2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

Wonton Soup for the Soul

Wonton Soup for the Soul

The way you say Boston Tea Party in Chinese translates to Boston Dump Tea Time. As I sat down to a breakfast of wonton soup, I remembered that I had learned this the evening before during a boisterous dinner. My mind was still watery from a night of drinking and memories were coming back in drops. Joining me at the street side table that morning were two Chinese twenty-somethings, a couple of travelers I’d met the day before. I’d walked by them on the sidewalk. They were sitting on top of their packs and, correctly identifying me as a traveler, Cui, the male of the pair, had yelled to me, “Hey! Where are you going?” They told me they were en route to Ruili, the Burmese border town where I was also heading. Their friend was coming to pick them up in his van to drive them to a town with cheaper accommodations and would I like to come along?

Now a day later we were in a different town–Zhefang–in far western Yunnan province, a few dozen kilometers north of Mangshi where I’d met the duo. Less than twenty hours after meeting them I was being rudely awakened by the shrill of trumpeting roosters on the roof, my head thick with the poison of a rice wine hangover. Inside my pitiful hotel room were the two wanderers. “We drank too much last night,” I announced once they’d awoken. We’d been out the night before with the van driver’s yokel friends. The male traveler shrugged. “This is their custom,” he said and we left it at that.

The three of us walked down to the street to find breakfast and in the daylight I could see that what I mistook to be a regular town in the evening darkness was in fact a moldering backwater. The streets were nothing more than paths of rocky dirt and when a rattletrap farmer’s carts rumbled by they shot up a cloud of pale dust. Trash lay scattered next to grey puddles. The cloudy skies overhead only added to the bleakness. We walked up to a food stall set up underneath a blue tent. In front were gathered a modest crowd of hungry locals, some of them standing by their dusty motorbikes. To the side of the tent was a mangy dog, its snout buried in a pile of crumbled tissue paper and cigarette cartons. I placed my order with the grinning cook who dropped some freshly folded wontons into a pot of boiling water and shut the lid. A few minutes later he gave me my steaming breakfast and I walked over to the spice table where I spooned in some cilantro, green onions, garlic, vinegar and mashed peppers.

I sat down at the table. Cui told me he’s been traveling through China for a year and half. Before, he’d worked in a glass shop in Hebei. “I was very tired of the same schedule. Work, eat, sleep, work, eat, sleep, everyday. I wanted to go out and find another way to live.”

I plucked a wonton in my mouth, and tasted a tiny button of pork at the center. The noodle to meat ratio was upsetting. “How will we get to Ruili?” I asked him. “We’ll hitchhike,” he said.

After we finished breakfast, we walked across the broken street to our hotel room. We grabbed our bags and headed out to the main road to find a ride going north. My mind was clearing because of the warm food in my stomach but details were still drippy and I couldn’t recall things perfectly. I could remember something about tea. And Boston, my hometown. And wasn’t there a party I had to get to?

Up Next

Taste of the Silk Road

Featured City Guides