Eating Authors: Anna Kashina

2 comments Written on October 20th, 2014 by
Categories: Plugs
Anna Kashina

One of the things I like about writers is how everything in their lives influences the work and shoes up (consciously or otherwise) in their fiction. Is it any wonder then that I prefer reading authors with full-blown careers in their histories, a range of educational experiences, and backgrounds in alternate cultures and languages?

All of which is my way of seguing to this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest, Anna Kashina, who has a doctorate in cell biology and a day job at the PENN”s School of Veterinary Medicine. Anna was born in Moscow, coming over to the USA in 1994. In addition to more recent work in English, she’s published novels in both Russian and German. Her latest book is The Guild of Assassins, the second volume in her Majat Code series.

LMS: Welcome, Anna. I’m excited to learn about your most memorable meal, because even though you live in Philadelphia I know you’re not going to mention cheesesteaks.

AK: I was born and raised in Russia. As a native, I feel I am allowed to express an opinion that “Russian cuisine” is an oxymoron. There is no “cuisine” to speak of, besides perhaps borscht and pierogi, which are, essentially, vegetable soup with beets, and cabbage- or meat-filled pastries. Most of what is known as authentic Russian dishes is borrowed from other cultures, or restricted to creative pickling and curing for the purpose of preservation. Salt is the main spice and flavor in the Russian food and many people grow up learning of spices and seasonings only from books. On top of that, living in the Soviet Union added another layer to this rule: the only reliably available food were potatoes. In the early nineties I sometimes had to go for weeks eating nothing but.

Blades of the Old Empire

With this kind of background, it seems odd to me that I grew up feeling very adventurous about food. I will try pretty much anything if it’s edible. OK, I put my limit at something alive that can feel pain while I am eating it–but that’s pretty much it.

When I met my husband, born and raised in China, my adventurous food streak was put to the test. Chinese cuisine is on the opposite side of the scale in flavors and variety. If it’s not poisonous, the Chinese will eat it–and you can bet they’ll manage to make a darn good dish from just about anything. My introduction to this concept started when my husband and I first went out to dinner, and it is still ongoing after 12 years of marriage. I have eaten and enjoyed deep-fried scorpions, bee larvae, and silkworms. I can dissect and consume an entire fish head using nothing but a pair chopsticks. Despite my looks, people in authentic restaurants believe that I am Chinese.

With all that, my most memorable meal was in 2005 when we visited Shanghai, China.

It was close to midnight when we checked into the hotel. The temperature outside was in the high nineties, Farenheit, with nearly 100% humidity. We were starving after a long day of traveling. The hotel was small, in one of the historic parts of Shanghai, and its restaurant had already closed. In search of food, we ventured into the maze of small streets outside the hotel, in the less touristy part of town (something I would never dare to do without a Chinese native by my side).

The Guild of Assassins

We saw the lights of a diner about two blocks down on a street corner. It didn’t look impressive, but lights and movement inside told us it was open. The rest of the area seemed deserted, so we decided this was good enough.

Inside, the decor was plain: five or six metal-trimmed plastic tables, painted walls with no decorations of any kind. It smelled clean, but not that promising. We took our seats in resigned silence, determined to like whatever we were offered, and asked the waiter to bring us the dish that requires the least preparation–assuming that it was likely the only thing on the menu.

Rarely in my life did I feel so happy about being wrong.

A minute or so later, the waiter emerged with a large bowl of boiled crawfish and two thick books, which he handed to each of us. The menus, their pages laminated to the point of being washable. Digging into the food, we flipped through in growing disbelief.

The book had over a hundred pages, featuring 2-3 dishes on each page, with color photos. Over 250 items on the menu, in a small corner diner. When we asked the waiter if they actually served all these dishes tonight, he leafed through and pointed to two or three toward the end which they did not have. Still disbelieving, we ordered several dishes, and they all came out promptly. Each was delicious, from the small soft crabs stir-fried in shells, to a special vegetable with a texture of bamboo and the taste of garlic stems, which, according to my husband, didn’t have an English name.

Mistress of the Solstice

We left the diner around 2 am, wishing we had an extra stomach. I made a list of things on the menu which I would like to try later on. In the morning, we left on a tour and never returned to that diner again.

Every time I am asked which city has the best food in the world, I say “Shanghai”. This is perhaps unfair. Not only did I travel to other places, in different countries, that serve wonderful food, but also I learned the hard way that not all authentic Shanghai food is that great. This city is also home to a particular style of tofu that has the texture and smell of manure, and the taste to match. This dish, cooked and served on many street corners, is apparently a local favorite and it makes the whole city smell like a poorly kept stable. I always find it amazing that memory of a tiny diner we visited in the middle of the night can overpower all that. And yes, I hope it is still open, and one day my husband and I can eat there again.

Thanks, Anna, though I have to chide you for dissing pierogis (otherwise, the spirit of my long passed Russian grandmother would haunt me.

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!



2 comments “Eating Authors: Anna Kashina”

Thanks, Lawrence, for hosting my post! I love the idea of Eating Authors, and had so much fun recollecting my most memorable meal. Big apologies to your Russian grandmother (and mine, too).

Just saw this. What a wonderful story. Made me hungry for China and the food! Hope you get to return to that diner.

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