by Carolyn Phillips
My Chinese father-in-law looks over his glasses at the oblique chunks of bean curd piling up in front of me. He frowns slightly and gently clears his throat, for unlike his small squadron of perfectly hollowed-out pyramids, my disheveled army is most definitely not up to his exacting standards. It isn’t that he expects much from me, the inappropriately foreign wife of his eldest son, but I am definitely irritating him more than usual today as we prepare his annual Chinese New Year’s Eve extravaganza.
“You are going too fast,” he at last says in his Cantonese-accented Mandarin. “Watch me.” I stop and take in his glacially slow movements, trying to rationalize why it should always take forever to cook a meal in his tiny apartment kitchen. The bustle of Chinatown’s traffic vibrates thirteen stories below us, the strange flat blue of the Los Angeles sky casting harsh afternoon shadows on his brushes and pots of ink, the tan smell of sandalwood soap invading every corner. Firecrackers rip and rebound through the alleys, and wisps of gunpowder filter in through his living room window.
As always, I am on my best behavior with him — not as wary as when I am around my volcanic mother-in-law, just very mindful of our generational and cultural differences. He patiently shows me again what it is that I should be doing: a fingertip slips into the yielding mass and then scoops up microscopic bits as he carefully prods away, hollowing out the doufu triangle with infinite care so that its sides are not breached. He readies them so that they can be stuffed with marbles of ground pork seasoned in the style of his Hakka home town in Guangdong hill country. He was forced to abandon this ancient ancestral fold when civil war exiled him, first to Taiwan and then to the States with his wife and grown children. As he approaches his eighth decade, these deeply savory Hakka dishes tether him to the old country and in turn form the sole connections the rest of us will ever have to his former life.
He carefully arranges a finished piece next to the others and slowly picks up a new triangle. I silently start to time him; five minutes per piece. Each one still has to be dusted with cornstarch, filled, fried, and then slowly braised. And this is just the first dish of many. We’ll never make it at this pace, and our ravenous clan will soon be banging on his door.
“Dajia jidianzhong lai?” I ask, already knowing the answer. He slowly turns toward the clock on his oven, adjusts his bifocals, and says softly in Chinese, “In three hours.” I look over the rest of the ingredients for the huge meal in progress — a whole rock cod, a fat plucked chicken, fresh pink pork, gray fish paste, aromatic bundles of garlic chives, a new bag of polished rice, a webbed sack of white eggs interspersed with a few pale blue duck ones, tangles of brown ginger, bunches of cilantro and scallions, a pile of coppery shallots, a pink bakery box that smells of his beloved sweets, and even more plastic bags filled with goodness knows what hanging from assorted door handles — and feel the first flickers of panic.
He patiently returns to the task in front of him while my eyes take in his spotted hands, which tremble slightly as he tries to coax the memory of his mother’s cooking out of them. Ever since the last series of small strokes, he has lost his natural grace, the dancer’s movements that were once the toast of Shanghai. Gone is the handsome tango partner and dashing fighter pilot who dazzled the city’s fallen women in wartime dancehalls along the Bund.
I tell myself that he’s an old man, that I must be patient, that I should just learn to breathe and relax as I watch him redo all of my efforts. Suppressing my desire to take over the kitchen, I try my best to transform myself into a submissive daughter-in-law, but my right eye twitches violently.
Murmuring something about the time, I let my husband’s father work at his own pace while I settle into the grunt work: washing the vegetables and rice, scaling and prepping the fish, tidying the fridge and bathroom, wiping down counters, furtively recycling his massive stash of empty doufu boxes and plastic bags, and setting out a rickety assortment of borrowed folding chairs around his table on this eve of the Year of the Monkey. My hands stay busy while my eyes keep track of how he makes the family’s favorite holiday dish. I surreptitiously allow my glances to wander up his arms to his shoulders and then to the back of his head, his stiff black hair much grayer than last year.
He seems so familiar and yet so strange. We never got to know each other much beyond these kitchen encounters because Chinese tradition forbade anything other than minimal interaction, and so he almost never even acknowledged my presence beyond what simple courtesy demanded. We never chatted, never shared ideas or thoughts, and never even looked each other in the eye. But we both liked to cook, and we had each discovered that hiding by a stove allowed us to maintain Swiss-like neutrality in our family’s never-ending internecine warfare. Like me, he had no dog in those fights. Bowing out of whatever fracas was taking place, we found our refuge behind kitchen doors, the loudly whirring stove fan and whacking knives creating a bell jar that deflected all discord.
My beautiful mother-in-law had long ago gladly surrendered the kitchen to him and his endless stream of aromatic southern cooking, entering it only when this warlord’s daughter longed for the foods of her northern birthplace in Tianjin, her plain steamed breads and hearty pork braises a stern rebuke to the sensuous dishes that customarily fed the family: simply cooked fresh fish spangled with green onions, chicken wings swimming in pools of golden fat and gently scented with vinegar, stuffed omelet purses, brilliant emerald mustard stems studded with crunchy bits of garlic, and bowl after bowl of steamed rice to sponge up all of those glorious juices.
His home readied for guests, I arrange some plum blossoms and forsythia in an old glass jar and center it on the dining table. Chopsticks and soup spoons are placed at each setting, and the holiday tabletop looks as it ever does. I sneak a peek at my father-in-law calmly working on the bean curd, oblivious to everything but the ingredients for this one dish. My pulse slows as I remember that this kitchen of his has become my safe haven, a place where I can screen myself behind the pots and pretend I am being appropriately dutiful.
Pausing on the kitchen threshold, I see for the first time the wisdom of his measured pace. His unhurried tempo advises me that the dinner will have to be gradually presented over several leisurely hours, that the cook and his helper will need to be regretfully absent from the festivities as they tend to woks and steamers, and that they will then have to spend an inordinate amount of time meticulously cleaning up the kitchen in order to guarantee good luck in the new year. With the clang of steel and the clatter of china drowning out all attempts at conversation, they will emerge sweaty and unscathed only when the last guests have left. With the cool night air seeping through the living room window and the traffic noises below reduced to only the occasional honk, these two will finally sit down at the cluttered table and contentedly nibble on leftovers while the eldest son tidies the apartment and returns the chairs. I wash up, take a sip of tea, and put on a clean apron. My hand reaches for a bean curd triangle, and I hum softly to myself while sedately scraping out a little crater. I tamp the edges of our bell jar down securely around us. We will not share another word the entire evening, but there will be no need for conversation.
After five minutes, my father-in-law looks over his glasses at the perfectly hollowed-out piece in my fingers and rewards me with the slightest of nods.
The Year of the Ram fades as the shadows on his desk lengthen. I pour my father-in-law a fresh glass of hot jasmine tea.
There is no hurry.
|Carolyn Phillips is a food writer and illustrator whose first book, All Under Heaven (McSweeney’s, April 2015), will offer a comprehensive, contemporary portrait of China’s culinary landscape. Her work has appeared in numerous places, from Lucky Peach to Gastronomica, and she can always be found at Madame Huang's Kitchen . Illustration by author.|