Twenty days. Yikes. To break such a silence begs a certain gravity of prose, doesn’t it, but I find myself in an easier mood this evening. I could tell you what I’ve been doing, that I’ve been going through old pictures. That I started raising fragrant herbs and lusty pink orchids and this vague, green indoor palm that I’m not so sure about. Or that I’ve been painting and lifting, drilling and dusting, watering and washing, been spending entire days on my hands and knees these three silent weeks.
I can tell you I’ve been busy rebuilding my life here in California, but that all reeks, somehow, of complaint and apology. And I hate that, reader. Instead let us tiptoe around my long absence. Let me simply say it has been good, consuming work, and mercifully, the work of the body—of arms and legs and elbows and hands—which today are all a happy kind of tired and sore.
I’ve been working but I am not cooking today, reader, and haven’t been, because these days I’m sharing the kitchen with a rather remarkable cook. Meet Mamie Mears. She didn’t teach me how to cook, but she taught me to love food, to take pride in making it well. I’ve said before that I never try to make the things she makes. You see, I have very little tolerance for personal fuckups—I believe they reveal deformities in my character—and to attempt one of her dishes would, I fear, tempt precisely that kind of crisis of self.
So this recipe—which is, in my father’s opinion, the very yummiest slurpable of all time—does not belong to me. But it is, I confess, one of only a host of Chinese foods that I crave, so I should probably learn how to make it. Someday. Just… not today. Today I luxuriate in my new room with the pink orchid and the autumn pictures, and listen to the clamor of someone else’s cooking.
I should probably get down to it, right? The food? The Shanghai breakfast soup, I’ll call it, or soy milk stew, or xian jiang, 咸 酱, meaning “salty jam” or “savory sauce,” if you speak Ethnic as fluently as I do. In English it’s soy milk, soy sauce and vinegar lovingly frothed together, coffee shop-style, to the very edge of boiling. For extra funk, there’s also dried baby shrimp, pickled Chinese vegetables, and hot pepper oil. You dunk savory Chinese donuts and sesame flatbread in it. Then you dunk your face in it.
And again, reader, no apologies. This stuff is remarkably good, and no, it’s not exotic and it’s not weird. It’s brunch. I hope you try it sometime, even if taxes your courage.
– 1 carton unsweetened soy milk
– 1 package Sichuan preserved vegetables
– 1/2 cup dried baby shrimp
– 3 overflowing tbsp apple cider vinegar
– 5 overflowing tbsp soy sauce
– 1-3 tsp of hot pepper oil, to taste
– 1 tbsp minced scallions
– 2 Chinese savory donuts (you tiao, 油条)
– Sesame flatbread (shao bing, 烧饼), to serve alongside soup
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mince preserved vegetables and combine with soy milk and baby shrimp in a medium pot.
Place pot over medium-low heat, then add soy sauce and vinegar.
Meanwhile, toast you tiao and shao bing until they’re crispy on the outside and heated all the way through.
Once the you tiao is finished toasting, increase the heat under the pot until the soy milk begins to froth. Cut the heat in half when the soup gets fluffy (yes, fluffy); be sure not to let it boil over. You may want to add more soy sauce or vinegar. Now would be a good time, but please taste it first. Stir in hot pepper oil. We like it pretty aggressively spicy.
(See how fluffy it’s getting? See!?) Split one toasted you tiao down the middle vertically, and, using sharp kitchen shears, slice it into the stew.
Add minced scallions, stir, and serve hot with the remaining toasted you tiao and shao bing. And enjoy, for crissakes. It’s good for you.