Sometimes, when my alarm clock drags me away from an especially vivid dream, its details stick with me – long enough to share the story with my husband as he shaves, to muse over while I make coffee, to accompany me to the bus stop. But by the time I’ve settled into my office and switched on my computer, the details have begun to dissipate.By the time I dig out my lunch, I barely remember the dream at all.
Coming home from travelling has a similar effect on me. The peaceful contentment and delicious discoveries that I experienced when I was away are too quickly elbowed aside by humdrum home routines and familiar patterns. Bruce Kirkby, in a Globe and Mail article on returning from vacation, says that the “anonymity, freedom, and time” that characterize our lives on vacation lead many of us to make resolutions we’re determined to keep after we’ve unpacked our suitcases : “to live more healthily and love more deeply; to worry less and laugh more; to cleave clutter from our lives, homes, and hearts; to cut back on the Timbits.”
Five months ago, when I returned from teaching in China, I resolved to keep the sights, sounds, smells, and flavors of Changsha alive with frequent rambles through Edmonton’s thriving Chinatown. The neighborhood is only a ten-minute drive from my house, and parking is plentiful. I couldn’t wait to poke around the little shops, to hear Chinese spoken on the sidewalks, to savor the food I remembered eating in Changsha.
Now ask me how many times I’ve been to Chinatown in the last five months.
So when an old friend contacted me out of the blue last week and said he’d drive us anywhere in the downtown area for lunch, I said, “Do you know a good place in Chinatown?” Silly question. My friend grew up in Qufu, a small city in northeast China. Even though he’s lived In Canada for more than 11 years, he regularly seeks out the flavors of home.
“I know a great hotpot restaurant on 97 Street,” he said.
Hotpot. Instantly, I saw the faces of the three generous graduate students from the university in China where I taught. They accompanied me to restaurant after restaurant, interpreting menus, ordering food, and ensuring I had a good time no matter where we went. Hotpot was their absolute favorite, and we ate frequently in hotpot restaurants throughout Changsha. Although each restaurant had a slightly different version of hotpot dining, four features were consistent: choosing a lot of food, cooking it at the table, talking, and laughing. Hotpot earned a place in my heart for the way it helped me connect with the students, and a place in my tastebuds for the mouthwatering meals we cooked and enjoyed together.
So last Monday, my friend and I bombed through Edmonton’s downtown core in his right-hand drive Land Rover and pulled up at the back door of a restaurant called Urban Shabu. As soon as I stepped inside, the mingled aromas of cilantro, ginger, and chilies transported me back to Changsha. The waitress showed us to a table for two, but before we could pull out our chairs, the owner recognized my friend and came over to say hello. “I see you’ve brought a new friend!” he said. “Please, come and sit at a bigger table.”
The waitress brought us green tea and menu cards, written in both English and Chinese. For $11.95, we could each choose any five items, and the broth flavor we preferred to cook them in. After we had ordered, sipped some tea, and visited the dipping sauce table, our waitress was already returning with our food platters. She nestled our tureens of broth into their precut table holes and left us to begin cooking our lunch.
My friend told me to look under my end of the table for my cooking controls – an on/off switch, and a temperature gauge. Once I got my broth steaming, I plunked in various combinations of my chosen items – mussels, shrimp dumplings, chicken, “black fungus” (a type of tree mushroom) , as well as the complimentary vegetables – tomato and white mushroom wedges, baby bok choy, and needle mushrooms, so-named for their tall thin stalks and pin-sized heads.
While we waited for our food to cook, we swapped stories. Hotpot dining is at least as much about talking as it is about cooking and eating. My friend told me about the red tape tangle he and his new wife are experiencing, courtesy of Canada Immigration. She is still back in China, and he has submitted a 600-page document to prove that they are actually married. I shared details of my new job, the one that took me to China, and is literally opening up a whole new world for me to learn about post-secondary teaching. We gossiped and giggled about the people we worked with in the three separate workplaces where we somehow ended up having jobs at the same time.
With more than half our food uncooked, I suddenly noticed that it was already after 1 p.m. “Hey, didn’t you say you had a meeting at 1:30?” I said.
“Yes,” he said, a little wistfully. “I guess we have to eat a little faster.”
We did eat faster – a little – but there was still time to enjoy the complimentary mango pudding and candies our waitress brought for dessert. My friend dropped me off at my building, and waved goodbye as he pulled out into traffic.
As I settled back into my work day, I realized that my hotpot lunch helped me to recapture a little of the freedom and time that were so plentiful when I was in China – and that made me resolve to visit Chinatown when I returned to Edmonton. Some resolutions are difficult to keep, but with the lure of another hotpot meal some time in the near future, I don’t think this will be one of them.