Excerpt from the novel “China Lily”
In 1293, Cepa and Matzerath were part of the crew of The Pegasus, a ship that had sailed from Italy to China on a trading mission. After a couple of months, they arrived in the port of Zaitun, where they encountered a local trader, Lu-Hsing.
Lu-Hsing takes the two men to a communal dining hall. This is part of their meal.
Compared to others of his experience, the crew of The Pegasus appears content with their lot. They are certainly fitting in well in the dining hall, and even mingling with other diners. Thanks to the Captain’s instructions, they are willing to try any of the dishes they encounter, though it helps that they are ignorant of many of the ingredients.
“You want something other than onions?” Lu-Hsing jabs Cepa in the ribs with his shoulder.
“I want something with my onions.”
“You’ve been looking intently at everything.” Lu-Hsing opens his arms expansively. “What do you wish?”
“What do you suggest?”
“Look at me.” Lu-Hsing rubs his belly with a roar. “I am not a picky eater. I’ll suggest anything.”
“You’ve already warned me away from soup.”
“Not warned.” Lu Hsing points back to the bubbling soup they had been looking at. “You can add a lot to soup and make a stew.” He grimaces. “But you still slurp more than you chew. Lu-Hsing wants to use his teeth when he eats.”
“We can stay away from soup.” Cepa smiles. “And I’d just as soon avoid fish.”
“Me, too.” Matzerath puts his hands up in surrender. “We eat enough salted fish to swim.”
“You boys are in the Port of Zaitun.” Lu-Hsing speaks in an authoritative tone. “Fish a specialty.”
“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, and 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, and 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.”
“Aren’t you having a meal?”
“Lu-Hsing eats later – with family.” He moves his hand over the top of the platter and inhales the aroma. “We eat at home – wife is a great cook.”
“I thought you’d be joining us.” Matzerath is clearly disappointed.
“Too crowded. Too smoky.” Lu-Hsing laughs. “Just the place for Round-eyes who want to make contacts. I already know people.”
Lu-Hsing abruptly steps behind the counter and stands beside the cook. He takes a look into the bubbling pots and lifts the tops off of steamers. He finally points with a barrage of Chinese. The cook gets two porcelain bowls and ladles a heaping amount of food into each.
“Got your spoon?” asks Cepa.
Matzerath takes a spoon from his pant’s pocket and holds it up.
“Yes.” Cepa has his spoon on a chain around his neck. He takes it out from underneath his shirt and lets it dangle against his chest.
“You boys prepared – good.” Lu-Hsing takes the platter with the omelette and rice. He then points with his chin. “Take your bowls and follow me.”
Matzerath anxiously sees the platter of steaming food being taken away. He nudges Cepa and they again get into step behind Lu-Hsing, who again clears a path through the crowded eating hall. They approach a raised platform under a row of windows, much like the noble’s section in the Cannara’s own tavern. It is still a crowded space, with ten tables set not far apart from each other. Half are vacant, so Cepa can’t tell if Lu-Hsing heads for his ‘own’ table, or has the use of any that is available. He places the platter crosswise near one end of the table.
“You need drink.” Lu-Hsing unrolls a half dozen chopsticks from a cotton napkin, so they lay beside the platter. “Tea or rice wine?”
“Dear God – wine!” Matzerath plunks his bowl on the table. “It’s been a day.”
“Bring both, please.” Cepa sits across the table from Matzerath. “For both of us.”
“Tea is for thirst.” Matzerath takes his spoon from his pocket. “I want drink for more than that.”
“We can’t have you getting drunk.” Cepa lifts his own spoon from around his neck. “Even the crew has orders not to get drunk.”
“You are sticking to tea?” Matzerath begins to wield his chopsticks over the rice.
“No.” Cepa laughs. “Although I am also thirsty, I have no objection to feeling ‘mellow’ as I eat.”
“And it will help you sleep.” Lu-Hsing slaps Cepa on the back. “Like mother’s milk.”
“I wish my mother had had tits of wine.” Matzerath wipes some rice from his chin and sucks his fingers. “I would have been a better child.”