Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona for a virtual wine tasting on Friday, October 23, at 6 P.M. on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. For more details, visit our events page, or scroll to the bottom of the page.
The work of the Taiwanese author Qiu Miaojin (1969–1995) feels eerily familiar to me. Qiu was a near-contemporary of mine who died by suicide at twenty-six, and her two slim novels, Notes of a Crocodile and Last Words from Montmartre, are experimental mash-ups of letters, journal entries, and social satire about depressed lesbian university students and their tortured, impossible relationships. They offer a shared culture from the late eighties and early nineties—the song “Cherry Came Too,” the films of Derek Jarman and Andrei Tarkovsky—and a shared roster of activities that probably hasn’t changed much for students today: crying, drinking in excess, writing or receiving long hopeless love letters, eating instant noodles, skulking around waiting to run into someone, and spending endless hours analyzing the character of friends and lovers.
In the hands of most college students, this is not the stuff of genius, which makes Qiu’s ambition all the more thrilling. Writing in the journal Asymptote, the scholar Dylan Suher locates her work in the tradition of “what the Chinese call qing, which is passion as a full-blown aesthetic ideology.” The concept has a storied history in Chinese literature, and to write about it using the details of contemporary youthful melodrama—the notes in the bike baskets, the tears over beers—must have been an innovation. The journals and letters that make up the body of each book are convincingly conversational and interior, yet they achieve formal elegance. Rhythmic waves of short sentences form a flood, which lifts up the collegiate sentimentality, as when the anonymous narrator of Notes of a Crocodile writes: “Those wrenching eyes, which could lift up the entire skeleton of my being. How I longed for myself to be subsumed into the ocean of her eyes. How the desire, once awakened, would come to scald me at every turn.” Any young adult with a painful crush might recognize the feeling, but not just any young adult writes like that. We respect Qiu’s narrator when she explains that her intention is to take herself seriously, because “the significance of this special experience will disappear from the world unless I recount it. So few dare to articulate their unique experiences and try to distinguish nuances of meaning between them.”
To write about modern schoolgirl qing was clever; to write about modern lesbian schoolgirl qing was radical in the Taipei of Qiu’s time. Queer love in Taiwanese society, Suher writes, was not persecuted or violently suppressed the way it was in the West at the time, but it had traditionally been required to remain invisible. Qiu’s first-person narrators, burning with their life-defining passions, refuse to remain silent. They state over and over again, “I love my own kind—womankind.” They also write about their shame, self-loathing, and feelings of erasure. “I am a woman who loves women,” says the narrator of Notes of a Crocodile. “My world is one of tainted sustenance. From the moment my consciousness of love was born there was no hope of cure.”
The twenty letters from the narrator of Last Words from Montmartre are dated from April 27 to June 17, and they often discuss suicide. Qiu herself died by suicide on June 25, shortly after the work was finished. It is tempting for the modern Western reader to interpret the all-consuming love Qiu writes about as a psychological error, or to dismiss her narrators as obsessive stalkers—territory that their behavior clearly veers into. In Montmartre, the narrator’s resolution to commit suicide in order to somehow eternally wed her beloved Xu callously overlooks the damage to Xu her act might entail. But commenters steeped in Asian literature mention the tradition of suicide as an artistic act, and the influence on Qiu of the Japanese writers Yukio Mishima and Osamu Dazai, both of whom took their own lives. The loss of Qiu’s life was a tragedy, but it’s appropriate to judge her work as she intended, as the product of the intolerable internal conflict she felt as a lesbian in a homophobic culture. Last Words from Montmartre as the ultimate act of both self-insistence and self-erasure is a beautiful, chilling, and unique entry in the canon of world literature.
Notes of a Crocodile—which was published in 1994 and won the China Times Literature Award in 1995, shortly after Qiu’s death—tackles the subject in a more playful form. Again we are reading a first-person narration of private materials and correspondence by a lovelorn narrator, here interspersed with satirical bits about “crocodiles.” These are subjects of a national media “frenzy,” as lesbians were at the time in Qui’s Taipei, a rapidly changing place that was liberal in comparison to mainland China and beginning to tackle the issues of gay rights. Are crocodiles good or bad? To be protected or eradicated? What are their habits? Their shyness is documented—they go out wearing “human suits” so no one will know they are crocodiles—as is their loneliness in love. “If there were an encyclopedia on the subject of humanity, the scientific definition of a crocodile would be ‘a Hula-hoop (or dead bolt, etc.) optimized for secretly falling in love with other people,’ ” Qiu writes. The crocodile works in a bakery, and its favorite food is cream puffs, but it doesn’t dare eat them once the media reports on it, lest people realize it’s a crocodile.
This detail again brought me back to my feelings of familiarity with Qiu’s characters. Was I this girl once? Did I know her? In boarding school, my own time of peak social hiding and shame, my favorite junk-food purchase at our little off-campus deli was cream horns (synthetic, but voluminous at five for a dollar). I used to secretly consume entire packages alone in my room, scathingly aware of all the people who didn’t love me, several of whom were girls.
I began searching my memory for when, precisely, I’d been as depressed as Qiu’s heroines or in their kind of love, or when I’d written my own (much less literary) version of that kind of letter or had it written to me, and I realized that the continuum of these feelings is universal but their extremity is not. The specifics, as Qiu puts it, of her own unique experience—fundamentally her queer experience and how it was shaped by her family, her culture, her school, her feelings, her desires, the people she knew, and the things that happened to her—are what make the story meaningful. And specifics are what Qiu evokes so brilliantly with her deceptively simple conceptual novels disguised as letters and journals.
The limitations of familiarity and the importance of specifics were brought home to me even more strongly when I began investigating Qiu’s food. I should say from the outset that I’m not experienced with Chinese cooking, and the nuances of the Taiwanese version of it are accessible to me only via the internet. Nothing I produced could hope to offer an authentic version of a Taiwanese classic, but Qiu’s books offered a wealth of details on the narrators’ diets, a combination of takeout, canned food, and easy home assembly that would allow me to make my own version. Again, it looked familiar but most likely was not. And many of the ingredients—leftover takeout, canned tuna, old cabbage, instant noodles, half a pound of fish paste, or that extra quarter cup of cornstarch to make “thick pork soup” slimy—are not what I’d usually reach for to make a meal. I cooked the food to the best of my abilities, adapting it where I could to make something I’d reasonably eat. My spirits consultant, the wine expert and educator Hank Zona, improved the final spread dramatically by suggesting I pair it with a dry Riesling, a wine that is “misunderstood” but “has become the go-to across the Chinese and Asian spectrum.” The best Rieslings are known to be German or Alsatian, but great versions are now coming out of other cooler climates, especially the Finger Lakes of New York. Zona recommended two “really fantastic” local options. Riesling’s “approximation of more sweetness and body pairs well with heat and spice,” he explained. Riesling is also a great wine to pair with Chinese takeout because it works well with the broad range of flavors one finds in the usual mishmash of a family order.
Qiu’s most specific and best cooking directions come in Last Words from Montmartre: “At 6:30 in the morning I boiled myself a bowl of instant rice noodles. I added a small piece of French cabbage (the last of three heads of cabbage that Bunny had eaten, and possibly the cause of death), a third of a can of tuna, half a can of mushrooms, an egg, and the leftovers from last night’s sweet and sour fish.” The narrator goes on to explain that she learned this method of cooking from a friend, who would “put on an air of authority and say, Cuisiner c’est l’invention! Then she’d mix together whatever random things were left in her refrigerator.” I’m not sure this was supposed to taste good, but I interpreted “instant noodles” to be Top Ramen—the best ramen, in my ramen-obsessed children’s opinion. There’s nothing that can go too wrong in a dish based on ramen and topped with scallions and a fried egg. The warmth and salty fishiness of my noodles became downright sophisticated when paired with the Boundary Breaks Dry Riesling #239, one of the two local wines Zona suggested.
Elsewhere in Montmartre, the narrator makes “scrambled eggs with beef and onion and macaroni, and some rice.” Macaroni and rice? I did not try that one. In Notes of a Crocodile, there are “hand-pulled egg noodles topped with vegetables,” “thick pork soup,” and, of course, cream puffs. The narrator doesn’t cook any of these things at home, but I—naturally!—did. Research suggested that at restaurants in Taiwan, hand-pulled noodles require a specialty ingredient unavailable to a home cook (and probably a lifetime’s experience to do it right, too). I used a method recommended on some Asian food blogs: making a simple pasta dough with flour, salt, and eggs, rolling it out and cutting it into strips by hand, and pulling on each strip individually to stretch and lengthen it. The results were uneven, but as with the ramen dish, there’s very little that will ever taste bad about homemade pasta. I sautéed an assortment of Asian vegetables—including watercress, burdock root, and Japanese sweet potato—to top the noodles, flavoring them with garlic, sesame oil, basil, and scallions, which are hallmarks of Taiwanese cooking. This was hardly a recipe, but it was delicious.
The “thick pork soup,” to the best of my internet-detective abilities, seemed to be a translation of ro geng, an iconic Taiwanese dish that involves dried shrimp, fish paste, and a cornstarch slurry to make it glutinous. The fish paste called for is a very different ingredient from the shrimp paste I use occasionally in minuscule quantities in Thai cooking. The recipe called for a half pound of fish paste; I experimented with using a teaspoon of Thai shrimp paste rubbed on the pork, and I tried using the recommended amount of dried shrimp, another ingredient that is excellent when balanced properly but can be difficult to work with. From my perspective, neither created a good flavor. The recipe below omits them. I include the directions for adding the thickener at the end, though as a matter of personal preference, I’d skip that step, too. The real revelation on this soup was the technique of cutting the pork against the grain and then slivering it, which makes for an extremely tender consistency.
The last dish, the cream puffs, required something to make them more distinctive. I considered making cream horns, my own favorite crocodile snack from high school, but when I noticed a bubble-tea cream puff at a café in New York’s Chinatown, and connected the dots that bubble tea originated in Taiwan, I made my decision. I infused my pastry cream with “black sugar flavor” tapioca balls and made a super-strong tea to use as the liquid for a glaze. The results were stunningly good, much better than either the Chinatown version or, in my opinion, bubble tea itself. (In Notes of a Crocodile, the narrator pays thirty cents for a cream puff; the bakery one I bought as a model cost $4.55.) I did not try mixing the cream puffs with the Riesling, but perhaps I should have. Cuisiner c’est l’invention!
“Inventive” Instant Noodles
a package of Top Ramen, flavor of your choice
1/4 cup oyster mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup cabbage, sliced into matchsticks
1/3 can tuna
an egg, fried and seasoned
1/2 cup leftover sweet-and-sour fish, shredded and deboned
scallions, to garnish
Cook the Top Ramen according to package instructions, then turn the heat down to a simmer. Add the mushrooms and cabbage, and cook for two to three minutes, until the cabbage is wilted. Stir in the canned tuna, then top with sweet-and-sour fish, fried egg, and scallions. Serve immediately.
Hand-Pulled Egg Noodles with Vegetables
For the noodles:
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs, whisked, mixed with 1/3 cup water
For the vegetables:
2 tbs sesame oil, plus more to assemble
1/2 cup sweet potato, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup Japanese sweet potato, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 cup burdock root, peeled and thinly coined
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup chopped watercress and baby bok choy
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs scallions, chopped
1/4 cup basil, chopped
To make the noodles, combine flour and salt in a small bowl. Add the egg and water mixture, and stir to combine. When the mixture is dry enough to handle, use your hands to shape it into a ball and turn it out onto a lightly floured countertop. Knead for three to five minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Wrap in saran wrap, and set aside to rest for thirty minutes.
Add more flour to the countertop, divide the dough in half, and roll it out into two long strips, about a quarter inch thick. Cut thin noodles from these strips, as evenly as possible, making sure they’re well floured and dropped loosely in piles on the countertop so as not to stick together. When you’ve cut all the dough, wait five to ten minutes to let it relax. Then individually “pull” the noodles, working from the center and stretching gently between your fingers. (If you’re planning on storing the noodles and cooking later, dust them well with cornstarch and keep them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator; sticking will be an issue.)
Set a large pot of salted water on the stove to boil. Add the noodles to the boiling water, and let them cook three to five minutes, until they’ve floated to the top and puffed up. Drain and reserve.
Add the sesame oil to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the sweet potatoes and the burdock root, and toss to coat. Sauté for seven to eight minutes until soft, then add the garlic and sauté two to three minutes, until it begins to release its fragrance. Immediately add the watercress, baby bok choy, and soy sauce, and toss until wilted.
Combine the noodles with the vegetables. Toss, and add additional sesame oil and salt to taste. Serve topped with chopped basil and scallions.
Thick Pork Soup
This recipe is adapted from a post on Chowhound.
1 lb pork shoulder
5 shiitakes, sliced
small handful of enoki mushrooms
1/3 cup bamboo shoots
1/4 napa cabbage
a carrot, sliced into matchsticks
6 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water
1/3 package rice stick noodles, cooked and drained
1 cup cilantro leaves and stems, chopped
First, prepare the meat (I had my butcher do this step for me). Slice the pork shoulder against the grain, in three-eighths-of-an-inch slices, cleaning away excess fat and connective tissue as you go. (Cutting the meat properly makes a huge difference in its resulting tenderness.) Cut the slices into strips about three inches long, cleaning away most—but not all—remaining fat.
Next, prep the vegetables. Slice the shiitake mushrooms. Cut the dirty bottoms off the enoki mushrooms, and separate them into individual strands. Sliver the bamboo shoots. Cut the napa cabbage in half, separating the leafier, greener end from the whiter base, then cut the halves into strips about a finger width thick. Cut the carrot into matchsticks.
Bring the stock to a boil, then add the pork one strip at a time so it doesn’t stick together, stirring occasionally. Simmer for ten minutes, then add the mushrooms, bamboo shoots, cabbage, carrot, soy sauce, and vinegar, and cook three to five more minutes, until the veggies are al dente.
The slightly slimy texture is the distinguishing feature of this soup, but people who don’t like that could skip this step: Add the cornstarch, stirring constantly so lumps do not form.
Add the cooked rice noodles, top with cilantro, and serve.
Bubble-Tea Cream Puffs
The choux pastry in this recipe is from Sally’s Baking Addiction.
For the pastry cream:
2 cups whole milk, divided
3/4 cup “black sugar flavor” tapioca pearls, divided
2/3 cups sugar, divided
4 egg yolks
1/3 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp vanilla
For the pate a choux:
a stick of unsalted butter, cubed
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
1 cup flour
4 large eggs, beaten
For the glaze:
3 bags of black tea
1 cup water
1 cup powdered sugar
To make the pastry cream, combine a cup and a half of milk with a third of a cup of sugar in a medium saucepan, and bring to a low simmer. Add a half cup of the tapioca pearls, and continue to simmer until the pearls float to the top. Cover, remove from heat, and allow to infuse for an hour.
In a separate, medium-size, heat-resistant bowl, combine the four egg yolks, the remaining half cup of milk, the remaining third of a cup of sugar, and the cornstarch. Whisk until light yellow and creamy. Add the vanilla, and stir to combine. Strain the tapioca pearls from the cooled milk liquid, and reserve the pearls, covered.
Return the infused milk to the saucepan, and reheat to just below a simmer. Add a few tablespoons of the warm milk to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Continue to add warm milk to the egg mixture slowly, while whisking, until fully incorporated. (This tempers your eggs so they won’t scramble.) Return the tempered mixture to the saucepan, and heat over medium, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until the pastry cream has thickened to the correct consistency. You want a stodgy mixture that will “stand” without running or pooling. If it’s at all liquid still, it’s not done. Transfer to a heat-resistant bowl, and cool slightly, then press saran wrap against the surface of the cream, and chill.
To make the pate a choux, combine the butter, water, milk, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan, and heat until the butter has melted. Bring the mixture to a simmer. Once the mixture is simmering, turn the heat down to low, and add the flour all at once. Stir until the flour is completely incorporated and the dough makes a thick ball. Mash the dough ball against the bottom and sides of the pan for a minute, which gently cooks the flour. Remove from heat, and transfer to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Allow to cool for a few minutes.
With the mixer running on low speed, slowly add the eggs in three to four additions, slowing down toward the end and stopping when the mixture has reached the desired consistency. The dough will look curdled at first but will begin to come together. Pour in the final addition of beaten eggs very slowly. Stop adding when the choux pastry is shiny, thick, and smooth with a consistency appropriate for piping. Leave a few teaspoons of beaten egg behind to use as egg wash.
Preheat the oven to 400. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Lightly brush the parchment with water (which will creates a humid environment for the pastry shells, allowing them to puff up without drying out or burning). Fill a gallon-size freezer bag with the choux pastry, and cut off one corner, forming a hole about a centimeter or less in diameter. (If you have a piping bag and pastry tip of the same size, you could use that instead.) Pipe the pastry onto the baking sheets in swirled two-inch mounds, about three inches apart. Using a water-moistened finger, smooth down the peaks, and lightly brush each with egg wash.
Bake for twenty minutes. Then, keeping the pastries in the oven, turn the heat down to 350, and bake for ten to fifteen minutes more, until golden brown. (Do not open the oven door as the pastries cook or they won’t puff up properly.) Remove from the oven, and transfer to a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before filling.
To make the glaze, boil a cup of hot water and place three teabags in it, leaving it to steep until very strong. Put the confectioners’ sugar in a small bowl, and add three teaspoons of the strong tea, stirring until combined. The glaze should be thick enough not to run off the pastries but soft enough to adhere. If it’s too thick, add more liquid until you reach the desired consistency.
To assemble, you’ll want to mix about a quarter cup of tapioca pearls, or more to taste, into the pastry cream. If the reserved pearls are still soft and chewy, go ahead and mix them in. (Depending on how long the process has taken, they may have dried out, in which case you should make fresh pearls.) Bring a few cups of water to boil in a small saucepan, and add a quarter cup of pearls. Boil until they rise to the surface, then cover the pot, turn the heat down to medium, and simmer for three minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water for twenty seconds. Mix the pearls into the pastry cream. Cut the cream puffs in half ,and scoop in a few tablespoons of cream. Dip the lids in glaze, and assemble. Serve immediately.
Please join Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday, October 23, at 6 P.M. for a virtual literary wine tasting on The Paris Review’s Instagram account. Order (or cook) Chinese food and bring a bottle of dry Riesling, and we’ll discuss the menu for Notes of a Crocodile and Last Words from Montmartre, give you tasting notes, and suggest how to pair wines with different varieties of East Asian cuisine. The director Evans Chan—whose documentary about Qiu Miaojin, Love and Death in Montmartre, makes its U.S. debut this week at the San Diego Asian Film Festival—will make a guest appearance.
The specific wines featured in the story are the Boundary Breaks Dry Riesling #239, which is generally available in stores, and The Red Hook Winery’s Seneca Lake Riesling, available for purchase at the winery’s tasting room in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
If you’re sourcing your own bottle, know that the benchmark Rieslings are made in Germany and Alsace in France, but there are numerous excellent Rieslings being produced now in the Northeastern United States and Canada, including the Finger Lakes region of New York, which was our choice for the story. Other cool-climate regions like Austria and Oregon are making fine Rieslings, too. We emphasize that you want a dry variety. On German labels, look for trocken, which means dry. Qualitatswein on the label means just what it sounds like: a classification of a higher quality level of wine. Anyone who would like more specific advice on good Rieslings available near them can email us ([email protected]).
Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York. Read earlier installments of Eat Your Words.