I own a cleaver made from the shrapnel of bombs lobbed by the Chinese Communists at the Taiwanese-controlled island of Jinmen from the late 1950s into the 1970s. This cleaver was given to me by my friend Cindy Tsai, who is of Taiwanese extraction. Every time I look at it I grin. Wu Tseng-dong, a Jinmen hustler descended from a family of knife-makers, figured out how to cash in on the bombs flung at him by the anti-capitalist vanguard of the proletariat! Exactly such relentless entrepreneurial ingenuity has made Taiwan into one of the contemporary world's great economic success stories.
I love this knife because it is a discrete physical object bearing the weight of modern Chinese history. But sadly, my Commie-bomb cleaver feels a little light when I lift it above the cutting board. Maybe the available stock of bomb shrapnel has shrunk after all these years, or there is more profit to be gained from narrative gimmicks than zealous attention to quality. It's worth a sigh: I will treasure it forever, but without the necessary heft, it is more of a relic than a tool.
My most recent cleaver purchase is a formidable Dazu weapon that I bought in Chengdu last year. It is mighty and awe-inspiring and if faced with the necessity of fending off a home invasion it would be my first choice. It's also great for crushing an entire head of garlic with one push. But it's too heavy to deploy for extended mincing. It's a meat cleaver. I keep it in reserve, ready for whenever I am called upon to debone an ox.
My Goldilocks cleaver is a beat-up, made-in-Hong Kong knife with a distressing tendency towards rust. This cleaver was bequeathed to me by my mother, who used it for decades before passing it on to me. It is old and worn and shorn of all gleam, but it fits my grip as if I was born to wield it. When I hoist this sacred object, I am in tune with the way.
And I am ready to commence the ritual: the cleaving of the garlic and ginger.
Garlic and ginger! How am I surviving this pandemic, the cascade of civil unrest facing off against right wing vigilantism, the ominous and unbearable countdown until November 3rd? I get by with my mother's cleaver and the mythopoeic potency of garlic and ginger. I chop, and the aromas of banquets past swirl around me. I chop, and I think of my friend Cindy.
I chop, and the pandemic retreats. This is ancient magic.
At the time of the churning of the Ocean of Milk, after the nectar was recovered from the ocean, Lord Vishnu in his enchanting Mohini form began distributing nectar to the gods. But the demon Rahu seated himself among the gods and received a sip of nectar. Vishnu promptly cut off the demon’s head with his sudarshan chakra. The nectar in the mouth of the demon fell on the ground and immediately manifested as onions and garlic. So garlic is nectar, imbued with rejuvenative properties, but it is also seen as contaminated because it touched the mouth of a rakshasa.
In one Korean foundation myth, a female bear, after eating nothing but 20 cloves of garlic and Korean mugwort for 21 days, was transformed into a woman. She gave birth to a son who founded the nation of Korea.
(Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms, 13th Century A.D.
Garlic appears in recipes baked into cuneiform blocks from ancient Sumer, as clay models in pre-dynastic Egyptian tombs and as part of a kitchen rack of spices in the mausoleum of a Han dynasty noblewoman. Aristophanes claimed that Greek athletes consumed garlic to increase their strength and courage. Herodotus wrote about how laborers on the Egyptian pyramids depended on garlic for their sustenance. Pliny the Elder was a fan. Tutankhamen was buried with cloves of garlic.
The most popular current guess is that garlic is indigenous to the mountains of Central Asia, near the current borders of China and Kyrgyzstan. Some ten thousand years ago, so the theory goes, nomads from the highlands started spreading it throughout the Eurasian landmass. It's not clear exactly when garlic first reached China -- one popular, albeit thinly sourced account has the Han Dynasty diplomat and general Zhang Qian bringing it back with him from his travels in Central Asia in the second century A.D. But that is undoubtedly ascribing too much agency to a single person. Garlic did not need the favor of emperors or generals or pharaohs to ensure its popularity. Garlic is self-evident.
I was prepping for a Sichuan dinner when Cindy Tsai's mother first walked through the front door of my home. Her face broke out into a huge smile.
"It smells like my mother's kitchen!"
The compliment, proffered some 20 years ago, remains the nicest thing anyone has ever said -- or ever will say -- about my cooking. But all true credit belonged to a profusion of chopped garlic and ginger. Back at the turn of the century, my chef skills were rudimentary. The meal I was making that day counted as only my third or fourth attempt at home-made Sichuan. And it was the very first time I'd invited anyone outside of my immediate nuclear family to join in.
Which was a fact that caused its own commotion. Cindy Tsai was delighted by the invitation -- Cindy is always delighted at the prospect of festivity. But there was a catch. Cindy's mother was visiting Berkeley to check in on her grandchildren. Could she come too?
Cindy and I decided we had to be friends when our first-born daughters met on their first day of pre-school and promptly started licking each other. Ten years later, she managed the rare feat of providing mental life support to both sides of a broken marriage. She has been my partner in anything-goes conviviality since the first pre-school family Friday evening cookout. She is equally forgiving and enthusiastic. I wasn't afraid to test my fledgling mapo doufu on her.
But her mother? I'd heard stories. Dragons may have been involved.
I gulped. I grabbed my cleaver. I peeled mountains of garlic and ginger. I chopped all afternoon.
My reward was that smile from Cindy's mother, a smile that somehow connected fin-de-siecle Berkeley with martial-law era Taiwan, a smile that has warmed me every single time thereafter as I pause in appreciation of a clean cutting board.
Much changed in the decades that followed that meal. My kitchen, my love-life, my job -- but a couple of things remained consistent. Cindy and I built a community around the sharing of food, and the ritual of chopping garlic and ginger became as much a part of my daily life as the act of writing or being a parent. When all else is going crazy, garlic and ginger reset my equanimity.
We know even less about the origins of ginger than we do of garlic, other than it probably came from somewhere in in the southeast Asian tropics. But it seems to have been indispensable to the rise of civilization in Asia. In northwest China, paleobotanists have discovered ginger starch granules on the insides of ceramic pots dating back 8000 years before the present day. There is speculation that ginger was a key agent in some of the very first experiments involved in creating fermented alcoholic beverages. (Whether for medical use or intoxication is unclear.) In The Analects, Confucius professes himself a fan. In The Thousand and One Nights it is mentioned as an ingredient in an aphrodisiac recipe. Shakespeare has a character declare in Love's Labour's Lost "An I had but one penny in the world, thou should have it to buy ginger bread." Henry the VIII included ginger in a recipe for combatting plague.
What? Ginger as pandemic-preventer? Oh yes. Ginger has been a staple of the medicine kit from the dawn of history. In Ayurvedic lore, ginger is referred to as maha-aushadhi, or "great medicine." In the Chinese pharmacopeia, ginger is far more than just a spice -- it is a cure for just about anything that could ail you.
And so is garlic.
So what do we know? Over the past few decades biomedical researchers have determined that ginger is an anti-nausea agent effective against morning sickness and the aftermath of chemotherapy. Ginger has been found to reduce cholesterol, thereby decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It appears to be particularly potent as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Garlic also appears to have anti-inflammmatory properties, and may be useful in reducing blood pressure and inducing a host of favorable cardiovascular outcomes. One study found that the growth rate of cancer cells is reduced by garlic. (Pliny the Elder claimed garlic repelled scorpions, healed hemorrhoids, and relieved tooth-ache but these assertions have not been rigorously peer-reviewed.)
There is even evidence that garlic is an anti-depressant.
I could go on. The amount of high-powered scientific attention bestowed on garlic and ginger by researchers intent on understanding the mechanisms of exactly how the two spices work their wonders is overwhelming -- even if it runs some risk of belaboring the obvious. Ten thousand years of cultural adoption doesn't happen without a reason! I decided, long ago, that garlic and ginger were good for my soul. I was blissfully oblivious to all the data telling me that garlic and ginger were also good for my heart and my mind.
But then I learned, after twenty years of avid mincing, that the process of crushing and chopping garlic releases allicin, an organosulfuric compound that is believed to be chiefly responsible for garlic's cornucopia of therapeutic blessings. The act of preparation activates the medicine! What on my more exhausted days seemed like a chore -- that simple act of chopping -- now feels like the unleashing of a superpower. My cleaver is Thor's Hammer!
I have been enlightened. To chop garlic and ginger is to declare solidarity with ten thousand generations of cooks and shamans and doctors, with the fullness of human history, with the essence of cooking both for sustenance and health.
Which is why, I suppose, a mother's kitchen smells so good.
(Garlic in cuneiform)
Garlic and ginger can be found in every variety of Chinese cuisine. But the elite cuisines traditionally favored by the literati and the imperial court tended to deploy the spices sparingly, perhaps owing to Daoist and Buddhist invocations against over-stimulation.
This is not true in Sichuan.
Sichuan pepper and the chili pepper get all the glory, and far be it from me to deprecate the glory of their mala combination. But garlic and ginger are crucial foot soldiers for Sichuan cuisine. They are the bedrock, the predicate upon which all else is founded. How many stir fries have I commenced with a handful of garlic and ginger tossed into the hot oil? I cannot count them all.
I learned how to cook Sichuan food for the express purpose of making my own mapo doufu. My ur-text in this quest was Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook. Mrs Chiang was a native of the Chengdu plain who ended up in Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War and eventually found herself in New Jersey as the cook and nanny for a pair of Princeton academics.
Her recipes are not for the garlic shy. Her mapo doufu is exhibit A. Three inches of ginger, and eight cloves (or more!) of garlic. We can argue about what an inch of ginger really means or whether the cloves available in Mrs Chiang's day were smaller than the super-sized monsters available at every grocery today, but there can be little doubt that Mrs Chiang believed the ideal mapo doufu requires a significant quantity of both.
The Sichuanese credo: stimulation is good; more stimulation is better. The canonical creation story of mapo dofu tells us that it was concocted in the late 19th century for the benefit of street peddlars who hauled cooking oil suspended in pails at either end of a pole balanced on their shoulders. The pockmarked old lady who gave the dish its name appears to have understood intuitively that if her customers wanted to survive their back-breaking days they needed all the nutritive encouragement they could handle.
Long before I contemplated the biomedical research suggesting garlic is an anti-depressant mapo was my go-to dish for both working myself out of a funk and celebrating a manic high. Garlic and ginger and chili paste and chili oil and Sichuan pepper and soy sauce and scallions. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
Aficionados of those more subtle cuisines might well decry the Sichuan approach as unbalanced. And it is true, garlic and ginger do not revolve in a complementary yin-yang embrace. Both fall under the Chinese medicine category of "warming" agents. They add strength and passion to a dish by emphasizing each other's strong points.
They are partners in conviviality.
They are my role models.
Because you can't know someone as well as I know Cindy, and not have wondered, at moments of either extreme vulnerability or exceeding levels of intoxication whether there was more than friendship to be mined from a relationship so deep. Word has trickled back to me after more than one co-hosted dinner party that guests new to our table had wondered "what's their deal?"
It's a good question. So here's the deal: two yangs don't necessarily make a right. Cindy and I are like garlic and ginger. We are both warming agents. We don't complement each other; we accelerate each other. Our dinner parties are livelier. The conversations are louder. The music beats faster. There is drama.
Only a fool would put such synergy in peril. Love affairs come and go. Garlic and ginger are forever.
In the context of hundreds of thousands of deaths and a teetering economy, the fact that the pandemic has kept Cindy Tsai out of my kitchen for many months probably doesn't deserve the word "tragic." But the laughter from dinner parties past now echo as if whispered by ghosts. My backyard deck feels as dusty as a Han Dynasty noblewoman's tomb. The links to the community built through shared food and conversation and massive doses of garlic and ginger are frayed. I miss my friend. I crave my warming agent.
But I still go through the ritual, multiple times a week, peeling, crushing, and chopping my garlic and ginger, ladling it, tablespoon after tablespoon, into the hot oil, stirring it with my chan, watching for the right moment to add the chili paste.
As I savor the pungency, I try to savor the memories and the history and the legend, rather than lament the current moment. I think of Central Asian nomads coming down out of the mountains bearing garlic, and sea traders off the coast of Malabar with their shipments of ginger. I think of the wine makers in neolithic China, experimenting with ginger as they built civilization, and the doctors in Black Death-stricken Europe, chewing on garlic paste to fend of the plague. I think of slaves building pyramids, Sumerian cooks, Chinese medicine gods.
I think of mothers tending to their children, filling their kitchens with clouds of acrid and savory. I think of Cindy's mom. But most of all, I think of the friend who will always have my back, who will drive me to the emergency room when I crash my bike or stitch me a pandemic mask or bequeath me her favorite rice serving bowl. Who will celebrate with me or commiserate with me as necessary. Who will cook me breakfast the morning after I burn down my house.
I have time to think about all these things, time to appreciate their exquisite savor, because I always have time to chop garlic and ginger.