My knees are biting and my back is aching but oh, how happy my heart is! It’s been a good day. Let me explain…
We’re nearly at the end of a two week mid-semester break at college, during which college doesn’t provide meals. One student had a brilliant idea – he made a meal and invited people who were on campus to join, then helped arrange for different people to make a meal each night. There’s been carbonara, salmon, quiche, and even kangaroo curry! It’s been wonderful – not just the food but also the fun of hanging out with people. A few times dinner was followed (or preceded!) by board games or a movie.
I was supposed to cook last night, but I’ve been sick with a nasty cold and really wasn’t up to it. Someone graciously cooked in my place, which I really appreciated, and today I woke up feeling much better and got set for an epic afternoon of cooking – Chinese food, of course! But a particular type – “normal” home cooking style food. This is comfort food for me – the flavours of local Beijing, tossed around in a pan with a add-to-taste style of seasoning rather than a recipe.
First – shopping. I went to a local Chinese store and found a bunch of happy things – fried tofu, garlic shoots, snake beans, and the big excitement: Beijing duck style pancakes! They come frozen and are just warmed in the microwave – from frozen to on the table in under a minute. I bought some seasonings, but sourced more from at least five other people around campus. I started prepping at 3pm, and didn’t finish cooking til 6:30pm. I was quickly joined by three fabulous minions. It took us about 2 hours to get through all the prep (lots of chopping, including more than 2 whole bulbs of garlic) but we had a fun time doing it. The cooking took longer than I expected, with only two burners going and much lower heat that I’m used to. I had helpers swapping in and out, tossing food around, taste testing, chopping extra garlic, and cleaning up as we went. It was a little frantic but so much fun!
Eventually the 13 (?) of us sat down to eat our homestyle banquet! There was 派黄瓜 – a cucumber salad, with a vinegar-garlic dressing, often eaten at the start of a meal in small restaurants everywhere. Two more vegie dishes – vinegar Chinese cabbage, and ginger-sesame celery. I made a dish of pork mince and snake beans that is really a Thai style but that I love cooking – fish sauce, oyster sauce, cracked black pepper, garlic and a little sugar for balance. 蒜苔肉丝 (garlic shoots and pork) was a favourite in Beijing, and although this time it was a little overdone it was still yummy. I made a chicken and tofu dish based on sweet soy and rice wine vinegar with star anise. I threw together a homey pork and potato stirfry with a little five spice to use up what I had leftover. But there were two other dishes that I was really excited about.
I set out hoping to make a version of the 农合菜 that my local Hunan restaurant in Wangjing made. I’ve done something like it a few times, so I had a pretty good idea of what flavours to put in there, but in the past I was missing an important element – the pancakes. The dish is chicken, bean shoots, carrot, potato, and omelette all finely sliced and stir fried together. The restaurant I went to so many times in Beijing served the dish with pancakes – you would spoon the scrummy mixture in and wrap it up to eat. So good!
My other exciting dish was unplanned. I looked around the piles of food on the bench and realised I had all the ingredients for 酱爆鸡丁. This is a dish I took a gamble on once – I saw it on the menu at a local restaurant one day and thought “well, it has diced chicken, how bad can it be?” And that’s how I discovered a new favourite! Chicken, cucumber and carrot are diced fairly evenly and tossed in a salty and slightly sweet sauce. I’d never made it before, but decided to have a go. I played with a few flavours and came up with something that was definitely in the ball park, even if it’s been probably two years since I last ate it! This and the tofu dish were the first two to run out – and that excited me! Even after putting aside three big plates for the people who couldn’t be there but had requested leftovers, and us all stuffing ourselves, there was a lot leftover. At least half the people must have made up a bowl to take home, and I still took more to other friends on campus – while two lovely friends cleaned the kitchen!
Something I’ve discovered over the years is that after cooking up a big feast I’m not terribly hungry. I’m really not sure why – I don’t eat much as I go – but what I enjoy most is sitting back and watching people enjoy my food. Tonight I watched and listened as dishes were passed around and talked about. People had different favourites, asked for different things to be passed back around. I used different flavours than many people associate with Chinese food – not the clean flavours of the south, or the heavy heat of the west, but a homey garlic-soy base cut with vinegar and ginger. To me, it tastes like home. Not my Mum’s cooking, not the country I grew up in, but the home I made for myself – the strange place that became more than familiar.
I loved sharing this with the some of my community here at college. There was something so special about sharing the taste of home with people who are part of my now-home. I felt homesick and at home all at once. This time the homesickness was more remembrance, less of an ache, less of a tug on my heartstrings. I didn’t feel the deep longing to be back there, the pain of loss. Instead I enjoyed sharing something of my past life, while also being present here in my now life. That is a huge change.
I still miss China, especially Beijing, and my life there. It feels further away now, which makes it easier in one way, but there’s also a sadness in feeling that life slipping away. Days like today, bringing these two lives, these two worlds, together – wow. I need to find ways to do this more often.