In my novel, China Lily, my main characters, Cepa Cannara and Matzerath, are on a year-long trading voyage from Italy to China on the good ship The Pegasus, thirty years before Marco Polo did the same. In this segment, they have a meal with their host, Lu-Hsing.
“You boys are in the Port of Zaitun.” Lu-Hsing speaks in an authoritative tone. “Fish a speciality.”
“There must be something else.” Matzerath points. “Look at all the cooks.”
“Trouble-making Round Eyes.” Lu-Hsing points to a wok near the end of the aisle and starts to walk. “We’ll try there.”
“What does he have?” Cepa falls into step behind Lu-Hsing, followed by Matzerath.
“Eggs?” asks Matzerath.
“As many as you want.”
“That will take a big pan.”
“He can use a high-sided wok.” Lu-Hsing pretends to whisk something in a wok. “Plop it right onto a plate.”
“We don’t have dishes.” Cepa suddenly realizes the fact. “We haven’t been back to The Pegasus all day.”
“Lu-Hsing share you his.” He barks an order at the cook, then turns back to Cepa. “Stay right here. I’ll get them from my table.”
Cepa and Matzerath stand and watch the cook. Cepa notes he is using wood and not the black rocks for his fire. Some oil is dropped onto the metal and immediately sizzles. The cook holds up his hand and extends his fingers; one, two, three, four, five.
“Will you want some?”
“God – yes.” Matzerath nods.
Cepa holds up five fingers and the cook grins. He takes an egg in each hand and hits them together. The upper shell is flipped off and they pour into the wok. He repeats the gesture and the eggs land on top of the others. The last egg is dispatched on the metal rim of the wok and added to the rest before a hint of cooking has begun. The cook then begins to whisk and slide the eggs along the side of the wok before Matzerath has time to make a comment.
“I’d like to see you do that on The Pegasus,” says Cepa.
“I break eggs all the time.”
“I know.” Cepa laughs. And we eat the shells to prove it.”
The cook now twists and shakes the wok by its two handles over the fire. The eggs slide up and along the sides, then settle more thickly near the bottom. With a grin and a twist of his hands, the cook turns the wok right over. The eggs start to slide out with a couple of drops hissing into the fire. Matzerath’s mouth falls open as the cook rights the wok so quickly that the eggs drop right back into it, now cooking on the other side. The cook puts the wok back on the fire.
“Bet you can’t do that,” says Cepa.
“Just once.” Matzerath laughs. “But the whole ship was heaving at the time.”
The cook begins to nudge the eggs together with a spatula. With his other hand he sprinkles a few drops of brown liquid. Then he adds some coarsely chopped shoots of a green onion.
“Hah!” Matzerath slaps Cepa on the shoulder.
After a quick swirl of these ingredients the cook plops in a bowl of small oysters. He takes his time with these, spacing them with deliberation over the quickly cooking eggs. Then – with a flourish – he scoops up a handful of flower blossoms and sprinkles them over the whole bubbling mixture.
“What are those?” Matzerath peers into the wok.
“We’re eating flowers?’
“When in Rome …”
The cook adds a further dash of the brown liquid and then folds the eggs neatly in half. He flips the whole omelette to the center of the wok and sprinkles a palm full of spring onion – this time finely chopped – over of the still-bubbling omelette. He presses the onion in place with his spatula then removes the wok from the fire.
“Timing is everything.”
The voice startles them both. They turn to see Lu-Hsing standing behind them, holding a large platter. He barks instructions to the cook, speaking too quickly for the two men to understand.
“Stick to ribs – make you happy.”
The cook divides the omelette in half and slides it onto the platter. He then takes the wicker top off a steamer and starts to add heaping ladles of red rice along the sides of the platter.
“What’s that?” Matzerath sounds suspicious.
“Hong qu mi.”
“You can see its rice,” hisses Cepa.
“But it’s red.”
“Fermented with yeast.” Lu-Hsing scoops some into his palm and eats it.’”Looks good. Tastes great.”