Rear Window: The Garden: the Next Day.

5 am: daybreak. No email from the other side of the world to check, so when I wake up–jetlag time dawn–I go directly to the window. Unlike yesterday which was overcast qnd drizzly, today the sun is already shining; as i look out from my 14th story window I can see the entire area more clearly. The hills, the sea, the school next door, the Chinese red flag with its golden stars already flying in the breeze.

The flag of China was already flying early this morning.

The flag of China was already flying early this morning.

Then I look down at the empty lot. Yes, I am convinced without a doubt: there is order to this patch of land. I think it is possible that the stones are actually delineating pathways. And the various parcels of land the stones lead around, could those be gardens? Is there organization to the greenery? Are they gardens for salady and cabbagy leaves, poles supporting green beans, rows of broccoli?

I make a tea, pull up a chair, and when I glance back at the window there is no doubt: It is a garden, being tended purposefully. I can’t see their ages or sexes from my height, but there is someone wandering along a stone path, with buckets and large bowls of water, pouring the water gently on the growing greenery, then returning to get more water. But where is the source of the water, and with no opening in the walls where do the people come from?

One by one more people arrive, working separately, no stopping for chitchat, working steadily, determindedly, and then: by 7 am everyone was gone.

I ran downstairs in an effort to find the opening to this mysterious garden, but even though I walked along the huge area, I didn’t see a doorway or a gate.

sidings, billboards, that surrounded the area which was a big garden. I couldn't find a doorway.

sidings, billboards, that surrounded the area which was a big garden. I couldn’t find a doorway.

So I went to the breakfast buffet. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that I ate: garlic-chile braised celeriac with black beans, julienned cucumber with chillies and ham (“cucumber of the burning flesh” the sign labeling the dish read), black rice filled bao, green beans braised with salted soy beans and chile oil, chewy black rice “cakes”, and a portion of simple chow mein that I garnished with pickled vegetables, the pickled vegetables that accompany almost every meal though i think there are meant to be eaten with the congee, or simple rice soup. Here is what I love about the food of this corner of China, Yantai (Shandong): garlic, masses, tons, piles, of garlic. Everything has garlic. I am so happy.

Late that afternoon, early evening, I returned to my big window. It had been sunny all day and the garden needed more water. everywhere people were scurrying:pPlastic buckets and bowls being filled in large holes in the ground: scary scarey uncovered wells, big holes that were lined with stones; a few stairs led into them where the gardeners would dip a bucket or bowl, fill with water, then climb out carefully on the stones, and head toward the area they were cultivating.

Knowing that these stone-lined holes were wells, each day I surveyed the garden; by the end I had counted three wells with a fourth possible well.

Each morning I see something new, form created from the piles of rubbles and stones. A small gardeners shack took shape one day inbetween my visits to the window; One evening as the sun set and all of the gardners had left, I spied a large white cat–it would have to have been very large as I was 14 floors up, a large white cat slink through the garden, leaping onto bushes, trees, patches of greenery. I was convinced then it was a white panther or other large cat. I still don’t know. Have I googled to find out if they exist in that area? I haven’t; in part because this large white cat was so magical in his movements I hate to meet with the reality of an ordinary answer. He was a big cat, lets leave it at that. (a big MAGICAL cat).

In the midst of mega-metropolis (Yantai, of which we were on the outskirts, has a population of about 8 million) and all of the money-making industry taking place all around us, it was soothing to see hand-made, hard-working, earth-garden, being coaxed from the debris of the destruction of one building, in place of what would inevitably become the site of another. One of these days.

Meanwhile, the garden grows. I never figured out how people got in, yet each day there they were, appearing at the crack of dawn, and each evening as the sun got ready to set. Weeding, watering, hoisting bowls and buckets onto their heads, climbing down into the wells then up again with the water, splashing it onto the thirsty earth.

And each day it grew: beans climbed the poles, leafy, heavier each day. Tiny dots of lettucey greens appeared, then grew larger, and larger: the tiny dots from 14 stories up became recognizable as leaves, vegetables, even flowers.

My Version of Braised Celeriac from the Kunlun International Hotel, Yantai, Shandong, China

2 tablespoons Chinese salted black beans
About 1 tablespoon oil–I always use extra virgin olive oil, in Yantai they used some sort of vegetable or peanut oil
1/2 medium or 1 smallish celeriac/celeryroot, peeled, sliced in half, then cut into 1/8 inch thick slices
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
3 mild green or green and red chillies–I used pimentos de Padron; you could use ordinary green bell pepper, diced
1/2 teaspoon shredded or chopped ginger root or several pinches dry ginger powder
Ladleful of stock/broth such as vegetable or chicken
Sea salt to taste
Small pinch sugar to taste
Optional, to taste: garlic-chile hot sauce (I used homemade; storebought is delicious too

Place black beans in a small bowl and cover with warm water; leave to soak while you cook the celeriac/celery root

In a wok, heat the oil until it begins to smoke then add the celerica/celery root slices; stir fry a few moments until they are golden and turning bown in a few places, then sprinkle on the garlic, chillies/peppers, and ginger. Continue to stir fry a few minutes.

Ladle in the broth, stir fry until the liquid evaporates, then drain the soaking beans, lightly crush with a spoon or your fingers, then add to the celeriac/celery root along with sea salt to taste, aa pinch of sugar. Continue stir frying a few minutes til the vegetables are tender, then add garlic-chile sauce to taste.

Serve right away, though i have to say that even left to room temperature its still pretty wonderful.

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