Over the weekend, my girlfriend and I visited in hometown of Fuzhou, a sprawling metropolis in southern China, where both sides of extended family reside. Since the trip was a bit ceremonial (Myra’s introduction to my hilarious grandparents), there was plenty of good eats involved.
For our first lunch, we did go out to the seafood restaurant where one of my cousins recently had her wedding banquet. While the food was generally tasty and ingredients fairly fresh, nothing that came across our lazy Susans rivaled the two home-cooked meals that followed.
First, a two-table dinner feast with my dad’s side of the family, which is the infinitely more rambunctious side. My dad’s parents are uneducated farmers, who persevered through tough times by a sheer force of will that both toughened their sturdy frames and etched the deep wrinkles their faces now bear. They fostered a family of some seven brothers and sisters, all with their own significant others and crazed offspring. It’s the kookier half of my family tree.
In the small confines of my grandparents’ makeshift housing (a temporary arrangement since the government has bought out their farmland), family gatherings with this side of the family tree are usually a tight squeeze and definitely boisterous, cousins yelling at grandparents yelling at nieces yelling at uncles. Somebody (usually my middle uncle, although that responsibility has passed in part to his kids) is always busy in the kitchen, which is just a few shelves, two woks (one gas, one electric) and a prep table. Dishes arrive hot from the wok and the best pieces snatched by hungry chopsticks.
To start, we had jellyfish, braised beef and chicken giblets (not pictured), egg noodles (not pictured), stewed pork stomach, scallion donuts, stir-fried rice cake, and sweet corn with shrimp. The rice cake and sweet corn have long been my favorites: the cooking wine soaked into the outer layers of the slightly sweet cake combined with the fatty pork, and the sweet-salty crunch of corn kernels.
Since I began returning to Fuzhou sometime in elementary school, the family dinner table offered chances for me to catch up in as many furtive sentences that my stumbling Chinese would allow, reconnecting the lines between familial dots that time and distance tended to blur. Where changes occurred more slowly when I was younger, they now happened quickly – an uncle left town for a business venture (and later returned); the old people got older (their hair and their backs suddenly leaving them); little cousins sprouted taller and donned glasses and androgynous haircuts, and older cousins married (new faces) and quickly became parents (even more faces, albeit very cute ones).
And then here I was, with my own girlfriend, fielding questions, distributing gifts, translating between English and Chinese. By and large, I’ve sat at the kids’ table, although it’s evolved into the cousins with kids table, all of whom told me repeatedly that I needed to learn how to cook like my uncle. As if I needed to be reminded.
Next came the seafood dishes: steamed crab with scallions and taro, steamed fish in soy sauce, squid in two kinds of sauces (one with cauliflower, not pictured), and prawns with garlic, as well as a sweet & sour pork with cauliflower (not pictured). The sauces are largely similar, but allow the freshness and tenderness of the seafood to shine through. The way my uncle stir-fries cauliflower is perfect, just to the point of letting it soak up enough of the surrounding sauce without losing its crunch.
This dining experience (over the years), along with my mother’s table, was central to my deeply spiritual worship of the home-cooked meal. Many of these dishes or ingredients surface at each of these coming-home sort of dinners, but I never tire of the just-off-the-wok rush, the steam rising off crab shells or bowls of soup, the mad dash of chopsticks, the clamor of hunger-crazed babies.