Year of the: Chengdu ZaJiang Noodles
January 11, 2017
While having lunch with a dear friend back home over the holidays, we were talking about New Year’s resolutions and life plans, dreams both big and small, when she told me about how she’d given 2015 a theme. It had been an excellent year, she said, the year of getting back to basics. Somehow, having that overarching theme had helped give structure to plans that may otherwise have felt scattered or piecemeal. It had been motivation and goal. So when 2016 rolled around, she figured the year didn’t need a theme – after 2015, things were already on the right track. And, well, we all know how 2016 turned out.
Now, I’m not saying my friend is to blame for all of 2016. But maybe if she’d just given the year a theme, it wouldn’t have been such a heroic mess. So to help salvage 2017, I’m doing my part to bring some focus to the year ahead.
My theme for this year is balance. For me, what that mostly means is working less and living more. I have a tendency to feel like I’ll never get enough done, and so as soon as I wake up, I answer emails, tackle some items on the list. Then I go to work, I come home, I keep working, I binge a few episodes of TV, I sleep, I wake up, I do it again. Soon enough, even my social life starts to revolve around meetings. It makes me a miser of my free time, which I hoard like a pot of precious jewels, and wonder why I end up feeling starved for human interaction.
This year, there will be a strict moratorium on work. My morning routine has become elaborate, expansive. I do yoga and go to the gym, I take my time getting ready and investing in throwing on more than leggings and a lumpy sweater. I make myself breakfast and eat it at the kitchen table with a hot cup of coffee and the week’s Zitty magazine. I meditate, I journal, and then whatever time is left over is for answering emails or getting lost in Facebook’s endless update scroll. There’s usually not much time left over. And when I’m done with work for the day, I’m done. I spend just half an hour answering personal emails, and the rest of the evening is for cooking, for reading, for meeting with friends. And on the weekends, let live just one golden rule: there shall be no work.
I’ve tried to break down my goals into little, manageable habits that don’t seem quite so daunting to tackle as: just be a more balanced person, dang it. Already, I’ve noticed that these small changes to my lifestyle have made a big impact. I’m meeting resolutions I’d never bother making because they sound like something pithy and pink-fonted on Pinterest.
I’m feeling inspired. The more I read, the more I want to write. I feel my eyes open to details, my fingers itching to scratch out a sentence.
I’m feeling less anxious. Meditation, journaling, and working out have given me a buffer between my professional and private mind. I have a structured time to process what’s going on and what I’ve got to do so that those thoughts don’t push into my mind when I’m trying to be productive – or trying to have fun.
I’m feeling quietly confident. Dressing more professionally makes me feel more professional. I feel capable of reaching my goals and ambitious, but not in a Julius Caesar kind of way.
Part of that ambition is to expand my repertoire in the kitchen by testing the boundaries of what I can do – to learn new skills, create dishes that aren’t just delicious, but also beautiful. I want to cook complex things, things that take days to make. I dream of unique flavor combinations and experimental techniques. I’ve been eating up all the beautiful cookbooks I got for Christmas and am eager to try out new recipes.
On my flight back to Berlin, I zipped through the Los Angeles edition of Lucky Peach, full of dishes from Asia and Mexico filtered through Los Angeles’s multi-cultural mien. And today for lunch, I made Chengdu ZaJiang Noodles, a specialty from the Sichuan province via Mian, a restaurant in sunny San Gabriel, California.
It’s been snowing all week, and a light flurry that would later turn into a blizzard was gently drifting down outside, while inside I fogged the windows frying up bacon and browning ground pork. Littering the counter were bottles and sauces I don’t normally cook with. A bag of sweet bean paste with a label entirely in Chinese, the mortar full of pretty, pink Sichuan peppercorns, shells butterflied open and ready to grind.
My brother came over for lunch, and we chatted as I cooked – about projects and people and the endless ice. It was nice to have the company. My apartment still feels quiet without David around, and it makes a difference to have another body occupying space, to have someone to share a meal with and to cook for.
Cooking for others has always been one of my favorite things; it’s one of the ways I best know to care for other people. When I take care of myself, I find I’m better able to take care of those around me. Thank you, balance.
Which brings me to perhaps my biggest goal for 2017: To care more for others, in cooking, in calling, in keeping in touch. And most importantly, to be more engaged in my community, to actively use my body and voice to fight for what is right. Because that’s actually how to make this year better than the last.
Chengdu ZaJiang Noodles
It’s fascinating how different types of spice affect your mouth in different ways. There’s the way wasabi sears your nose or bird’s eye chilies burn at the edges of your lips and habaneros tingle across the tongue. But there’s nothing quite like the spice of Sichuan peppercorns. At first bright and floral, it soon feels as though your mouth has disappeared. Not because the heat makes it feel as though your burning mouth is no longer part of you – just that your mouth is large and cavernous and strangely not there. And when you drink water, it’s almost cool – like the feeling of running your tongue across the gummy gap where a tooth used to be. An interesting spice, for sure. This version is adapted from the Lucky Peach Winter 2016 issue. Serves 2.
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. water
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
½ lb. (230 g) ground pork
3 tsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. sweet bean paste (tian mian jiang)
½ cup chicken broth
2 tsp. crushed Chinese chilies in oil
½ tsp. ground Sichuan peppercorns
2 tsp. melted pork fat
2 tsp. tahini
2 tbsp. chopped scallions
2 portions dried or fresh ramen noodles
Bring a large pot of water to boil.
In a small bowl, combine garlic and water. Set aside.
Heat vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. When the pork begins to brown, add 1 tsp. of soy sauce and the sweet bean paste and cook through, about 2-3 minutes. Add the broth and cook for another 5 minutes. The pork should look a little soupy. Keep warm.
Set out two serving bowls. Into each bowl, add 1 tsp. crushed chilies, 1 tsp. soy sauce, 1 tsp. garlic water, ½ tsp. pork fat, ½ tsp. tahini and ¼ tsp. Sichuan pepper. Stir to combine.
Add the noodles to the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes if fresh, or according to package directions (probably about 4 minutes). Drain and divide between the serving bowls. (Note: If your pork is looking a little dry, add a splash of the ramen cooking water to the skillet and cook for another 2 minutes.)
Divide the pork between the two bowls and garnish with scallions.
Note: If you don’t have access to pork fat, you can render the fat from a few strips of bacon. 2-3 fatty strips should do the trick.