Beauty and Love in Budapest

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After two weeks of eating in the restaurants, I finally moved back to the apartment where there is a kitchen.  I invited a couple of friends over and cooked a ton of vegetables which are usually lacking when eating in restaurants in Budapest. The tomato-egg stir-fry that I made — the most basic comfort food during my Shanghai childhood — finally alleviated my craving for home cooked food.

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After dinner, we went to an organ concert at the St. Stephen’s Basilica.  I had never before heard Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor through such magnificently booming organ pipes. The vibration shook my bones.  I was awestruck.

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We were on our way to get a post concert drink when serendipity had us run into some members of our cast and crew who were having a birthday celebration for Michelle Yeoh at a restaurant.  The ex Bond girl is playing a kick ass fighting nun in Marco Polo. 

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Michelle’s Hungarian friend knew the restaurant chef, who prepared for us sumptuous dishes that were not on the menu: minced pork stuffed paprika, beef stew, ratatouille with mixed peppers… My second dinner was an absolute feast. 

I don’t remember who started it, but after a few bottles of wine (and three sips of limoncello for me), we began taking turns to define the two most over used words with the most expansive meanings: beauty and love

Michelle Yeoh’s assistant said to Michelle, “Beauty is Michelle.”  No wonder she had worked for Michelle for 11 years.

“Beauty is what arrests you for reasons you can’t quite articulate — it’s unreasonable,” said Tim Yip, our costume designer.

“It is the purgation of superfluities,” someone quoted Michelangelo.

“Yes, it must be simple.”

“And everlasting.”

“But beauty is fleeting.”

The discussion went on and on, and no one could completely agree with the other because what lends beauty its luster is precisely this ineffable quality that escapes analysis and speaks to the imagination.

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Two years ago with Peter in Budapest on family vacation

Then we came to the definition of love, which is so all-encompassing and amorphous at the same time that anything we said paled in comparison to what we intuited it to be.  Looking back, we sounded down right corny, but we all took a moment to think about love — each carrying a private memory or longing that tugged at his heartstrings.  I immediately thought of my children, my husband and my parents, who are all far away but rooted deeply in my heart as I am rooted in theirs. 

“Body and Soul.”

“Something to die for.”

“Something to live for.”

We interjected between bites and sips, laughing at each other’s mawkish declarations.

“Love is what I’m feeling right now,” John Fusco concluded with a big smile, looking at all of us who had gathered here because he created Marco Polo.

It is mysterious and wonderful how fate brought us here — around a dining table on a cobblestoned sidewalk in Budapest from different continents sharing food, wine and friendship, contemplating beauty and love. 

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With John after dinner. St. Stephen’s Basilica in the background.

Chinese Chicken Salad & the Person in the Morror

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There are mornings when I look into the mirror and see certain signs of aging, that have appeared only now and then in the past, become final.  It’s interesting how our faces and bodies shift shapes.  You don’t change for a while — just some good days and some bad days, but you more or less stay the same.  Then suddenly one morning, your features are different — not new winkles or dark circles, but a face entirely strange to you.  Jet lagged and tired, today was one of those days when I was jarred by what I saw in the mirror.  That person looked back at me, a little perplexed.  “What happened? What did I do wrong?” she seemed to ask me, her features strangely exaggerated and out of proportion.  Not a lot I could say to her, really.  I gazed at her for a few moments longer and felt a great compassion rising.  I told her that everything was okay, that I saw grace and strength in her that weren’t there when she was younger.  Her face seemed to soften as she listened to me.  The person who lives in my mirror and I are actually getting on much better now than decades ago when she was beautiful and I refused to see it. 

Nowadays, I know I am that unreliable person in the mirror — changing precariously without much warning.  I also know that I am that steadfast person who has the same love for books, the same passion for work, the same devotion for family and the same fondness for the same old friends.  And because I like myself better, I am more lenient toward that capricious person in the mirror.

What’s the most comforting for me today is to watch my daughters bloom.  I see a little bit of myself in them now and then, and that brings a smile to my face.  And I also sometimes see in them a lot of qualities that are completely alien to me, and they amaze me.  The joys and the challenges that they bring have transformed me into a richer and wiser person that a mere mirror cannot reflect.  As I see them grow, I seem to matter less and less.  I read somewhere that all living things are genetically programed to age and die so that we don’t compete for resources with our offsprings.  Old leaves become manure for their young.  Withering, therefore, is a part of renewal. 

When I sat down in front of my computer tonight, I was really just going to share this scrumptious dish with you, but I went off on a tangent. 

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Chinese Chicken Salad

Ingredients:

2 roasted chicken breasts (I used Costco roast chicken)

1 small Napa cabbage (outer leaves removed and cut crosswise into half inch strips)

10 thin wonton wrappers (sliced)

3/4 cup slivered almonds

3 oz. sugar snap peas (sliced diagonally in half)

2 red jalapeno peppers (thinly sliced)

3 scallions (thinly sliced)

1 table spoon roasted white sesames

Ingredients for the Dressing:

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon fish sauce

2 tablespoon rice vinegar

1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon Sriracha

1 tablespoon – 1 teaspoon xylitol or brown sugar

Juice from 1/2 large lime

3 tablespoon sesame oil

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Preparation:

For the wonton chips, spray the baking pan with oil and line the sliced wonton strips in the pan with a little crinkle to give them shape.  Spray again and bake for 6 to 8 minutes.

For the dressing, mix all ingredients together in a bowl.

Blanch the sugar snap peas in boiling water for 1 or 2 minutes or until they turn bright green.  Drain and rinse in cold water.  Drain and cut the snap peas and pour into salad bowl with the cut Napa cabbage, shredded chicken breasts, jalapeño, scallion, sesame seeds and almonds.

Add dressing and give it a good toss.  Serve with crispy wonton strips.

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