There are mashed potatoes, and then there are potatoes slammed between a super-sized mallet and a flat stone by Chinese construction workers for over a half an hour.
Five years ago, I put this site on hold as I entered a doctoral program in anthropology. For me, writing about food had always been an entry point into writing about the social life around food. For my academic research, I moved away from food to construction, but my main interests haven’t changed all that much. I still am interested in the relationship between rural and urban places, what people make and how social and cultural life is formed by that work. Whether what they make is luxury skyscrapers, or the breakfast those same construction workers make when they go back to their villages.
This past week, the two converged in a way I had not expected, over breakfast in a village a few hours south of Xian, China. I have been to Chinese villages many times, and I have poked my nose in a number a number of kitchens, but this dish’s preparation was maybe the most surprising I have ever seen.
The second morning I was there, they began making “Ciba,” probably the most famous local dish. We got up early to and steamed potatoes. Once they were cooked, they ladled them out, let them cool a bit, and put them in a bag. They brought the bag out of a kitchen to a large flat stone set up in the courtyard area shared by several houses next to the out-board kitchen.
Then, to my astonishment, they produced mallets that looked like the kind you take to “test your strength” at a carnival, and started mashing the potatoes in the bag. After the potatoes were the consistency of regular mashed potatoes, they took them out of the bag, and put the mound directly on the stone table. From there, they kept mashing and mashing, tiny splinters of mallet inevitably shedding off into the potatoes. After about 15 minutes, the potatoes started looking less like mashed potatoes and more like dough. When I tried my hand with the mallet, I could hardly lift it out of the sticky mass.
After another fifteen minutes, it was done, and they put it into a steel bowl. At the same time, a large wok full of “jiangshui,” pickled greens boiled in water. To serve, the ciba wasn’t cooked again, but directly carved off a hunk and put into individual bowls and ladled with the hot soup. They passed me another bowl of diced hot peppers to add to taste.
To eat, you use you chopsticks to pinch off a bite-sized square. They have a bounce, are slick, in the mouth, the taste is a bit like tofu, and also a bit like potato gnocchi.
It was one of the few times that I was ever corrected on eating. This wasn’t the usual instruction to Americans on holding chopsticks, but actually about how to eat. “Don’t chew.” At first, I thought I heard the instruction wrong and thought that they were saying, don’t stir the bowl. But, no, another person came over said it again,”don’t chew, just swallow.” I remembered being told this as well for another wild-grass flour jelly, and for jiaotuan, a corn dish popular in Shaanxi. My friend explained, “you are just supposed to sort of mush it with your tongue against your palate — besides, it doesn’t taste any better the more you chew, so you just gulp it down.”
I tried to chew as little as I could, but swallowing a bite of this whole did not feel natural. But, they did have a different feel and taste as they slipped down, nearly whole.