Alimentum, July 2014
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 though 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....
(please read the rest on the Alimentum: The Literature of Food website)
Illustration copyright (c) 2014 by Carolyn Phillips