by Avner Shats
translated to English by Dalya Bilu and First published in English in Modern Hebrew Literature, Autumn/Winter 1995.
At the book fair Yehoshua stood opposite the stall selling Aharoni`s Chinese Cookery Book. When he saw the cover photograph he remembered a meal he had eaten the week before at a Chinese restaurant in town. He had gone there with his friend Yohanan, who knows about such places. (Plywood lamps and synthetic rice-paper, whimsical dragons with silly expressions, a wood and paper screen that was actually Japanese, no doubt on the assumption that the customers` discrimination did not extend to fine distinctions between the pearls of the enchanted East.
Presumably an Indian goddess, Thai temple decor or Vietnamese table napkins would not have
raised eyebrows either. The food was pure Cantonese, since that was where the chef's teacher had come from. He himself was Cambodian.) Yehoshua had enjoyed the meal very much. Now, on seeing the book, it occurred to him that he might repeat it at home, and the idea pleased him.
Not only would he save the exorbitant prices of restaurants, he would be able to eat as much as he liked too. Thinking about the exotic spices, the various vegetables and meats, suddenly inflamed his imagination – he, who had never taken any particular interest in food. He bought the book almost without hesitation.
In the bus on his way home he leafed through the book and felt a touch of excitement, as if on the verge of a thrilling discovery. The colour pictures seemed to leap from the page, and he sensed intoxicating tastes and smells, a little frightening in their strangeness. When he got off the bus he stopped at the supermarket and bought a few of the ingredients mentioned in a recipe which seemed particularly promising: sweet-and-sour pineapple chicken. When he reached home he noticed that he had forgotten to buy ginger, and the little bit left in his kitchen had been there for at least two years and completely lost its aroma. Nevertheless, he prepared the dish, Following the instructions as carefully and possible. The results did not look as colourful and appetizing as the picture in the book, but the taste was new and thrilling. Yehoshua was overjoyed. He was hooked.
In the following days he expanded his experiments. He went on shopping expedition after work and enlarged his stock of spices; he bought soy sauce from Hong Kong (previously he had only come across computer items from there); in his neighbourhood grocery he found a tin of Hoy Sien sauce.
soon after he acquired, in a small (shockingly expensive) shop which sold Chinese products, a
wok – the frying pan which resembles the helmet worn by British soldiers in the First World War –
and its indispensable companion, the spatula. The wok was intended, above all, for stir-frying – the distinctive popular method of Chinese cookery. After that he acquired a three-tier bamboo steamer, and dried black mushrooms at sixteen shekels for a hundred grams, and fresh ginger and lily petals.Yehoshua was not a man to compromise. Within a few weeks he had already tasted, in the company of a few chosen friends, chicken with cashew nuts and mushrooms, beef with leeks and peanuts, "red-stewed" fish with dates, duck with pears, Mandarin pancakes, and "phoenix eyes" dumplings, five-spice duck and eight-treasure duck, chicken with honey and garlic, chicken with chestnuts.
Yehoshua fell in love with cooking; the hiss of the crushed garlic frying in hot oil made him smile in expectation of the aromatic cloud, which would rise from the pan when he added the pinch of ground ginger-in-brandy; the intoxicating sauces combining wine, vinegar, sugar,
concentrated soy sauce and so on – each sauce with its own ingredients – thickening at the bottom of the wok when he added the cornstarch dissolved in a little water to create a rich, brown, velvety texture… these routine operations filled his heart with a subtle excitement and made him feel at peace with the world. The moment when he served the food was one of supreme happiness; a gleaming white plate and on it small, pale pieces of meat lapped in golden-brown gravy, decorated with strips of red and green, white and yellow, steaming tantalizingly.
But Chinese cooking was not simply a matter of chicken breasts from the supermarket or the local butcher, where Yehoshua became a favoured customer, or vegetables in season from the market.
The gastronomic tradition of the mighty Oriental Empire, spanning thousands of years and vast
territories, contained much more than that. Yehoshua decided to broaden his knowledge to include the less familiar cuts, the secret ingredients which were not to be found on the shelves of local grocery stores, but were available only to knowledgeable gourmets. He began exploring places nobody knew about except a few aficionados, until the rumor reached the press and Yehoshua could discover the address, since he himself had no connection with people in the know. Incidentally, he read mainly the cookery columns, although the Italian, French or Balkan recipes did not attract him in the least. But he did learn from them where to find pigeon breasts, for example, or fresh giant shrimps, and other such rarities. One thing led him to another, and Yehoshua – whose repertoire of Chinese dishes grew in variety and sophistication – increasingly found himself frequenting side streets, seeking out dusty import agencies which received consignments of rice wine, coconut oil or seaweed, or calling on a local farmer who fattened geese for private consumption. His world changed. His work – computer programming – which once had taken up the better part of his day, became a marginal part of his life. He spent a lot of time planning menus. The change was also apparent in his fatty tissues: Yehoshua grew rounder. The fat accumulated especially in his cheeks. He acquired a new expression: a kind of permanent smile, with slightly narrowed eyes. His friends remarked him on his weight gain – with benevolence, amusement and concern.
He grew so fat that when he showered he took to looking down at his penis, which was almost
hidden between the folds of flesh. The more his belly swelled the harder it was to see it, and he was afraid that it would disappear, recede into his body and turned into a vagina. He tugged it and pulled it, but it was no use. He thought of tying a thread – something soft, that wouldn't make too tight a knot – to the end of his penis, so that it wouldn't melt into his fat and disappear during his sleep. He told no one about it.
During the same period another change took place in his life – after many years in the despised
satellite town he moved to the city center, and at the same time he also changed his job and made the acquaintance of new colleagues, who only new him in his new persona. He also met another, special group of people, who became his close and dear friends: Chinese people, most of them restaurants workers, cooks and waiters, whom he visited in their small, clean rented rooms in the seedier sections of the city. They began to teach him their language, as an amusement and because he asked so insistently. They were delighted with his diligence (he bought a small tape
recorder to record their talk and to study the words and pronunciation at home). Quite soon he
could conduct a basic conversation in Chinese, in a Hong Kong dialect. He overcame the difficulty which defeats almost any westerner who tries to learn Chinese, that of pitch: the very same syllable takes on a different meaning at a different pitch, and the western ear is barely able to tell the difference. Yu Shu (as his new friends called him) succeeded not only in understanding , but also in pronouncing properly. He learned, of course, the Chinese names for all the ingredients of his favorite recipes. They taught him how they really cooked in China – not the dishes adapted to the western palate which they served the customers in their restaurants.
On the Chinese New Year they invited him to a party – a festive banquet and drinks. After a few
drinks, the jokes they told there made him throw back his head in free, wild laughter, something
which the old Yehoshua had never done in his life. Tears of joy flowed from his slanting eyes.
If any of his old friends had met him now, it is doubtful they would have recognized the old
Yehoshua – a dim young man of average height and average appearance, inconspicuously dressed – someone eminently forgettable. And not because he had suddenly turned into a colourful, fascinating personality, or changed his behavior unrecognizably. This was not the essence of the change: we have to acknowledge that Yehoshua had become Chinese. His hair had grown smooth and silky, its stubborn kinky wave had disappeared completely. the hair on his body – his legs, chest, forearms – thinned, fell out, and left behind a soft, transparent down, and he hardly had to shave any more, for the same down covered his face. The texture of his skin became more delicate, softer to the touch, and its colour grew a little darker; his face grew moon-shaped, his full cheeks narrowed his eves, which became as black as grapes.
Was it the food that caused the change? Or the company? His desire? Does it matter?
Yehoshua – , an ordinary man, a computer programmer obliged, in his single state, to cook elaborate and excessive Chinese meals for guests who often failed to show up, whose clumsy courtships always failed, turned into a contented Chinese mail, a very fair cook and a friendly, sociable person, a member of the small and constantly changing Chinese community in Israel. It wasn't long before most of his friends left and the new ones had no idea about his origins or history. They excepted him as one of themselves. And soon enough the inevitable happened: he married a girl from the little Chinese community. Married is too solemn a word – there were no official documents or ceremony.
After the wedding another change took place-as a result of regular intercourse his member acquired a weight and fullness which lasted for hours. Now it dangled between his legs, soft but stately, tangible, flushed, satiated, and he was no longer troubled by fears that it might disappear.
So much for the events which led Yehoshua, a man of twenty-eight, a member of the Labour
Federation Sick Fund, the possessor of a tidy little sum in two different savings accounts, to his
new situation. What should come next I do not know. There are many possibilities, and I don't wantto choose between them. Every development has advantages and disadvantages from the point of view of the form and content of the story. All I can do is outline a few of the main possibilities for a sequel which could give completion to the story or the hero. I am satisfied to have explored, seriously and without undue sentimentality, a number of alternative developments of the fantastic/absurd/symbolic/ allegorical story of the life, of Yehoshua who became Chinese.
there's a final matrix – but difficult to present in web format – will add some day. (A.S).
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