. Our 10th country in the Recipe Tour would have been published four days ago, and I would’ve, as of today, been cooking and photographing the recipe for Week 11’s culinary destination.  Unfortunately, Lady Nature had other plans.

If you are just catching up on events of the past couple of weeks, shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, March 3rd, a tornado blew through town and in three short minutes spun my city neighborhood around. These are some photos I took just after sunrise on the morning of the storm…

One of my favorite things about my neighborhood is its mix of modern apartment buildings, historic cottages and pocket-sized parks. All of my loves are within walking distance… the farmers market, the grocery store, the fish market, the library, the garden center, the waterfront, the history museum, not to mention fun shops and a unique collection of wonderful restaurants.

Fantastically walkable, it is entirely possible to live car-free here and still have all your daily needs met. It’s quiet during the week, lively on the weekends and just a 15 minute walk to Music City night-life and all sorts of cultural activities. There’s a fox that lives near the yoga studio, plenty of squirrels to keep the pup entertained on her daily walks and so many blooming trees that it snows with flower petals every Spring.

A great mix of young blending with old as far as architecture, demographics and ideas, it’s a hot spot for food enthusiasts and bar hoppers and a proving ground for new concepts and good ideas. It is one of those neighborhoods that used to be industrial, but now is referred to as trendy, up and coming, and re-energized. To me and my husband, it is home, it is work and it is wonderful.

The day before the tornado, I was at the art store buying specialty papers for a craft project for Week 9 of the Cooking Tour.  It had taken almost the entire week prior to figure out an appropriate cultural tie-in to that week’s featured destination – China.

I wanted to write about something that focused on the beauty of the country and the culture, a topic that easily gets overlooked these days now that the coronavirus has captured everyone’s attention.  After days of searching and muddling all this over, inspiration finally came in the form of a folded paper project.

In the month of September in China, there is a celebration called the Hungry Ghost Festival. Similar to the Day of the Dead in Mexico, it is a celebration of family members who have passed away. Places are set at the table, complete with food offerings and empty seats, to acknowledge the presence of these past lives and the impact they had upon the family.  One of the components of the festival includes making and releasing floating paper lanterns on the water. These floating papers, each carrying a small candle, act as a directional signal for lost souls. The lighted paper lanterns help guide their way. When the candle burns out after the lanterns have been set afloat, it signifies that the lost spirit is no longer in need of direction. It has found its way home.

As soon as the tornado touched down, our power went out. Most of the neighborhood was sleeping at the time the storm occurred but woke up to one of three experiences – 1) their roof was blown off 2) all the glass in all their windows were shattered and blown, not out, but into their living space or 3) terrific gusts of wind could be heard rattling around outside. My experience was the third one – lots of wind, no broken glass, roof still intact. That night, the temperature had been warm enough to sleep with the windows open. It was also the night, Liz Lemon and Grace the Grapefruit spent their first time since last summer overnight outdoors on the balcony.

When I heard the high winds, I woke up to my pup sitting in the bathtub and discovered that the power had gone out. I didn’t know about a tornado. I didn’t know that a block away, buildings were falling down and people were scrambling to safety in their pajamas. I just heard the wind, much like in a hurricane, and thought simply that it might too strong for my plants outside. That’s how weird a tornado can be.  By some stroke of sheer luck, the tornado hit one block away. It left my street relatively unharmed except for scattered debris and power and internet outages. Two, three and four blocks away from my building was an entirely different story.

Shaken, saddened and shocked, my husband and I spent the morning in touch with family and friends, trying to make sense of everything. Immediately we were thrown back into feelings of life post 9/11 in New York City – a time when tragedy and sorrow hung around us like a heavy blanket for almost a year.  Just like 9/11, destruction was all around us. It was our environment. It was our view. It was where we lived. And now here we were again, experiencing a similar devastation.

The weather was beautiful the entire week following the storm – sunny, in the mid-60’s, and blooming. Spring had sprung in the neighborhood and the birds were excited to sing about it. Living without power and internet access for a week, in a disaster zone, while nature carried on in such a pretty way, was surreal and jarring to the senses.  On one hand there was so much destruction and on the other there were daffodils that danced in the breeze.

One of the things that helped distract from the scariness of the scene in front of me was the building of the paper lantern and all that it symbolized. The lantern, which gets folded and shaped into a lotus flower, only took less then 30 minutes to make but everything that it stood for carried me the whole entire week. For four nights we walked around by candlelight and flashlight until the power finally came back on on day five. Each day, I imagined that each flame and each beam of light was like a Chinese lantern floating on the water, guiding us in the dark towards something bright. It was a comforting reminder that it was okay to feel a little bit lost. That eventually we would find our way home again.

It’s been almost two weeks since the storm, and already our neighborhood is on the mend. Some of the buildings have been condemned and will be torn down, some of the restaurants are closed with hopes of reopening soon, and a good batch of broken windows have been boarded up. It’s not the same neighborhood as it was a month ago, but spirits are resilient around this place and I can only hope it will be a even better place to live and work sometime soon.

There are so many things to be thankful for in these past two weeks. We are alive. Our friends and neighbors are alive. Miraculously and inexplicably, no one died in our four block radius despite the chaotic scenes. People have been so kind and helpful and willing to lend support in any way they can. More volunteers showed up to help clean up then were actually needed. And donations of all kinds poured into town to the point where city managers eventually said thank you, we have enough now.

I’ll forever be grateful to the Recipe Tour and to China and to the Hungry Ghost Festival for helping me through this difficult, unexpected life event. The tornado was a scary thing. The coronavirus is a scary thing. But the Chinese lanterns taught me that in darkness there is also light. If you are struggling during these days of uncertainty and quarantine, I hope making your own paper lantern will help guide you through these dark and disturbing times. I hope this paper project, will offer you just as much comfort as it did for me during these past ten days.

It was my original intention to photo each step of the lantern making process, but somehow, in my addled storm state, I didn’t quite capture enough photos of the steps to make sense of the process.  You can find a step by step tutorial from the Chinese American Family blog here, which is the one I followed to make the lantern for this post. The only thing that I did differently was that I used two different colors of handmade paper – red to represent China and beige to represent calmness. Also, just an fyi, this project makes one floating lantern that is 8″ inches in diameter.

Whether it is September or not, whether you live near a body of water or not, whether you are going through a tough situation or not, a floating paper lantern has a place at your table always. I love the idea of floating one or two in a shallow dish of water as a centerpiece in place of a floral bouquet or a collection of candles. I love the idea that it symbolizes someone you hold dear. So much of cooking and eating and gathering together involves long-term memories, fleeting moments, passed down stories, and centuries worth of techniques and innovations all created by people who came before us. The paper lanterns are such a lovely way to honor those individuals, especially as they relate to the kitchen and to cooking and to the enjoyment of food.

Pretty, hopeful, and easily accessible, it is a fun craft project that takes little time and few materials. China has been known for their folded paper crafts, called zhezhi, for centuries and shares similar styles with Japan’s paper folding craft, origami. China’s paper making grew out of frugality and remembrance and is often burned during celebrations and festivals, like the Hungry Ghost. If you are concerned about open flames inside your floating flowers, you can always use a flame-less tea light for a similar effect. If you plan to make a fun night at home with your family, friends or roommates while you are self-quarantining, this paper project not only offers a fun activity but also offers an easily made decoration for your Chinese dinner party incorporating this week’s menu items.

Like exquisite Chinese paper crafts, traditional Chinese food also has its own creatively packaged presentation. The accompanying recipe for China’s post is one that features artfully cut foods that are cooked in an interesting and unusual manner. Like the paper lantern, this fish dish is a literal present, individually wrapped up in paper, fried in oil and then served to each diner like a gift.  In Belgium, we learned how to fry cheese into fondue but in China we are wrapping food in paper and then quickly submerging it in oil, where it steams instead of fries.  A wonderful recipe for anyone who likes to decorate their food with flair and flourish, this recipe is delicious, interesting and pretty to look at. On the menu, I’m pleased to present Fried Fish Wrapped in Paper served alongside a bed of Ginger and Pork Fried Rice.

Since this is two recipes in one, I’ll start with the easiest one first since it can sit in a warming state for a little bit while you make the second recipe. Ginger and Pork Fried Rice, is another one of those foundation recipes where you can add your own spin once you get the general hang of preparing it. If you wanted to make this vegetarian, you could swap the pork for mushrooms or add in additional vegetables like snow peas, carrots or broccoli. Because the fish in the accompanying recipe is very lean, the pork fried rice adds a satisfying bit of fat that is complimentary to the overall flavor. So if you are a meat-eater, I’d recommend making these two recipes as-is.

Ginger and Pork Fried Rice

(serves 4)

6 tablespoons peanut oil

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 lb (about 1 cup) ground pork (I used grass-fed, pasture-raised pork)

2 cups cooked rice (I used jasmine rice)

1/4 cup chopped green onion

Drizzle of sesame oil

12 lettuce leaves or 1 head of butter lettuce

Heat two tablespoons of oil, add the eggs and scramble to the soft stage, then set aside.

In a wok or large skillet, heat two additional tablespoons of oil and add the pork. Cook, stirring until the meat is thoroughly browned and cooked through. Add the ginger and stir, Add the rice, salt and pepper and cook, stirring rapidly to blend all the ingredients. When the rice is piping hot, mix-in the remaining oil, the green onion and the egg, broken up roughly. Drizzle a little sesame oil over the rice and toss quickly.

Keep the rice warm while you make and cook the fried fish recipe. Once you are ready to serve both the fish and the rice there are several suggestions on ways to present the rice. The first, simply scoop it into a bowl and serve as is. The second, scoop small portions onto individual lettuce leaves and roll them up. Or the third way, scoop out the center of a head of butter lettuce and fill it with rice so that it makes, essentially, a lettuce bowl that can be shared among your fellow eaters. I opted for number three, since our farmer’s market lettuce has been so beautiful lately.

The fried fish recipe is really easy to make. The most complicated part of it is wrapping the fish in the parchment paper. But if you think of treating it like how you would wrap a homemade empanada then you’ll be a pro in no-time. The trick to wrapping the fish in paper is to fold the edges over on themselves so that no steam can escape and so that no oil can seep inside. Although this recipe is called Fried Fish, the fish never comes in contact with the oil. The hot temperature of the oil simply steams the fish inside the wrapped package in just 3 minutes. You can actually hear the steam bubbling up against the paper as it bobs around in the oil. It is a nice auditory detail:)  And have no fear, if your packages don’t seal all the way, it is not the end of the world. The oil will fry the fish instead of steam it, but it will be delicious regardless.

Fried Fish Wrapped in Paper

(4-6 servings)

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1/2 lb boneless fresh fish fillet such as striped bass, flounder or sea bass (I used cod)

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sake or dry sherry (I used sake)

12 thin slices fresh ginger

12 small snow peas

12 small strips of green onion

12 slices fresh mushrooms

Cut twelve 6″ inch squares out of parchment paper. Set aside. Cut the fish filet into 12 pieces of equal size. (Note: I cut the fish into rectangles which were about 1″x 1.5″inches  in length). Slice all the vegetable ingredients and place each in individual bowls so that they can be quickly accessed when you are ready to assemble the packages.

Brush one side of each square of the parchment paper with sesame oil. Next place a piece of fish on the oiled parchment (step 1), followed by a sprinkle of sake, salt & pepper (step 2). Place a snow pea (step 3) on top of the fish, then a piece of ginger on top of the snow pea (step 4). Place a sliced mushroom on top of the ginger (step 5) and then finish with a slice of green onion on top of the mushroom (step 6).

Next, scoot the layered fish tower down to the bottom third of the parchment paper square.

Bring the top  edge of the parchment paper down to meet up with the bottom edge, like you were folding an envelope, and then crease the middle section of the paper. Beginning on the left hand side start to fold over the edges of the paper like an empanada. Work your way around the package so that you end up on the right side with a small flap that you can then tuck inside the crease of your final fold. This makes much more sense once you actually do it. Here’s a little step by step to help illustrate it…

Repeat each step until you have all 12 packages assembled and wrapped…

In a medium sized pot, heat the oil to 180 degrees. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pot, drop the packages in the oil for 3 minutes or until the parchment paper is lightly browned. At this step, you’ll here a wonderful bubbling noise as the fish and vegetables steam inside the paper.

Remove each batch to drain on paper towels for a few seconds before serving.

The recipe recommends serving the fish in the package, which is fun for the novelty of opening up the paper…

but it looks much prettier if you unwrap them and serve them on a plate or on a bed of rice.

This is such stylish and bite-sized food, it would be a fun appetizer for a sake party or as an accompaniment alongside other traditional dishes for a mix and match Chinese feast. Served just as-is, with a scoop of rice and two or three pieces of fish, you’ll be surprised how filling and satisfying this meal can be, even with its petite portions. The fish and vegetables cook to perfection inside the paper pouch. The ginger adds a nice hint of spice. And both dishes retain all their flavors even if they sit at room temperature for a little bit.

I went on the search for Chinese sake for this post, but I couldn’t find any locally, so I paired these two dishes with a glass of room temperature Tozai, which is a Japanese sake from the Kyoto region. I’m not much of a rice wine connoisseur so I picked this one for its beautiful label featuring painted koi fish, and it’s suggestion of light flavor notes that included lemon, grapes and banana.

Again, like the paper lantern project, this was a fortuitous choice for this post, our most dramatic week of the Recipe Tour so far. Known as living jewels because of their shimmering scales and vibrant colors, koi fish represent luck and good fortune. A day after making these two Chinese recipes and toasting them with a glass of sake, the tornado arrived and somehow miraculously, thankfully, luckily left the Vintage Kitchen intact. Unrecognized by be at the time, I went into that difficult weak with symbols of luck, good fortune and bright light on my side. If I have learned anything from this culinary time spent in the kitchen with China, it is that symbols swirl around us all the time. Sometimes they even save the day.

My heart goes out to everyone impacted by the coronavirus. I wish you all the koi fish in all the world and all the bright light for in which to see them. Join me this Wednesday, for Week 10 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour, as I attempt to catch up to our regular culinary travel schedule again. This week, culinary escapades take us to Columbia where I’ll be discussing nothing but sunshine and happiness and comfort food. Until then, be well and safe.

The Natural Disaster and the Postponement

Hello there dear and treasured kitcheners. As you know, Wednesday nights are usually the time when you can catch up on the latest installment of the International Vintage Recipe Tour. I regret to inform you that this week the post is delayed until Friday, due to an ongoing power outage. My lovely and beautiful and cherished city neighborhood was one of the places that was most hard- hit by the tornado that blew through Nashville just after midnight on Tuesday morning. The photo accompanying this post is of one of my favorite restaurants just two blocks away. Sadly, this is by far not the worst site in the neighborhood. It’s been difficult and devastating these past few days,  but luckily the Vintage Kitchen, the Tour, and the spirit behind both, keep the joy and the passion ignited and moving towards sunnier days ahead.

This week our featured country is China, another area of the world dealing with a troubling crisis. Thankfully, our focus this week is anything but bleak. The recipe stemming from this colorful Asian country is delicious and features a unique cooking technique and stylized presentation. I can’t wait to discuss it all with you. Coming up in Friday’s post, there is also special focus placed on a Chinese cultural tradition that is soothing, inspiring and illuminating. I didn’t realize at the time I was pulling all the threads together for this week’s Recipe Tour that it would feature a symbolic lifeline in the Chinese community that would also become a lifeline for me too. But the world is wonderful that way – making us feel unique and universal all at once.  Please come back and visit again on Friday where good recipes await and joy prevails. See you soon.

Lost In Translation No More: An Update on the Chinese Mug!

Back in April we posed  the question… how many people does it take to translate a mug? We were up to four at that point with two more possibilities waiting in the wings of email communication. The mug in question was a vintage 1950’s enamelware covered cup made by the Peacock Enamelware Factory in Tianjin, China.

Due to its rarity and the fact that the message written on it was in Chinese (possibly Mandarin), deciphering the Chinese characters enough to associate them with English words and meanings was dauntingly slow. But with a little luck and a lot of perseverance connecting with online translation sites, friends of friends, and Chinese language books we got to the following stage of interpretation… (the blank dashes represent words we had yet to figure out)

First ____  Makes ____       {related words/themes from this line include: living, livelihood, give rise too, birth, life}

Prize  {reward, given for victory}

Burning Culture 1st ____ ____ 2nd ____ _____  {collectivization, work, worker, skill, profession, individual}

Theories surrounding the literal translation of the mug ran the gamut from Communist propaganda to marketing slogans (Eat at Al’s!) to an award of some-sort (mainly because everyone agreed that the middle line definitely referenced a prize or award of some kind).

Two weeks ago, when Google translator sputtered out two words, pride and factory, before shutting down completely, I thought for sure we were on the right track of this mug bearing some sort of political campaign message for an impassioned Chinese factory worker.  I could see him in my mind, eating his lunch, drinking his tea all along silently communicating his political ideology through the slogan on his mug.

Wonderfully, a breakthrough came in the form of the Nashville Chinese School when a last ditch effort was made to reach out to yet another language school (the fourth during this search!) just after the July 4th holiday. In two days, Irene from NCS had the whole mystery solved.  And to think this jewel of school was sitting right under my nose all these months.

Irene provided the following translation…

Progressive Manufacture
Award
Blaze Company – #2 engendering department

As it turns out our little covered mug was an award! Not exactly as sensational as a piece of communist history, this mug announced a prize for a job well done by an innovative manufacturing department. It was someone’s proud acknowledgement of accomplishment. A midcentury metal (pun intended!) of achievement.  A smile and a handshake, which is by far a happier association than communism.

Looking back on my original ideas of the translation, I see that we weren’t really that far off. First and Makes easily falls in line with Progressive and Manufacture. Prize and Award are the same. Burning Culture coordinates with Blaze Company.  We even had the number 2 figured out. The only part that drew blanks was the engendering department (which means the idea department or innovation department or possibly where sales and marketing resides!).

Aha. In solving this mystery of history we’ve also been able to answer the question of the day. How many people does it take to translate a vintage mug?

NINE!

Nine people and three months and lots of imagination to solve the slogan on a 64 year old mug.  I learned so many things on this fun little journey – but most importantly I was reminded to check my neighborhood first. Had I contacted Irene at the Nashville Chinese School in the beginning, this would have been the miniest of mysteries solved so fast. But on the other hand I would have never jumped in feet first to the deep end of the Chinese language pool. Knowledge is power(fully) exciting. And for that I’m grateful.

Cheers or 干杯  ganBei (as I now know they say in Chinese!) to Irene and to Sing and the host of other helpers involved along the way. And most importantly cheers to our vintage mug, who now has a spirit and a story.

If you ever need any translation help yourself, or want to embark on an interesting new language journey contact Irene here.

As for our little trophy of a Chinese mug – find her in the Vintage Kitchen shop here. Her exotic appeal and around the world scavenger hunt make for a happy little storage system for tea or spices or kitchen items of all sorts.