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December 31, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Telling China’s stories through food

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Audra Ang’s name is familiar to longtime Seattleites from her years here as a reporter for the Associated Press. The Singapore-born University of Washington graduate went on to spend seven years as the AP’s Beijing correspondent, where the foods she encountered touched stories large and small. She sat down for a meal with a group of dissidents who had endured years of beatings and arrests, sipping tea and sharing whole green chiles blistered in hot oil. She fished for shrimp and shopped for cilantro with the owner of Dragon Well Manor, the restaurant “many considered China’s version of Chez Panisse.” She rationed herself to a pack of instant noodles a day covering the devastatingly deadly 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. And she accepted a dinner invitation from the farmer whose livelihood had been destroyed by floods — not realizing until they sat down that he had killed his last remaining chicken to provide his guests with the most luxurious meal he could.

The new book that came from her experience is “To The People, Food Is Heaven,” which Ken Hom called “a voyage of discovery” of contemporary China, seeming “to give strength and hope to the ever-changing dynamics of the world’s fastest-moving country.” It isn’t a book about food so much as a journey through a complicated, sometimes maddening, sometimes breathtaking society.

We talked with Ang, who went on to a Neiman fellowship at Harvard and now works at Duke University, about her experiences. Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation:

Q: How did you know there was a bigger story in your experiences that you could tell through food?

A: “I made it a memoir because, obviously, I was there, but I didn’t want it to be about me…In the essay I wrote to get the Neiman, (I said), ‘Everybody has a story, but not everybody has a voice.’ That resonated with me throughout my time in China. Very few people have a voice to tell their stories. It’s not just about a repressive regime, it’s that no one listens. Everyone’s busy with their lives or eking out a living… you go to all these remote villages, and a lot of times the people living there, it’s not so much that they want you to solve a problem — obviously they hope you can — but just to be able to tell their story to someone was important to them.”

Q: Would people in Seattle be surprised to see what Chinese food tastes like in China?

A: “I think what would surprise them is the variety they would get in China. I think what’s really big outside of China is mostly the Southern and Sichuan foods.”

Q: Were you tempted to put recipes in the book?

A: “Actually, no. First of all, I didn’t want it to be ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ or whatever books have recipes in each chapter. Second, I’m not a cook, I’m not a chef — I always tell people I’m an eater, not a cooker. Third, a lot of Chinese people don’t use recipes. If you ask them ‘how much soy sauce do you put in it,’ people look puzzled. It’s instinctual… I know there are a million Chinese recipe books out there, but it wasn’t my thing. I wanted to use food as a way to get into the issues.”

Q: Do you want to go back to anyone you wrote about in the book and see where they are now?

A: “The farmer in the second chapter (who slaughtered his last chicken.) I always wanted to go back…and also, the quake parents. I left in 2009, so I never got back in touch. It is so sensitive, or at least it was then, it’s almost better to just let it go. On a personal level, I kind of want to leave them alone and let them mourn and grieve.”

Q: Reading about that earthquake, I wondered how you got through the reporting.

A: “As a reporter, you’re kind of trained to separate yourself from all kinds of situations, so when I was there that’s what I did. I went into autopilot… I did break down when I saw the bodies. I took it all in, I was objective… but then when I was calling it in to Beijing, to my news editor… before I knew it I was just sobbing into the phone while telling him what I was seeing. That surprised me. That was the one time I really remember breaking down. But who am I to be upset, when people have experienced something really devastating? I almost felt I didn’t have the right.”

Q: Is there anything in particular about China that made its food resonate with you, or is food just a universal medium for storytelling?

A: “It touches your heart when you go to some random place, and a stranger who has nothing — and usually they were poor peasants — treats you with such kindness. That always got to me, the kindness of strangers through food.”

Photo of Audra Ang by Greg Baker

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