Sizzle and scent. Warm, chewy layers of dough and oil. The salty notes of scallions.
I have dreamed of this. Literally and figuratively, I have dreamed of walking down the side street by my jiu jiu’s house and buying fresh cong you bing from a street vendor. Now we’re finally here, standing in the small crowd around the stall, waiting for our order to be filled.
I watch the woman spread a pancake over the flat round griddle. Little drifts of steam rise from the belly of her cart, and the dough hisses as it burns. She slides a spatula under the pancake and flips it. More hissing, more steam.
People press in close, talking loudly. I let the unfamiliar words sail over me. They melt into the voices of shoppers walking up and down the street, perusing the other stalls, and mingle with the low hum of traffic from the main avenue nearby.
When our pancakes are ready, the woman hands them to us, folded like crepes and wrapped in waxy paper. We take them back to my family’s dining table, and we bite into the moment of truth. As our tongues dive into flavor and texture, we can’t help smiling.
It’s even better than I remember. Even better than I dreamed of.
When we spot the “restaurant” and decide to give it a try, he is skeptical. The place is little more than a shack on the side of the mountain. A cinder block structure with no front wall, just wide cement patios and a roof of corrugated metal. The open-air kitchen is all stone and soot.
But he is too hungry and uncomfortable to protest, so we go in.
My yi zhang orders who-knows-what for everyone to share. While our food is being cooked, we find plastic chairs and wooden stools stacked in a corner, and we arrange them around a table for ourselves. Another group settles in — college students, maybe — and a pair of cyclists after that. Suddenly the place seems lively and warm, rather than shabby and strange.
We chat in a halting mix of Mandarin and English. We enjoy the breeze that blows in damp and green.
Dishes are brought to our table as soon as they are ready. Pork fried rice and three different kinds of vegetables, all homegrown nearby. The food is simple, unassuming, and delicious.
We eat ravenously. We devour the mountains.
The night market begins with a bright red archway, which is doing its best impression of a Buddhist temple gate. But neon lights betray the imitation. Everything is flashy and loud, blaring against the ink-blue sky and the sleeping city.
Like a school of fish, we slowly shuffle along with the throng. Our eyes scan each booth, searching for a snack or a trinket that we might enjoy. Shoes, toys, cell phone cases. Stinky tofu, crab legs, oyster omelet. Eventually he settles on strawberry juice — fresh, but watery — and grilled corn on the cob with spicy sauce. I indulge in an egg tart, the custard creamy and rich on my tongue.
We came here to satisfy our appetites. Not just for food, but for life. For an experience we can taste, and take home in our hearts. So much has been out of our control — but this? This chaos is ours.