Food and Memory
by Hong Ying
Translated by George Dudley
On a small slope above the south bank of the Yangtze River in Chongqing, there is a 13-unit housing compound where 13 families lived, sharing two kitchens, one large, one small. My family’s cooking stove was in the large kitchen, on the side which bordered the central courtyard. The lighting in the kitchen had always been very dim, until one day my father knocked out a window in the wall. Light came in from the courtyard and brightened the whole interior. All of the ladies were thrilled. The large kitchen housed seven or eight cooking stoves, and was crammed full with all kinds of woks, pans, clay pots, and charcoal briquettes taking up every inch of room.
The space was small and crowded. Add in the fiery temperament of Chongqing people, and this room no bigger than your palm filled with drama, a greater spectacle than any big stage play in a grand theater.
In the outside world, the compound residents hustled and toiled to keep themselves fed. Back home, they stared into their own cooking pots while longing for their neighbors’ bowls of food. To offer each other a taste was common courtesy, though usually such formality was deemed unnecessary. You could instead simply stick your ladle directly into a neighbor’s pot, and help yourself to potatoes, water spinach, or beans. One family’s charcoal might find itself in another family’s stove. Oil, salt, vinegar, and sauces were even more prone to moving to new homes. Any family that bought a fish would need to keep a careful eye on it. A cook might turn around briefly to fetch a pot of water, then come back and lift the lid only to find that their fish had become unrecognizable:
“Ah… My fish’s head is gone. For crying out loud, who had the gall to eat it in front of me? Somebody’s got a death wish! Stick out your tongues, you ingrates, I want to see them.”
The thief would be the one too guilty to open her mouth.
“You motherfucker! It was you who stole it, you greedy little mother of a bastard!”
It was never a good idea to use the word “stole,” and an even worse idea to insult someone’s mother or father. As soon as any such words were spoken, an impressive fight would break out. Noses touched noses, fists hit fists, and feet met feet, while bowls spun through the air and chopsticks went flying. Charcoal briquettes became projectiles, and brooms swung wildly. The scene would become livelier still once all of the adults and children in the compound came out to watch the battle, some egging the fighters on, some trying to break them up, and others making taunting remarks. But no matter how fierce a fight might get, the pots of food would never be brought into the fray.
Even in the biggest fights, action would immediately cease the moment a family was ready to eat and they headed back to their room to enjoy their food. Even if their opponent was stamping feet, waving hands, and damning their entire family lineage to hell, they would still turn their attention to their meal.
Because our lives were anything but well off, each family racked their brains trying to come up with ways to eat well on a tight budget. I watched as it happened with eyes full of wonder. Instead of throwing away watermelon rind, the white flesh could be cut from the peel, covered in salt, and tossed with chilis, garlic, and soy sauce to make something crisp, savory, and extremely tasty. When rice crusted to the inside of a pot, you could add radish leaves and a little water, then cover and simmer. The radish leaves and rice had an aroma so fine it would have been a dish worthy enough to be included in a banquet in the Prospect Garden in Dream of the Red Chamber.
On birthdays, we made tofu pudding. We ground soybeans into milk, then strained out the bean dregs. After boiling the soy milk, brine or gypsum was gently stirred into the liquid until it set into tofu pudding. The strained dregs from the soy milk weren’t thrown away. Wrapped in gauze and boiled, then stir-fried with salted vegetables, the soy dregs could make a dish every bit as delicious as the tofu pudding itself. If there was too much of the dregs left over to eat in one sitting, we could save a portion to make biscuits. The dregs were mixed with a little flour, chopped green onion, vegetable oil, and salt, then spooned into a big iron wok and pan-fried until golden yellow. Crispy on the outside, fluffy inside, those biscuits were one of the tastiest things on earth.
We often thought of foods we wanted to eat, but couldn’t. It happened frequently when making pickled vegetables, so we would tell jokes to satisfy our cravings. The banter would go back and forth, the topic always centered on food combinations that must be avoided:
All mutton abhors watermelon, eaten together they’ll hurt your qi;
Beef loathes chestnuts, eaten together they’ll make you vomit;
Persimmons abhor crabs, eaten together you’ll get diarrhea; Onions and honey eaten together will hurt your eyes;
Eating too much dog meat and mung beans is toxic; Radish and wood ear mushrooms together will give you a rash;
Eat beef with hairy ginger and die of poisoning; Eat donkey meat with cucumbers and die of heart pain;
Don’t mix eggplant with snakehead fish or you might get cholera; Don’t add bok choy to rabbit meat or you might throw up;
Leaf mustard with duck pears will make you throw up; Potatoes with bananas will give you wrinkles;
Sea crab and red dates, eat them both and get malaria; Persimmons and sweet potatoes, eat them both and you might get stones;
Don’t add egg to soy milk or you’ll get constipated; Mix goose meat and chicken eggs and you’ll harm your qi;
Eat pork and water chestnuts together and you’ll get a stomach ache; Eat tofu mixed with honey and you’ll go deaf;
Tomatoes and cucumbers, bananas and taro, eat them together and you’ll get heartburn;
Carrots and white radishes don’t mix, eat them together and you’ll bloat with gas.
How many people had tried these combinations? It’s impossible to know, but no one wanted to be reckless. These old sayings had been around for so long that they had hardened into rules, and poor common folk valued their lives too much to test them. When I started elementary school, my eldest sister was classed as an “educated youth” and became one of those “sent down to the countryside.” When I was in middle school, my eldest brother and third-eldest sister were also sent down to the countryside, while my second eldest-sister was assigned a job as an elementary school teacher. My father, mother, second-eldest brother, and I were the only ones left at home. My father had a serious eye condition that made it difficult for him to see. His vision was especially poor in the evenings, so I had to do the cooking. With so many rules for preparing food, I sometimes couldn’t remember them all.
One Saturday evening, my mother came home from work at the shipyard. I had used carrots and white radish to make a stew of pork ribs. The carrot and radish intermixed in the soup, boiling down into one indistinguishable, sweet flavor. In a small bowl I mixed sauce for the ribs and radish—minced pickled cowpeas with salt, soy sauce, and chili oil.
My father was always kind-hearted and easy to please. My mother took one bite, immediately set down her chopsticks and chided me angrily: “I told you not to mix these two together. You’ve ruined the ribs. Are your ears clogged up, or are you deaf?”
My mouth didn’t move. I only hung my head.
My mother wanted to hear me admit my mistake, but I wouldn’t do it. She said I was pigheaded, refusing to admit I was wrong. She gave me dirty looks the entire evening. But right before she went to bed, I overheard her talking to herself: “Isn’t it something? The first time I eat my youngest’s cooking and she’s mixed the wrong ingredients. Still, the flavor of the soup was not too bad, and that sauce she made was fresh. Aye… she’s turned out like me, with a natural bent for cooking. She might grow up to become an excellent chef—it’s not a bad way to earn a living.” She let out a long sigh, lay down, and went to sleep.
But I couldn’t sleep. Me a chef? I couldn’t see it. Yet after that, every weekend when my mother came home, she would criticize my cooking: “Liu Mei, why is this winter melon and tofu skin so bland? And why did you make so little?”
“Mom, don’t get mad. The kitchen roaches must have tasted it first and watered it down,” I could only answer innocently.
More often, even if my mother came home at her most tired and unhappiest, as soon as she picked up a bowl and said that we were cooking, she would become calm and peaceful, exhibiting a patience she rarely showed at other times: “When you pickle vegetables, you must put your heart into them. That’s how you make sure they taste good and don’t get moldy.”
This advice was different from the neighbors’. They all said that when pickling vegetables, you had to avoid using chopsticks which had touched unboiled water, or worse, oil and grease. Otherwise, the pickles would grow moldy and stink.
My mother didn’t bring up the idea of me becoming a chef again during her lifetime. Maybe she thought after achieving my childhood dream of becoming a writer, I would look down on being a chef.
As the years passed, I became busier with writing and life, so much so that I hardly recognized myself. Never once did I tell her of my obsession with good food, or of all the wild and ambitious experiments I made, like tossing chilled shredded carrot and white radish together and eating it raw. Both flavors remained distinct, while complementing one another brilliantly.
I became a gourmand, yet even when a TV station visited me to shoot a documentary on gourmet food, I still did not tell my mother. I forgot those ideas she had for me when I was younger. I rarely told her about my personal life, never providing her any fuel for speculation. Whenever my mother would think of me, her thoughts must have been limited only to small droplets of days past. She of course remembered me as a child, and remembered the me that grew up and was always in a rush whenever I saw her.
I was incredibly selfish. My mother loved food so much. If I had made food for her, allowed her a chance to taste my cooking, she would have been so happy. Mother, please forgive me, you’ll have the chance. And I hope your response will be like when I was a child:
“Liu Mei, why is this winter melon and tofu skin so bland? And why did you make so little?”
Mom, don’t get mad. The kitchen roaches must have tasted it first and watered it down. I can only answer innocently.
My father was not related to me by blood, though I didn’t find that out until I was 18. Each year, on the approach of Qingming—Tomb Sweeping Festival—my father would make Qingming cakes. At the start of every spring, I would wait eagerly for when my father and I would go up the mountain.
I started learning to walk when I was a little over a year old. At two years, I could walk on my own, without needing support from an adult. At three, I started climbing the mountain with my father. The path up the slope twisted and turned, but it wasn’t particularly steep. Along the way, there were wildflowers of many different colors to delight both eyes and nose. My favorites were the pea and broad bean flowers with their delicate powder and soft white color—just the right flowers for a young girl.
By the time I turned four or five years old, I walked slowly, but my father no longer needed to carry me so often. He instead followed cautiously behind me. Standing at the entrance to our home, we could lift our heads and see the Nanshan Mountains, which stretched onward to connect with the Huangshan Mountains. The mountains towered straight and tall, their figures shaped just like camels, peacocks, or elephants. A river flowed in front of the mountains, while behind them, even more mountains were wrapped in clouds and fog, emitting an air of strange mystery. Though they appeared close, the walk up to the peak actually took two hours. Usually, we would climb halfway up the slope, following Qingshui Stream, stopping just before we reached Yiwan Spring.
My father didn’t speak much at home. He was the same when we reached the top of the mountain, speaking only in carefully thought-out sentences, each one honest and plain. In damp areas on the slope grew a type of grass with thin leaves covered in soft white fuzz. My father squatted down, plucked off a leaf, and placed it in my hand. He told me that during the famine years, when there was nothing to eat, everyone ate this plant. Later, when there weren’t even any leaves left to eat, they ate its roots. I asked him to tell me everything about it. My father explained that back in his Zhejiang hometown, the plant was called Jincai, or Micai. Sichuanese people called it Qingmingcai—Qingming herb. I couldn’t remember so many names at the time. But I do remember my father’s expression as he spoke, as if the distant past was tugging at his mind.
My father instructed me to pick only the leaves of the plant, leaving the root behind so that it would grow back the next year. The leaves were at their most tender around Tomb Sweeping Festival. Any earlier, and they would be tender, but not as tasty. Any later, and they would be nearly past maturity. By Dragon Boat Festival, they would be too old to eat.
Once we had filled a basket, my father would wash the leaves in the stream before heading down the mountain. When we got home, he washed them again, then chopped them up and left them to dry in a winnowing basket. Next, he prepared the flour. Usually, it was wheat flour, but sometimes he used glutinous rice flour. He added the Qingming herb and salt or sugar to the flour, then kneaded evenly, just like making dumplings. He took palm-sized portions of dough in his hand and flattened them out thin, one-by-one, before sticking them to the sides of an iron wok. Half a wooden ladle full of water was poured into the bottom of the wok before covering and simmering. Ten minutes later, he lifted the lid, swirled the boiling water that remained around counterclockwise until it evaporated and the cakes were completely yellow, then flipped each one over. Once both sides of the cakes were yellow, they were ready to be removed from the wok. After dipping in sugar, what was once sticky glutinous rice and fragrant Qingming herb had become a golden-brown cake with a white-speckled center, chewy, soft, and sweet in the mouth. The lovely flavor stimulated a hearty appetite.
By the time I reached middle school, my father was nearly blind. He couldn’t see anything in the dark to begin with, and now his eyesight was even poorer in the daytime, too. It was no longer possible for him to climb the mountain and pick Qingming herb.
Back then, I would read all sorts of books. While reading, I discovered that Qingming cakes were a delicacy in southern Zhejiang, the same region my father was from. The cakes had a long history, which could be traced back to the time of Duke Wen of Jin and his minister Jie Zitui, whose legend of loyal service was said to be one of the origins for the Tomb Sweeping Festival. Qingming herb, a member of the sage family, was also called mugwort or wormwood. One day I asked my father, which one of the names was correct?
My father replied that although some called it “mugwort,” it wasn’t the same plant that we commonly knew by that name. That mugwort, the kind used as an aromatic during the Dragon Boat Festival, could drive away mosquitoes and keep your skin from breaking out in boils if made into a bath tonic.
“Next year, when we make Qingming cakes, can we add some fresh bamboo shoots and pork?” I asked my father.
My father didn’t reply.
A nearby neighbor, Mrs. Ma, chimed in: “Bamboo shoots and pork? You must be a dreaming idiot. So pleased with yourself, talking nonsense.”
At her rebuke, my face went red. To buy meat cost ration coupons, and meant standing in a long line in the early morning, with no guarantee of there even being any to buy. And even if you already had meat, where would you be able to get fresh bamboo shoots? Even the best cook couldn’t get anywhere without ingredients. Who was I kidding?
Thinking back on the Qingming cakes my father made each year, most were sweet, but sometimes they were savory, with a little black pepper sprinkled in. He paid special attention to the way he chopped the vegetables and kneaded the dough. His head was always hovering over the stove as he shifted the wok around to cook the cakes, most unlike the neighbors who gossiped, laughed, and bickered with one another as they cooked.
My father was addicted to leaf tobacco and pu’er tea. He didn’t eat much, and was never picky.
One time, my oldest sister who had been sent down to the countryside for being an “educated youth” came back to the city. She would read a thick copy of Dream of the Red Chamber in our loft. I would also spend my free time reading the book, copying it into a small notebook as I read. In the story, the servant girl Skybright serves a bowl of ham and fresh bamboo-shoot soup to the main character, Bao-yu. As soon as Bao-yu leans over and takes a sip, he cries out “too hot!” Another servant girl, Aroma, laughs and says, “Great Buddha! A few days without meat, and you crave it so badly?” As she speaks, she brings the bowl of soup to her lips and begins to blow on it gently. She then teaches another servant nearby how to properly attend to Bao-yu, telling her to quit loafing around—blow on the soup gently, so as not to get spittle all over it.
My sister was certain that the soup in the book must have been delicious.
I was too young to be able to read the novel properly. But I was interested in all of the foods in the story. I walked down the corridor to the railing above the center room where my father sat smoking his leaf tobacco. “Dad, for New Year’s, can we make salted pork and fresh pork soup?” What my question really meant was “Can we make the soup Bao-yu has in Dream of the Red Chamber?”
My father continued smoking his leaf tobacco, as if he hadn’t heard anything.
My older sister came bounding out of the loft, speaking bluntly and quickly. “That’s one of dad’s Zhejiang hometown dishes: Yan Du Xian soup. You can only get the right flavor if you use Jinhua ham from Zhejiang, or Xuanwei ham. I had it once when dad brought some back after a boat trip. He even used it to make Qingming herb fried rice.” She was very pleased with herself.
Curious, I asked her how the fried rice was made.
My sister wanted to keep me in suspense: “Say ‘please’ and I’ll tell you.”
I said “please.”
She stared at me for an eternity, then said, “No one else but me is going to tell you. You take Qingming herb and sticky rice—a good amount of rice, but not too much of the herb—and add salt, chopped green onion, and lard. Chop up the Qingming herb. Rinse the rice. Heat up oil in a wok, then add the ham and Qingming herb and stir fry. Sprinkle in some salt for flavor, then add just the right amount of water, and stir in the rice. Cover the wok and cook it on low heat. Add some chopped green onion when it’s done, and you’ve got a delicious, savory meal.”
My sister’s description made me so hungry that I practically began drooling.
My sister was great at talking about food, but not cooking it. As soon as she got in front of the stove, even the best recipe would turn into something inedible.
I envied her having the chance to eat Qingming herb fried rice that our father had made. Especially because after my father stopped cooking Qingming herb, I never got to eat those kinds of cakes again. When I asked my family why, they all said that it was tough to find Qingming herb in the mountains around Chongqing. Some wild vegetables have become delicacies that are grown commercially and sold for a big profit, like the purslane and fish mint which can now be bought at the Sanyuanli food market in Beijing. But Qingming herb seems to have gone nearly extinct.
My father and I are now separated by life and death. He is buried at Nanshan Mountain.
Whenever I think of my father, it’s usually of him making me counting sticks, teaching me the abacus, or helping me dress. He hands me a bamboo hat and tells me that it is going to rain. He reaches out into the darkness as he walks, as if supporting himself against the staircase as he ascends the loft. His hand trembles forward, searching along the wall, and, once steady, he takes another step forward. Even from a distance he can tell when I’ve come home, but he doesn’t say a word. Only once I am close and call out to him does he laugh gently. So many childhood moments are like yellowed black-and-white photographs stacked on top of one another again and again, yet I’ve forgotten the Qingming cakes.
A gentle rain falls steadily. The path up the mountain is filled with people. As I walk among them, I see my father ahead of me. I call out for him to stop. But my father doesn’t listen, he only continues walking. Not knowing what to do, I head home. I am surprised to find my father in the large kitchen, his attention focused on turning an iron wok, cooking Qingming cakes. I stand in front of the stove gazing at him. My father places the cooked Qingming cakes on a platter. I follow closely behind him into the house. My father tells me we must wait for my mom to come home before we eat. But my eyes are fixed on the platter. He looks at me, picks up a Qingming cake, breaks it in half, dips it in a little sugar, then hands it to me. I wolf it down, finishing by licking my thumb and index finger clean. “How is it? Would you like more?” my father asks.
I nod. My father takes the other half, dips it in sugar, and hands it to me.
I eat it happily. I eat, and eat, and then I awake. I was only dreaming.
My father was a skilled cook, a class above my mother when it came to gourmet food. He was from the Jiangsu-Zhejiang region, yet made Sichuan-style pickled vegetables even better than the natives. He made flatbreads and steamed buns. When he made Yan Du Xian soup, the whole courtyard filled with the aroma of meat and bamboo shoots. Neighbors always crowded around his pots of Jiangsu-Zhejiang style red braised pork, hoping to learn his technique. When I think of all those delicious foods now, my mouth immediately begins to water.
All of my brothers-in-law know how to cook, none leaves the cooking duties to his wife. I remember how my second-oldest sister’s husband didn’t know how to cook at first, but when my sister came down with bronchitis, he learned. In less than half a year, his skills had surpassed hers. My two older brothers, however, had been spoiled by my father, and could only try to catch up to my brothers-in-law. I’ve never felt that domestic work had to be separated into male or female categories. In the environment I grew up in, a task was done by the person who did it best, and that person wouldn’t have to worry about lacking respect in the house.
I was about five or six years old when my father lost his eyesight. My sisters were sent down to the countryside, and my mother was never at home. Though I was only as tall as the stove, I had to make the meals. By the time I was eleven or twelve, cooking was an everyday thing for me.
Cooking is convenient nowadays. With natural gas, all one needs to know is how to turn the stove on and off and how to adjust the size of the flame. We cooked on coal stoves when I was little. Sometimes when we had a guest over, we would use a nearby shared wood stove to cook meals.
I had to figure out what to cook, how much to cook, the amount of salt to use, how many people would be eating, and what flavors they preferred. The young me knew that my mother enjoyed spicy food, but my father couldn’t eat it. It was best not to put hot peppers in the food. Instead, I would put hot chili oil in a small bowl for my mother, and allow her to add it to her own portion of food. That way, my father could eat.
When the neighbors saw me cooking, they told me to wait until the oil in the wok started to smoke before adding my ingredients. They also told me to wait until all the water droplets in the wok had dried before pouring in the oil, otherwise it would start popping all over the place, and I would lose oil and could get burned. Rapeseed oil was as precious as gold back then. Practice makes perfect, and in time, I naturally became the family cook. Looking back, though that period of my childhood was gloomy, it undoubtedly still had moments of joy.
When the clever housewives in the large kitchen didn’t have meat to cook, they would use their skills to turn vegetables into all sorts of dishes. In the summer, they would make cold-tossed dishes; in the winter, they liked to make soups. My father was from Jiangsu-Zhejiang, so he didn’t eat spicy food. My mother was from Sichuan, so she needed her food to be flaming hot. Every dish had to be separated into two bowls, with one bowl containing hot peppers. Vegetables had to be purchased with ration coupons. Even water spinach roots were hard to come by, so they were never thrown away. We would tear them into strips by hand and season them with a little salt. The once unpalatable roots became tender, and were tasty either stir-fried or cold-tossed.
By the late 1980s we began to have the means to cook whatever we pleased. Sometimes when out and about, I would run into a friend from a well-off family. If they had good ingredients ready, I could make a quick and intricate meal. My friends would often ask me if being able to cook well was an innate talent, or something learned? What was my secret?
Usually, I would laugh.
When I cook, a thousand thoughts of foods I’ve eaten and seen flow through my mind, each of them transforming. When I close my eyes and think, I can cook a dish that I have never made before. I was born hungry, and have only become hungrier as I’ve lived. My love for food and love of people means that even though I have a heart of stone, I can turn soft in a moment.
Even after becoming an author, a kitchen still holds the same importance to me as a study.
When not writing a novel, I often have friends come to my home to eat. Old friends help me relax, while new friends make me excited (and nervous). I never know whether he or she might avoid certain foods, especially if they are a westerner. Some people may not eat garlic, and some can’t eat nuts without having an allergic reaction. Some may not eat anything with wings, and some might simply be vegetarian.
I don’t want anyone to keel over at my dinner table, so I make sure to be especially careful when I cook. To be on the safe side, when I make a seafood salad, I’ll keep the vegetables and seafood separate, and place the pine nuts on a small dish. When guests arrive, I can ask what their preference is, and there will still be time to put everything together.
As Confucius said, one should be discriminating about what one eats, and refuse food of poor quality.
This principle is also important in writing. When I write a novel, I often eat alone, but still take the effort to make a full meal with one dish each of meat, vegetable, and soup. Why? Eating poorly will leave your stomach unhappy. When your stomach is not content, your mind is unclear, and your writing will inevitably be lousy.
As a picky person, I refuse to lift my pen if I have not had a good meal. Thus, my novels and poems have been lucky enough to be a million miles away from being lousy.
My father’s spring dish: stewed spare ribs and soybeans. Baste the ribs in alcohol and brine for half an hour. Make sure the soybeans are fresh. Fill a clay pot with mineral water, then add the soybeans, spare ribs, a piece of ginger, and a little salt. Simmer over low heat for two hours. According to Chinese medicine, this dish is good for expelling internal heat and toxins, maintaining a youthful appearance, and recovering from a cold.
My father’s winter dish: stewed lamb leg with radish. The method is the same as above, with the addition of three small mandarin oranges. There is a folk belief that the coldest days of winter are the best time to boost one’s health for the year by eating certain foods. Among all the healthy soups, lamb and radish soup is the most beneficial.