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10.24.2005

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chinese lessons a recipe for zha jiang noodles by Yee-Fan Sun | 1 2

Sadly, I have nothing to blame but my own stupid adolescent stubbornness, but still: if there's one thing I wish my parents had done differently with me, it's making me stick with those Chinese school lessons they forced me to go to as a kid.

Sunday might have been church day for many other Americans, but growing up in my house, that particular day of the week meant just one thing: Chinese school. All through elementary school, this suited me just fine; I liked the pretty stickers and cute pencils the teachers would give us for doing well on tests, and moreover, Chinese school offered a chance to hang out with my favorite cousins, who were subjected to this same Sunday ritual. By the time I got to middle school, though, it was a different matter. When you're an oh-so-worldly twelve year old (in your own mind at least) and all the rest of your American friends get to fritter away their Sundays at the mall, the last thing you want to do is spend an afternoon in a classroom full of fellow bored American-born Chinese kids, staring at a chalkboard full of foreign characters. No doubt when I finally decided I was going to quit, my parents tried their best to convince me that I would one day regret not keeping up those language studies. But I'm quite certain that they never mentioned the one really compelling reason that would one day lead me to decide that they were right: good Chinese food is a whole lot harder to access when you're a complete Chinese illiterate.

Now that I'm all grown up and my Chinese abilities grow ever more pathetic with each year that passes by, I've had to learn this the hard way. At Chinatown restaurants around the world, I feel the torture of being handed the Chinese menu full of all the really good authentic Chinese dishes, and realizing that my inability to read Chinese means I'll have to order off the English menu containing only lame, Westernized eats. Worse yet, having spent the last eight years of my life living in cities and towns where the only Chinese food available is of the fried-rice-and-eggroll variety, I've discovered that even when I try to cook my favorite Chinese dishes at home, it's often impossible to find the right ingredients at the local Asian market. I'll be trying to gather the goods to make some dish my mother's taught me, but only know the name for the ingredient in Mandarin, which of course, the kindly Cantonese store clerk will not speak; the English translation for some key condiment will be completely different from what's specified in my cookbook, since Chinese food product manufacturers make absolutely zero effort, it seems, to ensure that their English labels conform to any standards, or even make any semblance of sense.

Such was the problem that plagued me when it came to making one of my favorite dishes, zha jiang mien, a dish from northern China that consists of noodles topped with a thick, hearty, salty-sweet ground pork sauce. The base flavoring agent is something that my cookbook described as "sweet bean paste." In store after store, I scoured the aisles in search of this mystery ingredient. The only "sweet bean paste" I could ever find, though, was a sweet red adzuki bean mash that I knew for a fact was used solely in desserts. Clearly, this was not what I was looking for. When I described my problem to my mom, she told me the ingredient was known as tien mien jiang in Chinese, but whether my pronunciation is that awful or the store clerk in my Asian grocery just didn't speak Mandarin, I was still unable to find what I was looking for. So on a joint shopping excursion to an Asian market last summer, I remembered to ask my mother to help me procure the magic stuff. Her ability to actually read the Chinese characters on the pretty bottles made it easy for her to quickly locate the previously elusive condiment. The English label on the jar? Sweet flour paste. Ah, if only I'd just been able to read the characters.

sidle along folks!

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