It was that time of the year when women rushed around in the majestic kitchen while men played mahjong and gambled and smoked and talked of big things that will never be carried out. I stood in the middle of the kitchen and my mother, my aunts, my relatives rushed around me, each busy with their own doings. I snuggled tighter in the old, bulky army jacket that my dad grandfather stole from the army when he ran away from the 100% fatality rate battle-front against the Japanese and came home. I can still smell the remnants of his cowardice, but I didn’t care, my blood seemed to be frosting up from the ubiquitous presence of the piercing winds. These winds always find a way to climb up from the legs of my pants, to attack the holes in my knitted sweaters, dive in from my neck and nestle around in my collar bones. My ears.. or do I even have ears? I can’t feel them.
A shrill voice drove me out of my thoughts, “You standing here for what?! Being a road block ha? Go make yourself useful now. You already sixteen now, you understand? When I was sixteen, I was already one of the best cooks in the village and…”
I wasn’t in the mood for the “miraculous” story of her long accomplished life, “Yes ma, I’m going to get the fatty pork and help with the hongshaorou A-gu is making.
A-gu is what we call our dad’s younger sisters here. Even though she’s more senior than me in this familial hierarchy, she’s only a little more than two years older than me. She’s most famous among the villagers for her hongshaorou, directly translated as red-cooked meat.
Despite the festive mood around us, I felt not a twinge of joy, but instead just very… lost. I trudged slowly towards A-gu, who’s out in the yard with a humongous knife and cutting board.
She was busy hacking at the wiggly chunk of fat and meat. I cringed a bit at the sight of a young lady waving around an axe deftly, violently scraping and pulling pieces of fatty meat of a freshly killed pig.
She caught sight of me and immediately called out, “Shishi, come help me make the sauce!”
She didn’t need to tell me, I was already walking towards the kitchen.
I ran my hands over the Chinese herbs and glass bottles of seasoning. I’ve always been attracted to these fragrant condiments. Dried fennel, dried aniseed, fresh ginger, cinnamon powder, cumin (great with roasts), the famous five spices combination powder, Chinese pepper (the ones that paralyse your tongue not with the hotness but with this indescribable but addictive taste)…. and the soy sauces – fish soy sauce, dark soy sauce, caramel soy sauce, light-salted soy sauce – and the oils – peanut oil, sesame oil, fragrant hot oil – and the wines – rice wine, yellow wine, the famous ShaoXing wine that drunkens you just from its scent, sweet wine….
I know them by heart.
So many combinations I can make, so many different flavours they will produce..
Heat from the crackling wood stoves are heating up this place. I took off the heavy jacket, and rolled up my sleeves.
A-gu threw a slab of pork on the cutting board, “It’s all on you now.”
Meat was skinned, cut, and poked holes in. Herbs and condiments measured (not with utensils but with my heart), cleaned, and put aside.
The meat was already so oily that I didn’t need to use extra cooking oil.
I dumped the chopped cubes of fat meat and ginger slices into the heating wok. The meats curled up at the contact of the burning metal.
I stepped away and turned to chop the herbs. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Loud, clear chopping can be heard over my board and my aunt’s board amidst the crackling fire and screeching steam coming out of pots.
The fats on the meat were starting to melt off the meat. I hear the oil sizzling.
I turned around and used the spatula to toss around the cubes a few times, and turned back. Thump. Thump. Back to chopping.
The sizzling grew louder, as if the fats on the meat were crying as they turn into oil.
Ew. Is this what happens when I exercise?? I pushed this thought aside as I sprinkled the brown sugar in the pot to bring out hongshaorou’s signature sweetness.
I tossed it a few times, and watched the golden cubes twirl like dancers in the pan.
I added my chopped cinnamon and star anise and waited for their scents to waft out of the wok.
Few minutes later, the striking scent seductively tickled my nose, causing my brain to send these messages to my stomach that made it feel like I haven’t eaten for days straight.
I poured in the generous amounts of Shaoxing Yellow wine and dark soy sauce, but not too much because dark soy sauce can actually salt a person’s tongue off.
And just to bring out the richness of the taste, I added some fermented tofu (these salty, rich flavoured tofu that we eat with plain rice congee for breakfast) and sesame oil.
A boiler of water was poured in and the wok finally quieted down from the sizzling. I closed the lid, wiped my forehead, and found entertainment for myself in my favourite book, The Legend of the Condor Heroes (where the main female protagonist, Huang, is an amazing cook and kungfu pro, and is forever my inspiration), for the next hour before the meat was ready. I had no intention of talking with my nosy relatives who always wanted to know about the top-tier college I got into or if I had connections that helped them or if I could bring them stuff back from the city.
And now as I sit in my suffocatingly hot dorm in the city, reading the chapter in the Legend of the Condor Heroes where Huang cooks these elaborate meals for an elder in exchange for a kungfu secret, this memory cannot help but flashes back to me.
I seem to be able to smell the scents of cinnamon, star anise, wine, ginger, and soy sauce again wafting in through the windows again, to be able to see the busy kitchen again, with people running around me like rush hour, and to be able to picture myself in the kitchen handling every ingredient like a master chef again.
But what I do see now is my dorm room with a laundry bag that hasn’t been emptied out for days, my roommate who is sleeping like a dead cow with half opened snacks littered around her like the petals we would scatter on people’s graves, a few empty dented cans of coke sitting around the trashcan as signs of our basketball ineptitude, and of course “hongshaorou flavoured” ramen bowls (they actually taste nothing like hongshaorou) that were overflowing out of the trashcan.
Four months later, I told myself, four months later, and I’ll go back into that beautiful kitchen and make some beautiful hongshaorou for my beautiful family.
They better be missing my hongshaorou now.