CONTRIBUTION · 27th April 2010
It was one of those days that make you want to freeze-frame. The sky was an improbable, cerulean blue, the kind that you see in calendars and always think the photographer must have used a tinted lens or re-touched it somehow. The North Wind was absent, tormenting inhabitants in some other town fora change. In its place was a barely burgeoning breeze, caressing the cheek, and making the leaves dance with a kind of crisp crackle. In the distance, Rheanna could see that the snow was creeping slowly down the mountains, the tree line no longer demarcated. Winter was imminent but today was for savoring, a perfect autumn day, demanding no more than a warm sweater and gloves to make the walk a comfortable one.
Some say that walking can be a kind of meditation. Mindful of this, Rheanna concentrated on the taste of the clean air upon her tongue; the rich, humus smell of decaying leaves on the chill earth; the birdsong entertained her ears; and the textures, shapes, and colours of grass, leaves, tree bark, brick work, and the sheltering mountains delighted her eyes, as Rheanna revelled in the feel of her muscled legs, rhythmic as a metronome, eating up the distance to the Asian Food Emporium.
The store occupied one end of a narrow, featureless plaza in the downtown core. In the window, arrayed on vividly hued, brocaded cloths, was an oriental tea set, ornamented with cobalt blue fish; a beautifully fringed and beaded silk scarf; a collection of exotic tea tins and biscuit boxes; and a multi-coloured kite, in the shape of a butterfly, in flight above these wondrous wares. Incongruously, a small neon sign with the single word, “Open”, cast a roseate glow over everything. The door, by contrast, was prosaic, utilitarian, of heavy glass, and ornamented with no more than the store hours, on a small laminated card.
It took a certain skill to navigate the store as precariously stacked displays occupied half
of the width of the aisles and the shelves were crammed with goods, arranged with little regard for order. Basmati rice sat side by side with imported gingerbread, spilt yellow peas and cans of jalapeno and chipotle peppers. Tea sets were on one side of the store while other dishes were on the other. The tea itself could be found on the central shelves, in a display near the store’s entrance, and in glass jars behind the cash register. There were exotic shawls, kimonos, scarves, and oriental jackets hung in one corner of the store, the only mirror that of the proprietor’s ebony eyes or the inner one of Rheanna’s imagination.
Rheanna’s favourite area was the spice section. The smells were redolent with mystery. From whence had they come, the star anise, the saffron, the fenugreek and fennel? Who had harvested the five-spice; was it some Asian family, led by a wizened grandfather, and aided by numerous energetic children? Had the paprika come from Hungary? Had the crushed chilis come from Mexico, or from somewhere in Central or South America, or from somewhere else entirely?
Rheanna felt like she was a world traveller as she contemplated the caraway seeds, the blue poppy seeds, the fragrant cinnamon sticks , and the candied ginger. Whenever Rheanna felt like transporting herself to India, all the ingredients of curry powder were there: the cumin, cayenne, turmeric, and more, all neatly packaged in innocuous clear plastic bags with small, white, minisculely printed labels.
If she wished to go to Mexico, why then there was everything for the delectation of even the most serious of chili makers, ranging from mild to hot chili powders and all the components therein, to be ground with the help of the state-of-the-art spice grinders that seemed to be shouldering aside the marble mortar and pestle sets and metal graters.
Thai Cooking? The freezer section included lime leaves, and store also carried coconut
cream, coconut milk, lemongrass, special sugar wafers, peanuts, and garlic chili sauces.
As to Japan, Rheanna was expanding on her sushi repertoire with the help of some eye-watering wasabi, pickled ginger, exotic vinegars and the advice of the store owner whose black-marble eyes gleamed whenever the opportunity to assist her arose.
Today, Rheanna’s list had included nori, miso, nutmeg, organic cocoa powder and Oolong tea. After Rheanna had made a careful circuit of the store, all that she still had to get was the tea, which was arranged on the wall behind the checkout counter. As the proprietor took down the large glass jar of tea, he asked, “How many cups of tea do you want?”
“About a dozen” Rheanna replied.
The proprietor nodded and he began carefully measuring the tea.
“That doesn’t look like enough,” said Rheanna.
The proprietor’s hands stilled as he formulated his reply. “It will be lots if you make like Chinese.. Tea not meant to be served in big cups. Chinese use small cups and refill so tea always hot. Get full flavour when tea is hot.”
Rheanna paused for a moment before responding, the words forming like chocolates in her mouth, with the deliciousness of her memory.“I read a lovely Japanese tea book recently where they said that having tea could be like a meditation. It began by describing the tea room, which should be furnished simply and with things such as art or flowers meant to enhance, rather than to detract, from the appreciation of the tea. The book said to use good tea, in a small, beautiful cup, and that you should note the colour and fragrance before you take your first taste . It said that the tea should be drunk in small sips, so as to miss nothing of the experience.. After
reading that book, I thought I should try to follow their suggestions, beginning with buying good, loose-leaf tea, instead of the bagged stuff.”
Rheanna’s comments were rewarded with a broad smile and the resumption of tea measuring.
As Rheanna’s purchases were being rung up, the proprietor began speaking again. “My wife and I have a garden. We grow many vegetables. One day, my wife say that we can buy vegetables cheaper.”
“Oh” interjected Rheanna, “but that’s not the point!”
The man nodded approvingly, his round face creased in an wide smile. “No. Not the point. Gardening is a good thing. In sunshine. Get close to the earth. Nothing added to food. Get good vegetables and good time with wife.”
“Worth savouring like the tea? "
The man’s gaze was intent as he placed Rheanna’s purchases into her cloth shopping bag.
As Rheanna left the store she could feel the man’s smile, following her into the sunshine, his last words echoing in her mind.
“Pleasure found in small things. Enjoy life. You come again.”