LUNAR NEW YEAR OLD AND NEW
February 10, 2015
I wasn’t raised on grilled cheese sandwiches and Rice Krispie squares. Unlike most kids I grew up with, the culinary concept of “ants on a log” utterly confused me. So, mostly out of an indignant disbelief, I used my hard-earned allowance to purchase peanut butter, celery and raisins to recreate the recipe dictated by a seven year-old.
“You take peanut butter, stick it in the middle of the celery and put raisins on top, like ants … on a log.” Obviously. To my all-encompassing delight, the celery, with its refreshing crunch and convenient cradle, the sweet, chewy raisins and unctuous, fragrant peanut butter, was frankly heavenly, and I ate it obsessively for weeks afterwards.
For afterschool snacks, my grandmother would not have known apples and cheddar, so my only experience was that of ethereal scallion crepes, so wide they hung over the rim of our largest dinner plates, or whole-wheat buns, piping hot from the bamboo steamer. I would methodically peel the dried bamboo leaf from the underside of the bread and cut it into slices. Wholly “un-Chinese,” I also slathered them with cheese-sized slats of butter. Even at a young age I knew butter was a beautiful substance.
I was very lucky to have my grandmother live with me as a child. She was a talented cook, trained in the school of necessity, with the possession of 10 hungry mouths and a critical palate. Our large family cooked every night and we ate together.
Weekends were reserved for grocery shopping in Chinatown. I followed along, mesmerized and repelled by the petrified sea horses in herbal shops, picking at bins of dried lily bulbs and overhearing consultations on matters such as, how to pick the sweetest watermelon. (Strangely enough, it needs to “hit back” when you slap it with your palm.)
It was in this way that my grandmother taught me my first lessons on food. She would mumble aloud to herself, dropping hints and tips like a breadcrumb trail. I observed quietly, taking mental notes: chopsticks bubble in oil when the wok has come to temperature, only the thinnest streams of egg dropped into corn soups will create wisps like smoke. I was amazed at how her blunt, meaty hands were equally as adroit with an embroidery needle as with a cleaver on thick bones. But of all the seemingly impossible feats in a child’s mind, I marvelled most at how she managed to tie me onto her back with nothing more than a bed sheet. Elaborately folded so I hung there carelessly with my cheek against her back, drifting off to the sound of her beating heart as she bustled in the kitchen.
At New Years, our already bursting home exploded with hearty laughter, visitors exchanging lucky money and picking at lacquered trays full with dried watermelon seeds and candied lotus. Our family would spend all day making dumplings for New Years feasts, set up in stations: dividing the dough, rolling it into round wrappers, and filling them into pouches, while my sister and I mimicked along with scraps.Back