GROWING UP CHINESE – Chapter Ten

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CHAPTER TEN

My perennial favorite dish consisted of several deep-fried eggs, drowned in light, meat-vegetable gravy. Look very simple. Ten eggs or so for each platter, a total of over two hundred eggs for twenty-one tables. For this particular dish, the chef entrusted the helpers to boil and peel the eggs in advance, each with gentleness, the way you would decorate painstakingly a birthday cake, to preserve the smooth rounded surface before gently lowering them into bubbling hot oil. Mother always said the older an egg, the easier to remove its shell after boiling. A slam-dunk would cause the sizzling oil to splatter, searing the nearest hands and fingers. And an unlikely spectacle, as they moved and turned the bobbing eggs with a strainer to achieve even browning. Soon a light brown-yellow crust would encircle the eggs, ready to be scooped out into the waiting platters. Without the use of any kind of batter. By then the chef was pouring a light gravy over them, to be dispatched immediately to the tables. Crispness of the deep-friend eggs is of the essence of this dish.

Other favorites included sweet-sour spareribs. Deep-fried bite-size spareribs served with pineapple, bamboo shoots and green pepper. Stir-fried squid with assorted vegetables. Shark’s fin soup—the most expensive dish, the supreme delight of everyone. Unlike most youngsters whose less sophisticated taste buds limited them to a select few dishes, missing out on many salient features of a culinary adventure, flashing the “I can’t eat anymore” grin, heads slightly shaking, the adults savored every morsel of every dish with eager anticipation of the next. Without fail, all the kids would be back at the tables for the final dish, waiting impatiently with spoons ready to plunge into a big bowl of canned fruits, usually grapes, filled to the brim with ice cubes. By now, after gorging all the yin-yang foods in gastronomic abandonment, the young and the veterans sought something cool, soothing, like a shower after tilling the soil in the hot sun. I observed—each time—ice cubes flying reminding me of fighting fish jumping out of water, and yellowish grapes spilling onto the table because some kids thought that was the only way to get their fair share of the grapes and the icy, sweetened water. Some adults watched in amazement, wordless, giving in to the youthful antics.

For me, the best part of any feast was buckets of leftovers expanding each time the servers brought back the dishes from the tables, carefully dumping in an orderly way what belonged to which unmarked buckets. I had to assume they had been instructed what to do with the abundant leftovers. Divisions according to the methods of cooking—stir-fry, deep-fry, steam, braise? Divisions according to the tastes—salty, sweet, hot, bitter, sour? Overlapping of smells, textures and colors seemed inevitable. The best chop suey in town—a word used to describe a new dish using scraps of leftovers. A new dish, sui generis. With a twenty-one course banquet, we expected enormous amount of

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leftovers. When the dust settled, the chef packed his tools for the day. Small pails of leftovers were delivered to close friends and relatives living nearby.

With music in the background, friends, relatives and other guests left quietly, many on bicycles, some walking, not all saying goodbye to or shaking the hands of the newlyweds. Many had been here for the past five to six hours. Time to go home to feed the hungry pigs, a major source of income for many simple villagers. But a few close friends of the groom, mostly young, single men and women, would return later in the evening, for the chop suey and games. And for dinner for the close friends of the family, we served chop suey, a unique blend of everything that were served during the banquet earlier in the day.

It was a memorable evening for the mostly unmarried young men and women, of intense games and merrymaking with the newlyweds. I don’t remember seeing the newlyweds take a shower to refresh themselves, before the final ordeal of the day. With the arrival of dusk and the lighting of several kerosene lanterns, I felt some intimacy with the small group of friends here to enjoy each other’s company, humor and merrymaking.

Having witnessed other weddings and the evening rituals, the newlyweds were not taken by surprise by what was in store for them, essentially games geared to embarrass the young couple and to break the ice between them if it had not already happened earlier in the day. Obviously for a few of the friends present, it was an-eye-for-an-eye evening, meaning you did this to me on my wedding night, now it was my turn to do this to you. Others were there to learn—like members of a freshman class—what to expect on their wedding nights. The first game that got everyone into a laughing hysteria from the start was the blindfolded groom awkwardly groping for two small oranges—tied to a string—hung around the bride’s neck right above her breasts. Anyone could feign bashfulness, but the crowd would not be satisfied until you had found the oranges. With your hands? Or mouth? A slightly different version of the game had two pieces of dried fruit hung right on the bride’s breasts, the blindfolded groom was to use his mouth, only mouth, to grope for them and eat them. Only brother would know what it was like to perform something this personal, obscene, and embarrassing in front of a hungry crowd demanding blood and action, especially when you realized this was the first time he had seen his bride since their engagement some time ago. And this evening they were there to entertain their friends at their own expense, so to speak. Usually the bride needed some nudging and verbal encouragement from the crowd, like pushing her closer to the groom or making her touch the groom in some private places. All in jest, seemed harmless for adults. He might look or feel like an abused child, neither one could escape from the light-hearted tactile games. They remained taciturn throughout the evening but displayed giggles and nervous laugh, and were cajoled into doing some of the most difficult physical stunts requiring agility and moral laxity. I thought I was watching a silent movie because they were like mindless marionettes on a puppet stage, every act and move

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choreographed for maximum physical exposure, embarrassment and laughter. At times sexually explicit.

I went to bed around ten or so, laughter and hilarity fading in the distance. Early the following morning, the smell of leftovers from the kitchen wafted through the house, announcing the time to get up, wash, change clothes and join the crowd for the first elaborate meal of the day. Around noon, a little brother of the bride, according to custom, arrived in a car decked with two sugar-cane plants tied to the top of the vehicle. Today brother and the bride joined the bride’s family and their guests for another banquet. They would return home at the end of the day.

Brother’s wedding meant one more mouth to feed in the family.

Brother’s wedding meant a brief interlude for me to savor the best of Chinese cuisine, a time of plenty, like manna from heaven.

Brother’s wedding meant a new servant in the family, trained to be a good daughter-in-law graciously taking over the tasks of washing all the family’s clothes and cooking all the daily meals.

Brother’s wedding meant an additional pair of hands to work in the farm, raise chickens and pigs and tap rubber trees, the source of family’s income and survival.

Brother’s wedding meant additional mouths to feed when the babies arrived, toys for grandparents to play with and more hands for the farm.

Married less than a year after the Japanese Occupation, with many businesses still in shambles, some gradually recovering from three years of forced inertia, there was no photographic proof or record of brother’s wedding. We were too poor to have the wedding pictures taken, brother later would remind friends and relatives in response to their curiosity.

This was the beginning of a new chapter in our family.

 

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