Congee

My mother does not consult cookbooks or recipes. Her cooking flows from an inner font of raw knowledge and talent sown in China, cultivated by the immigrant experience, and harvested in motherhood. She has a gift for spinning threadbare ingredients into nourishing meals, throwing them onto the stove with a mysterious bit of this and that. The dishes always emerge expertly prepared, the flavors perfectly balanced. No recipe could have directed or captured those nuances.

As a child, I never took much interest in observing the process. I didn’t think food was particularly interesting, or her cooking anything special. We were far from rich, but privileged enough never to go hungry. It was my inherent understanding that mothers simply made meals appear in the household. Whenever family friends asked, “Don’t you think your mom is a great chef? Don’t you feel lucky?” I figured they were being polite. Mothers were supposed to make food like this for their children. If I ever became one someday, I would find myself naturally able to do the same.

I realized how silly and misguided these assumptions were when I went to college. I knew how to scramble eggs and boil spaghetti, but I had a long way to go to reach my mother’s skill level. There was no way this gap could be magically bridged upon having a child. Furthermore, I had no idea how to prepare proper Chinese food. This was a daunting mantle for a daughter sprouted in a different country and language, and I was so concerned with authenticity that I didn’t dare approach it.

Since college graduation, I have been going grocery shopping on a regular basis and primarily subsisting on my own home-cooked meals. I have taken a cooking class in France and followed dozens of recipes of various cuisines. I consider myself reasonably adept in the kitchen. Yet, absurd as it may seem, still there remained a mental block discouraging me from tackling even the simplest dishes of my heritage, such as congee or stir-fried shredded potatoes. The handful of attempts I did make throughout the years left me feeling fraudulent and unsatisfied. Cooking was just one more thing proving I wasn’t a “real” Chinese person.

My Indian boyfriend’s mother told me a few months ago, without a trace of shame or embarrassment, that she sometimes used recipes found online. “You can Google lots of good ones these days,” she said to my great surprise. Her cooking seemed to be executed with the same kind of effortless perfection as my mother’s, which I assumed could have only been derived from their similar lifestyles, milestones, and cultural values. Hearing that this magic could be reproduced from recipes—and more importantly, that it could still be “authentic”—finally unlocked something in me.

That weekend, I went to the local Chinese supermarket and picked up jars of pickled vegetables. I went home, looked up a recipe for congee, and made it for the first time in my life. As I ate it with the pickled vegetables, I couldn’t help laughing like a joyful salad lady. It was merely rice and water, which I had always known, but it was from my childhood. And at last, I was no longer weirdly intimidated by it.

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