January 07, 2012

An early epiphany

Epiphany. Or Theophany. From the ancient Greek, meaning "vision of god." A Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of Jesus Christ to the biblical Magi as the son of God. Typically celebrated on or around January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas.

While in Tudor England the twelfth night or epiphany marked the end of a winter festival that began with Halloween, the event was a little lower key in my household growing up. My mother proclaimed this the day that the decorations returned to boxes in the back corner of the basement, and my father somewhat gratefully relinquished his post as the fourth wise man, leaning over the nativity each evening to test the light bulb illuminating the northern star for potential fire-producing heat.

As this holiday season draws to a close, my "epiphany" (or revelation) comes a little early and is far more secular than sacred. Oddly appropriate at this point in my spiritual life. But I digress...

January first was a celebration of the wonderful world of Chinese food for John and me. Scintillating conversation with friends over a bite-sized brunch of dim sum provided a sensational transition into 2012. And we chose to have dinner at a new and promising new Chinese restaurant within walking distance from home: Yiping. We're gradually working our way through the menu at Yiping, which focuses on authentic (less-Americanized) Chinese cuisine using fresh, local ingredients. And on Sunday January 1, my epiphany came in the form of Ma Po Tofu.

A popular dish in the Sichuan province of China, I was introduced to this tofu-based dish by a former coworker while working in Fremont, and fell in immediate if confused love. While I've had versions of the dish that incorporated ground pork or beef, Yiping's rendition is vegetarian -- and fiery hot.

My first surprise was that this was John's first exposure to ma po tofu. He was equally surprised when it arrived at the table. Looking at the clearly chili-based sauce, he exclaimed "YOU ordered THAT!?!" Because while I'm far from a "mayonnaise mouth," I tend to be far less tolerant of spicy dishes than he is. I suspect he had concerns that I'd be unable to tolerate the heat and he'd be eating a primarily plant based dinner...

I've never understood my inconsistent response to spicy food -- why some dishes blow my head off, but others work, and work really well. The closest I've come to articulating this is the feeling that in order to enjoy the spiciest foods, they need to provide more than just heat -- a smoke, a sweetness, something to set it off.

But as I moved my chopsticks back and forth between the tofu and Yiping's equally unctuous fried rice, light dawned over marble head. An epiphany. Because while I got all of the mind numbing, nasal cleaning, tear-inducing side effects of the tofu dish, nothing in that experience numbed the sweetness of the snap peas or the nutty rice. Yes, it burned, but it didn't burn my palate. It didn't destroy my ability to taste -- and enjoy -- the other food on the table.

And while I can't honestly claim to have seen God in that moment, my universe did become a little clearer. An excellent way to launch a new calendar year.