Peppercorns, Ginger, Soy and Sugar: A Meditation

Some evenings, the simpler the dish, the better.

Tonight is one of those times: too tired after being struck forcibly with a bit of unsettling news, I did not really want to cook, but I must.

The lurching miasma in the pit of my belly insists that it be so.

Into the kitchen I walk squaring my shoulders, pulling back my hair, tying on my apron.

My body moves into the dance it knows so well, gathering ingredients, setting down prep bowls, creating the mise en place.

The simple rhythym of cookery has the power to sooth a trembling soul, and as I take up my knife, my hands fall into their places and my heart beats more slowly, and my breathing deepens.

Crushing peppercorns in a mortar and pestle is a prayer. Feeling each grain give way beneath the time-worn stone in my hand, I inhale deeply, taking in the healing breath of the spice, sharp as the sunlight on the west coast of India where it was grown. The heat of the ginger tingles in my nostrils, the two strong scents weaving themselves into my consciousness, warming the cold place where fear dwells.

Two tiny Thai chiles, scarlet as cardinal feathers, are sliced into fine slivers, and sprinkled among the grass-fine strands of ginger.

No garlic.

Nor onion.

Not tonight.

The asparagus, shipped from California, so completely unseasonal, jostled my heart, and a twinge of guilt pinched my awareness, but I let the knife move with whispering precision as I cut it on the diagonal. No, it was not local, but I had seen it, and it was beautiful, stalks of creamy jade shaded to white and violet at the ends, with tightly budded crowns of forest green and purple. It was beautiful and fragrant, and I had to have it, and so, it came home with me. I had felt a pang of longing for it, and so now, it was here.

Release the regret. It is done now.

Guilt slides away, drifts past me on the current of air stirred by the open window.

All that is left is the meat.

The gaping maw of my stomach twists, and churns as I open the bag holding the piece of tenderloin left from Christmas dinner. I had thawed it this afternoon, but the scent of it hits me and I feel my head spin in a reel.

Concentration is broken, waves pull me forward and back and I feel myself shiver and twist in the grip of the animal scent of meat.

I swallow hard, force my eyes to focus and return to my discipline.

My shoulders are square.

I can do this.

I can. And I do. And the rhythym of the knife soothes my soul, though the damp blood scent still threatens to roil into my consciousness in a black cloud of dank sorrow.

Life feeds on life, I whisper, as the knife flashes in my hand, like a silvery sliver of light.

Life feeds on life, I whisper as I watch the muscle of what was once a cow fall into slices beneath my hands.

Blood tinges my fingers.

Life feeds on life feeds on life feeds on life.

Nothing is wasted in this ecosphere, this planet. I will eat this cow, this bit of cow, and take it into myself and it will become myself, and then, when I fall, like the cow, I will sink into the earth, and be fed upon. My body will crumble, will feed the worms, they will make of me soil, and I will feed the grass, the trees, the deer.

And the cows.

Life feeds on life.

Wine, heady with richness, pours in an amber ribbon over the meat. Soy sauce, dark and rich, redolent of rivers I have never known, follows, and my fingers take up the meat and massage it and toss it with cornstarch, and soy sauce and wine.

Slippery soft as mud from the riverbank, the marinade coats the beef and it is done.

I set down the bowl beside the wok.

My feet move in a dance they know, have known forever it seems. Back and forth, as my hands fetch the mise en place– every small bowl, every bottle, every ingredient and utensil, and settle them beside the altar.

By the altar, where the fire will come.

In one quick laughing whoosh, blue flame, pure as a mad summer sky, engulfs the bottom of my wok, and the scent of hot iron fills my thoughts.

My mind is as empty as the wok. I am at the beginning place, and there is no time to think.

No time to worry.

Nor grieve.

We are the beginning place.

And we.

Must move.

A thread of white smoke spirals up from the wok, and my hand pours the oil.

Once. Twice. Thrice around the wok.

And it is done.

In a moment, the oil shimmers in the heat, and the wok exhales, and I inhale, taking the spirit of the wok, of the stove, of the fire, of the altar, into myself.

Ginger and chile fall into the oil first, then the peppercorns, ground into a fine powder.

The exhaust fan roars like a fell beast in my ear, but I cannot hear it. I am watching the fire, smelling the ginger, chile and and pepper as they braid their essences into a single entity.

The meat is next. Scooping it up with the wok shovel, I lay it tenderly into the hot oil, spreading it into a thin layer and leave it, though it hisses and gurgles and sighs. I leave it to cook, until I smell the sear of beef on iron, a brown scent like the earth after a rain, like clay pierced by a plow.

Then, I my arm swoops like a hawk stooping, and the wok shovel flashes and sings against the wok. It strikes as it stirs the meat, and the wok calls like a bell, like a gong.

This is prayer.

Most of the red is gone on the meat. Soy sauce flows. Wine joins it, and steam clouds my vision, wreathes my face.

Finally, the verdant asparagus that I coveted goes in, and the green deepens to the color of new spring grass, as I stir and stir and stir.

Sugar rains down from on high in a sparkling hail of pale gold.

A drizzle of sesame oil seals the contract, ties the loose ends of the flavors together, makes it whole.

It is done.

My stomach yawns with hunger, and the sick twisting is gone. Banished by the work of my hands, the path walked by my feet, it retreats to a darkened corner, to hide and wait.

But I care not. Peppercorns, ginger, soy and sugar have done their magic, and transformed a few ingredients into a revelation.

Asparagus Peppercorn Beef


3/4 pound tenderloin cut into 1/4″ slices, then cut into narrow shreds
2 tablespoons shao hsing wine
2 tablespoons aged soy sauce
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons peanut oil
3″x1″ piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into very thin slivers
2 red Thai bird chiles thinly sliced on the diagonal
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, freshly ground
1 pound asparagus, cut into 1″ pieces on the diagonal
1 tablespoon shao hsing wine
1 tablespoon aged soy sauce
2 tablespoons raw sugar
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil


Toss beef with wine, soy sauce and cornstarch, and allow to sit for at least fifteen minutes.

Heat wok until a thin ribbon of smoke appears. Pour in the oil, heat until it shimmers. Add ginger, chiles and ground black peppercorns. Stir and fry for about two minutes, or until quite fragrant.

Add beef gently to the wok, spread it into a single layer and allow it to brown on the bottom for about a minute or a minute and a half. Start stirring and stir fry until most of the red is gone from the beef. Add the second amounts of wine and soy sauce, then sprinkle with sugar.

Add asparagus and stir fry until beef loses the last of the red color, and the asparagus brightens in color. Drizzle with sesame oil, and serve with steamed rice.


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  1. A recipe in poetry. A recipe in prayer. A recipe of life.

    Comment by Alanna — February 24, 2006 #

  2. Lots of love Barbara.

    Comment by Dan — February 24, 2006 #

  3. I hope everything is OK.

    Comment by Kim — February 24, 2006 #

  4. Much love to you, dear; hope things are well with you now and the unsettling news were not too unsettling. They did yield a beautiful post and a beautiful recipe.

    Comment by Hadar — February 24, 2006 #

  5. I should probably hop in here and say that no one died, life is pretty well good, and I feel better this morning. I was just utterly thrown for a loop last night.

    I still cannot really say what the news was yet–when I can, I will, but until then–I am doing pretty well okay.

    And yes–it afforded the chance to write down some of my meditative cooking processes–I do tend to go “into the zone” when I cook alone, and have been told that it brings a calm look to my face that is quite tranquil.

    I cannot speak for that, not having a mirror in the kitchen, but I can say that it brings me a sense of peace and inner calm, more so than any sitting meditation has ever afforded me.

    Worry not, friends. I think it will be okay.

    Comment by Barbara — February 24, 2006 #

  6. *is in awe*

    Comment by Benjamin — February 24, 2006 #

  7. Cooking like this seems to connect you with other cooks before and after you, and in different places. Hope all will be well.

    Comment by lindy — February 24, 2006 #

  8. Thanks, Barbara, this came across the transom when I needed it. And I hope things work out ok for you, too.

    Comment by Winslow — February 26, 2006 #

  9. I am an untrained, raw, vegan chef at a small cafe in Seattle.

    This post hit me like a ton of bricks. In the “good” way! When I make food at home or the cafe I don’t use heat much, and when I do it’s never food for me, being a raw foodist.

    But there is power in the heat. So I dehydrate instead. It’s a slow process, that I’m not to be a part of. But I take part in it anyhow. I am not able to leave the heat box (my dehydrator) alone. I constantly check it, communing with the drying food.

    It was so nice to read of your experiences with your food, emotional, physical and sensual. Thank you for sharing!

    Comment by starrrie — February 26, 2006 #

  10. Barbara,
    I popped into your blog to check if you had begun your fun with Meyer lemons when I found this serious diary entry. I hope all is well or at least more manageable after your cathartic cooking session. As the previous comments show, you certainly provided a release for your supporters.

    Comment by Michele — March 1, 2006 #

  11. Shift

    I’ve noticed a shift in the content of the blogs I follow as of late. Suddenly, food blogs outnumber yoga blogs almost 3:1. I can think of several reasons to explain this phenomenon: One: Two of my faves in the community have moved on, le…

    Trackback by driste — March 10, 2006 #

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