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余菊庵《中秋陰雨竟夕……》“On Mid-Autumn Day, it was cloudy and rainy the entire evening...” by Yu Ju'an

《中秋陰雨竟夕,意興索然,適蔡生星儀來訪,相與剝芋啜田螺而已》

余菊庵

“On Mid-Autumn Day, it was cloudy and rainy the entire evening; [I was] bored. It happened that Cai Xingyi visited me, and we simply had some taro and field snails together” by Yu Ju’an

惱煞黃昏雨,

偏逢佳節

人間空待月,

天上欲翻

寂寂一城暗,

迢迢三漏

助談無別物,

勸客啜田[1]

Annoying indeed, the evening rain,

[Such a day] of all days is often a festive day.

The human world awaits the moon in vain,

The sky above desires to turn over waterways.[2]

Quietly, quietly, the entire city is filled with gloom.

Slowly, slowly, midnight has passed.[3]

With nothing else to go with our chat,

[I] encourage my guest to eat [more] field snails.


[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] This line could be interpreted at least in two ways. Firstly, the sky wants to turn over its waterways, possibly a metaphor for turning over the clouds and pouring rain. Secondly, the sky wants to turn over the rivers on land (e.g. by causing torrents or floods).

[3] In these two lines, there is a contrast of numbers in the original between yi cheng 一城 (one city, the whole city) and san lou 三漏 (lit. “three leaks,” referring to the third night division, 11pm-1am, on the water clock).

[4] The poem is “Song Milao zhu wu feng” 送密老住五峰. Its seventh line “If only a snail could swallow an elephant” (但使螺師吞大象) mentions the snail, but the context makes it clear that the poem is suggesting that if a seemingly trivial figure has really great knowledge, he will be known even if he lives deep in the mountains; see Huang Tingjiang shi jizhu 黄庭坚诗集注 (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2013), 592. It is unclear why the snail and elephant are chosen to construct this metaphor, but I don’t think this line can be interpreted as praise for the taste of the snail.

 

I’m not in the habit of writing about contemporary works, but this poem by the Guangdong artist Yu Ju'an 余菊庵 (1907-1999) made me smile. In fact, I wouldn’t have even known his name if I had not been curious about what has been written about eating snails. I’m not the first person to became interested in this, but it is disappointing that many online articles about eating snails refer to a poem by Huang Tingjian 黃庭堅 (1045-1105), in which this famous Northern Song poet didn’t really talk about eating snails at all.[4] This poem by Yu Ju’an, a much less known figure, however, captures something almost mundane yet very nice about eating snails (Viviparidae) in southern China. It reminds me of the days in my childhood when I spent a good part of the evening in my cousin’s place chatting and leisurely picking meat from the little field snails. They were indeed great to go with chat (or drinks, though I didn’t try any personally). Taro (Colocasia esculenta), mentioned in the long title that reads more like a narrative than a title, is also a fantastic snack on such occasions.


As a person who is accustomed to eating field snails, I have no problem with eating any variants of them, but still I did have a culture shock when I came across escargots in Europe. When a friend started describing the escargot plate with six pits, I asked with my eyes wide open, “Do you count them?” Apparently at the time I only knew about this French dish but had never looked at any picture of it on a dining table. When I first had the opportunity to have escargots at the place of another French friend, I explained that field snails in my hometown are similar to escargots but a bit smaller, so we normally have a plate piled with snails, measured by the kilo. After that, my friend who brought our starters had to apologise for serving escargots in such a stingy way.


There are different snail dishes in southern China, and my hometown Liuzhou is particularly famous for luosifen 螺螄粉 (rice noodles with snails, more often with river snails than field snails). In the recent decade, this signature dish has gained great popularity outside Liuzhou. It is very interesting that the second character 螄 reads si instead of shi in modern Mandarin. In the Liuzhou dialect, luosifen as “rice noodles with snails” is perfectly justifiable as our dialect doesn’t have any retroflex consonant. But luosifen in modern Mandarin could actually be written as 螺絲粉, i.e. “rice noodles with nails,” which doesn’t sound very appetising. In fact, most characters with 師 as the phonetic component (e.g. 螄獅溮瑡鶳) are recorded as homophonous with 師 in pre-modern dictionaries. In modern Mandarin, however, 螄 seems to be the only exception; the other characters in the same series all reading shi. Perhaps this is an occasion where the regional food culture has become so well-received that the official language has chosen to embrace the linguistic feature of its place of origin. The somewhat funny Mandarin pronunciation that recalls the images of "snails" as well as "nails" doesn’t put people off but adds the flavour of authenticity of the food instead.


For some reason, luosifen has a reputation for stinking terribly, mainly because of the pickled bamboo shoots (suansun 酸筍), a typical topping of this dish and a local ingredient that I love. I never thought it emitted any unpleasant smell compared to other types of rice noodle dishes, but that’s obviously a bias. This so-called “stink” seems to have divided people into different camps that could fight fiercely over the value of luosifen. I remember when I looked for a new apartment in London a few years ago, I saw a post by someone who was looking for a roommate with the only requirement being “you don’t eat rice noodles with snails.”


With hindsight, I should have contacted the girl who posted it and perhaps arranged a viewing, because I’ve never tried to have luosifen outside Liuzhou and don’t believe there could be a packaged version that is quite like the real thing. These commercialised versions tend to give people all kinds of false impressions that I find it hard to appreciate. I could have been the perfect roommate for that luosifen-phobic girl in London.


Last week, I had a trip to Guangzhou and visited my friend who is a great fan of luosifen. She happened to have ordered some packaged luosifen from Liuzhou and urged me to try it. By sneaking a package into my bag, she didn’t even give me the opportunity to pretend that I'd forgotten her gift. In the end, I came back to Liuzhou with a package that had been despatched from Liuzhou to Guangzhou just a few days earlier. After trying it, I had to tell my friend that my conclusion still stands: the packaged version is not half as good as the real thing. But compared to the other one given to me by another friend many years ago, when the production of instant luosifen had just started, this one is at least edible. Well, perhaps we can hope that another decade will bring further improvement.


1-3 Field snails (shell only)

4 Field snails with braised duck feet and dried tofu stripes

5 Rice noodles with snails, usually using smaller snails for the soup

 

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1 comment

1 comentario


Rachelle
Rachelle
06 ago 2020

Many thanks to Ken Fletcher, who rightly pointed out that his dictionaries all suggest 螄 reads si in modern Mandarin. I had always assumed it reads shi! I've revised this blog accordingly. Obviously my Mandarin is yet to be perfected :D


Also, here's a great Facebook page for Luosifen fans: https://www.facebook.com/groups/125375614155376/

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