Monday, July 28, 2008

Daily highlight #65: Mom food

Now that the parents are in the city, my office phone rings without fail on Friday mornings. Each time, mom turns on her "you can't refuse me" voice and demand to know when I'd show up for a meal. As always, I falter and commit to something. This past weekend, it was Sunday lunch.

Knowing that the camera will be present, mom presented her bitter gourd salad in "an arrangement." I couldn't help but let out a laugh. She is just too cute.

I know many of you out there aren't fond of the bitter stuff. I, myself, didn't always like it. But mom was persistent. She served it year after year in the summer and grew the stuff in her garden. Finally, one summer, I caught the bug and now I can't get enough. When cooked to the right doness, the bitterness isn't prominent. It just barely registers in the back of the throat and evokes an imaginary sweetness as an after thought.

This bamboo salad, while not superb, due to a lack of fresh bamboo, made me yearn for a lovely snack of my youth. Mom sent me away, far away, for school at the tender age of five. To make the blow softer, she gave me my own pocket money, enough for a few snacks from the street vendor outside of our school. Every week, at the start of my hour plus journey home, I'd buy a little wax paper packet of bamboo salad and pick at it one piece at a time. Fragrant from sesame oil and spicy from a chili fermented soy paste, the salad made the long walk and bus ride home something to look forward to.

Mom already poached the chicken, but asked me to make the blending sauce in the most "I am too busy, can you do this" manner. The thing is, the sauce is the most critical part of this dish and this woman, in my twenty eight years of knowing her, had NEVER let another touch her critical sauce. I was startled, then honored, and then scared to make the sauce. It turned out fine. After all, I have seen this done a hundred times. Dry toast some Sichuan peppercorn and wet fry some garlic in toasted sesame oil, then add the spicy bean paste. Let it warm a bit and take the whole thing off the stove before adding soy, rice vinegar, and a good spoonful of smoked dry chili oil. Finally, let the flavors blend somewhat before dressing the chicken. Back in the day, we would have added a taste of MSG for flavor. Now, even mom has bought into the American brainwashing about MSG... I miss that umami taste. And seriously, a billion people in China haven't turned dumb or dropped dead because of the stuff. But a fight would have proven futile, so I kept quiet.

Finally, the dish of love, garlic chives with smoked pork belly. No matter how many times I've had this, I crave it, always. We used to only have it during Chinese New Year, when grandma comes to visit and smokes her own pork behind our high rise in a make shift smoker constructed out of refrigerator box. If there was ever any doubt where my mom got her determination, one look at my grandma would have settled that. When the woman sets her mind to something, everyone better just get out of her way. After all, she raised three children by herself on a hilly rural plot of land in central China where tractors were a dram and, really, would have just rolled down the hill. She worked and harvested the fields and still found time to make the most beautiful embroidery that I have since transferred onto a precious dress that never fails to draw compliments from all those who see it.

I know, I know, I turn completely sappy every time I write about mom food on this blog. But the truth is, even knowing that she never reads this blog and wouldn't understand even if she did, I can't help but praise her food, because it is food that defines me, not the language I speak, the dress I wear, or even the food I make, but the me that experience all of it through colored lens that she and the women before her gave me.

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