I am waiting for dinner in a guesthouse, along with fifteen other foreigners. The dining room in which we sit with its bare, whitewashed walls, clean wood floor, and glistening brass spittoon in one corner, could be anywhere in rural China. Throughout our travels, our hosts have planned meals catering to the Western palate to please us. Tonight’s meal is very much like last night’s: bowls of steaming white rice served with platters of various unidentifiable meats, lightened by an occasional strip of vegetable.
Early in the trip I asked for vegetarian food. At every meal I have been offered a bowl of rice and cabbage cooked in Northern Chinese style. Sometimes a dish of peanuts has livened the cuisine. I expect no change in the fare, and wait patiently for my food. The others begin to eat. They finish their meal. I am still waiting. I wonder if my dinner has been forgotten.
I am ready to fill my bowl with plain rice when the waiter walks into the dining room carrying an array of dishes which he arranges before me. He returns with more until there are almost a dozen dishes on the table. This is no meal. It’s an offering.
Everyone becomes silent before such artistry. Wild black mushrooms shimmer in a glossy red sweet-and-sour sauce, leafy greens are bright and fresh and warmed with ginger. Spicy bean curd is flecked with fiery red peppers. Tiny slivers of carrots, fresh-sliced bamboo shoots, and deep-fried gluten puffs float in golden sesame sauce.
I stare at the food in awe, my mind blank. The only sound comes from the ceiling fan rhythmically stirring the humid air. Then the cook enters and approaches our table. He bows low before me. He is grateful to me, he explains, because since his years as a cook in a Buddhist monastery, he had little opportunity to cook vegetarian food for anyone who appreciates it.
The wild mushrooms, he tells me, were picked in a nearby forest. The greens are from gardens known for the quality of their vegetables. He bows slowly, and thanks me once again. I stumble over my own words of gratitude as he quietly disappears into the kitchen. I never see him again.
I didn’t sleep that night. The cook’s reverence and humility sliced through years of protective hardness and caught me without warning. His food was saturated with love, and its nurturance was almost too much to bear. Bewildered and disturbed by the experience, I kept it to myself.
(Serving Fire: Food for Thought, Body, and Soul (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts Publishing, 1994)