Cooking the Past
“I’m bored,” he said for the fifth time. We dipped our toes in one of the mud puddles last night’s rain had formed in the communal yard. We had already exhausted the game of tag, lost both of the footballs to the neighbor’s dog, and deadlocked each other at dirt tic-tac-toe. If I did not come up with an idea he would resort to punch-buggy which I loathed because I always lost.
Appearing in the doorway, his mother asked, “What are you two doing?” She had an inevitable suspicious air when she saw us together, or perhaps that was the facial expression her taut hair bun gave her.
“Playing,” he replied digging his elbow into my left rib.
“It doesn’t look like you’re playing. Go in and see if your grandmother needs help.”
“Aww, ma! C’mon!”
“Inside, now!” We shuffled through the unlit hallway where the aroma of garlic persistently lingered, passed the common room where his uncle snored through telenovelas, into the only space in the sub-floor apartment which had a window. Grandma looked up, arms caked in flour, her puckered face in chiaroscuro. The kitchen smelled of ginger and soy sauce. White dust floated through the room silhouetted by beams streaming from the frosted glass near the ceiling. I seated myself on a stool next to his granny. I watched her knead the dough gently into paper thinness, rotating it over and over into circular shape.
“What are you making nǎi nai?” I asked. She glanced up from her work and grinned.
“Don’t call her that,” he yelled at me, “she’s my nǎi nai, not yours!” A Mandarin phrase was spit out at him.
Then Gran clucked her tongue, saying in English, “She can call me that if she likes —it is respectful of her. I am making siu mai.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s our food,” he said, “you wouldn’t like it. It’s not for you.” I pretended not to hear him, leaning in towards his nana. I loved to observe her spotted hands move deftly over the countertop, mixing, shaping, transforming dishes into being.“Siu mai is a kind of dumpling. Have you ever eaten dumplings?”
“No, will you teach me how to make them?”
“Do you like to cook?” she asked me.I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know, I’ve never tried,” I replied. “Your mother does not let you help her in the kitchen?”
“Mama doesn’t cook,” I answered, “we always order things.”
“Cooking is boring,” he affirmed, “why can’t we go out to for pizza? We’re always eating Chinese food.”
“That is because we are Chinese,” replied granny, chuckling.
“Why do we have to eat Chinese if we don’t live in China? No one else at school eats these things.”
“Because, I do not want you to forget the taste of your heritage. Come, you can both help me finish my zhēng jiǎozi. Look at how I do this. I take a wrapper, I fold it so into my palms to make a cup. Then I stuff it with my filling. Are your hands washed? Go wash first.” We set to, at first hesitating, afraid we would break that opalescent tissue she had created. As we became accustomed to the task we got greedy, cramming each shell with fist-sized sautéed pork trimmings until the skins were just shy of bursting.
“My mother taught me how to make these when I was ten,” his nǎi nai confided. “I remember every morning before I had to go to school she and I would sit at a long bench. While she rolled the dough into perfect white circles I would fill them with shrimp, or pork, or sticky rice, or cabbage and carrots mixed with a little egg.”
“Why did you have to make dumplings before going to school?”
“There was no one else to help my mother and they had to be ready for our customers, sūnzi.”
“You used to sell jiǎozi?” he asked, astonished.
“My father’s family owned a dumpling shop. When he died my mother, your zēngzǔmǔ, and I had to keep it open.” Diverted by this we pestered her with questions.
“Where was your store?”
“How did your father die?”
“Did lots of people buy your dumplings?”
“The shop was in a busy alley in Peking where people liked to eat their afternoon meals.”
“Did you like working there? What was it like?”
“Before dawn mother would wake me so I could mop the floor and wipe clean the work table while she lighted the stove. Then we would make the food. All the other shop keepers on our street would open at the same time. On my way to school I would pass them sweeping their sidewalk. After classes I would help my mother prepare the fillings for next day. Now you must arrange your siu mai in this steamer so they do not touch each other.”
He asked again, “How did great-grandpa die, nǎi nai?” For many breaths she did not answer.
“I do not know, xiǎohái,” she said reluctantly. “He died when the Japanese came. We were told not to speak of it and so I never found out.” She placed the cradle of siu mai into a pot of boiling water. We sat, mute, digesting this glimpse into a life we had not imagined, could not imagine. I tried to visualize this aged woman as a young girl sitting at a table in a country from long ago, but all I could picture was me in this kitchen with wrinkled hands clutching an empty bowl.
“Nǎi nai, who did your mother learn to make dumplings from?” I asked.
“She learned from my grandmother.”
“Did she work at a restaurant too?” She laughed at me.
“No, no, my grandmother lived in a farming village. That’s where my mother grew up with her eleven siblings.” Meanwhile he hovered over the steaming pot, his thoughts taking a more esurient nature.
“How long do those have to cook in the pot?” he queried.
“Until you feel the filling yield like this. Try the others, poke with this chopstick. You see how it gives? That’s when you know it is ready.” I, on the other hand, was still preoccupied with the saga I was learning.
“When did you leave the dumpling shop?”
“Ah, that is a tale for another day.”“You know they sell these at the grocery, frozen. You just microwave and eat them. You don’t have to make them by hand anymore.”
“What are you saying? You like those siu mai more than mine? They taste better to you?”
“I’m just saying they’re easier to cook, nǎi nai.”
“That may be but they do not have stories like mine do. When I make my pork stuffing I am using the ingredients of my ancestors. When I press the dough I am honoring the memory of my roots. When I fold and fill each one I remember all my mother’s instructions, all my grandmother’s fables. I put in the streets of the old country and the fields from which I was imagined when I make each one of my siu mai. And this is what I offer to you when I cook them for you.”
“They taste delicious, I hope you always make your siu mai for me,” he said, placating her. He slid his hand inside the wooden container, grabbed four, and shoved them into his mouth. Grandma laughed at him, squeezing his cheek. He pecked her on the cheek and ran from the kitchen without having understood. I helped her wash up, wondering how many stories would vanish with my friend’s grandmother along with her secrets for making gānshāo yú, zhá juǎngān, and zhájiàngmiàn. As I dried her battered bamboo vessel I mourned the severed filament in my lineage which left me untethered.
“I wish I had known my nana so she could have taught me some of her dishes,” I said wistfully. The old woman studied me as we stood side by side at the sink. She sighed and patted my head.
“If you want to learn how to cook like me, come next weekend and I will show you how to make làobǐng,” she offered.
“Thank you nǎi nai,” I replied with a smile. I picked up one of the hot siu mai with chopsticks as she had taught me. My tongue sang at the thought of all the culinary lore to which I would be privy. We both knew it was not the same — her reminisces could never be mine, her traditions would never seep through my blood — but it was the best we could do.
Atreyee Gupta: "As a writer I like to examine the ways in which we connect: individually, in society, with nature and place. I am the creator of Bespoke Traveler, a digital alcove which explores the transformative power of travel. My work has been published in Chicago Literati, Hayo Magazine, Shanghai Literary Review, Vagabond City Literary Journal, Main Street Rag, and Still Point Arts Quarterly among others. "