Yesterday at Duǒyí Shífǔ 朵頤食府, one of the newish Sìchuān restaurants that have been emerging in New York, I encountered a spice I’d never met with before in Chinese cooking — a dark grey, camphory dried pod about the size of a large in-shell almond.
I took it for black cardamom and asked the maîtresse d’ what it was. She didn’t know, and neither did the waiters who started accumulating around my table. They were willing to let their curiosity subside after telling me “那是香料 [that’s a spice]” — they said it was the main chef’s day off yesterday so they couldn’t get any more information, sorry — but when I asked if it was dòukòu 豆/荳蔻 and described how to write the word they grew more serious and hauled me a lower-ranking chef out of the kitchen. Philology commands respect in Chinese society, you know. She named the spice as what sounded like qiáoguó, but in her few words to me she struck me as Cantonese-accented so I assumed that meant cǎoguǒ 草果 [plant-fruit] — a solid, unbookish-sounding name, in contrast to dòukòu 豆蔻 [bean-“bandit”], ‘black cardamom’. When a hand-written form eventually emerged from the kitchen, that turned out to be correct. Cǎoguǒ 草果 proves, indeed, to be dòukòu. Both names appear in the twelfth-century Tōngzhì 通志. Wikipedia’s English article gives the Vietnamese name as thảo quả, which is surely just 草果 in local garb.
I’ve never been to Western China, and cardamom as 草果 is something I’ve never heard of before — never faced it in a Chinese dish before, either.
The name 豆蔻 appears in poetry, apparently referring to cardamom flower, as a metaphor for a young girl. Here is a couplet by Dù Mù 杜牧 (803–52):
娉娉嬝嬝十三餘 pīngpīng niǎoniǎo | shísān yú
[graceful, delicate — just past thirteen]
豆蔻梢頭二月初 dòukòu shāotóu | èryuè chū
[early second month — cardamom blossom, twig-tip]
That doesn’t much recall the dish I ate last night — named on the menu as shāokǎo tíbang 燒烤蹄膀 [roast pork-shoulder], which was actually ham hocks stir-fried with sliced potatoes, red and green peppers, scallions, and lotus root, and drenched in málà 麻辣 [numb-hot] seasoning.
To which “two manifestations” does the title of this post refer?
- [bean-“bandit” blossom] dòukòu 豆蔻 — a delicate and graceful young girl on a spring day in the ninth century
- [plant-fruit] cǎoguǒ 草果, Vietnamese thảo quả, the chef’s qiáoguó — a hint of camphor in a strong-tasting, heavy meat dish
I don’t think these things have much in common. Cǎoguǒ and thảo quả and qiáoguó, on the other hand, count as a single manifestation. I woke up about 3:30 with a little indigestion, although I enjoyed the meal at the time.