I first tasted rau tien vua at Jai Yun, one of my favorite Chinese restaurants in San Francisco. The small plate of faded green cubes, not quite nopales, not quite artichokes, confounded two full circles of seasoned food professionals. Thanks to the magic of my cell phone and the memories of my mother, I learned that the toothsome bites were simply the dried leaves of dragon fruit trees.
I don’t sing or play the guitar, draw or paint, but somehow, a free-forming creative workshop let me sneak into their ranks. At the last gathering, I lined up a pickle tasting in between songs in progress and artful sketches.
I have been up all night, my friends, in the quiet of my kitchen, sprinkling salt on shimmering slices of cucumber and watching the eggplant weep its bitterness. It is spring, and the winter stores are dwindling.
Alone, I face the emptying shelves and — while the sun warms the wet ground — look past my pantry to the summer fields. Row after row of roots and stems, leaves and fruit wait, shivering with anticipation, for the cut of my knife and the pungent, sea-soaked sleep of pickle dreams.
They will be plucked from their brief tenderness and transformed. Encased in glass. Buried in clay. They will have their time, each: kimchi and kosher half sours, the serrated hand of gongura and the slender taproot of burdock, beet cabochons and turnip barions.
Some of you — you have seen and eaten. You suspect, as you munch the flatness of your sandwich, that there is much more. You have known it, the surprise that exploded from a dainty dish. That humble jar passed from hand to hand, it held magical scents, those alchemical secrets you furtively sniffed in the privacy of your home. That little nibble, why does it leave you so hungry for more?
Let us leave blandness behind like an empty canvas to smear yellow oil and vermillion paste on each and every wall. Let us feed the unknown, not from boredom or chauvinism, but simply to taste the joy of the butterfly’s rebirth.
Rub your fingers, raise your chopsticks, lift up your pickle pickers. Join me. We will unite the world in sweet-sour bites of ecstasy!