SOUL FOOD: COURSE ONE—and TEA
“I may not look Chinese but my stomach is.”
Definition: jiaozi—a steamed or boiled dumpling made with meat (rou, usually pork), mixed with chopped cabbage, ginger, onion, garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil, wrapped in thin wheat flour dough, and served with a soy and vinegar dipping sauce.
Jinan, Shandong, China, February 1940
The thunk, thunk, thunk of Cook’s cleaver mincing the meat and cabbage alert the household. It’s jiaozi-making day. He rolls circular wrappers, then, with Amah’s help, stuffs and crimps, stuffs and crimps. Before long jiaozi fill trays on the screened-in porch off the kitchen. On my tippy-toes, I can just see the neat rows of pinched- edged dumplings, smaller than my six-year-old-fist. The porch is bone-chillingly cold. The dumplings will keep for New Year’s happy eating.
I love doufu (bean curd) that slips smoothly down the throat with its nutty, “I’ve known forever” flavor. I also love the neighbor’s mo mo, meat–filled steamed buns that are usually round. Sometimes her mo mo are interesting shapes—fish, or porcupines with spiky quills all over. Then there’s bai cai, the not-quite-round, pale, crinkly-leafed, almost-sweet cabbage, stored under heaping piles of straw during the winter, when it is a staple vegetable.
Jiaozi are best. Cook brings steamy plates of them to the table. I bite into the slightly chewy wrapper, feeling the swish of a burst of juicy, meaty delight. Yum. More. Dipping each in vinegar-spiked soy sauce, we eat one two-bite dumpling after another. “Chi bao le” (contented full).
Falls Church, Virginia, April 3 2020
A blue, blowy morning. The coffee pot burbles rich hot liquid, ready to jump-start another day. The thunk thunk thunk of my knife minces fresh ginger and garlic. I toss it into the blue pot—a fixture in my kitchen for decades—relishing the swish as my gnarled hands dump a half cup of rice in on top and then pour in chicken bone broth to nearly fill it. After it gurgles to a boil, I lower the heat, add salt, stir briefly, and half cover the pot with a lid, leaving the congee-to-be to simmer. Soon the room fills with the soul satisfying aroma of newly cooking rice.
In a while, on a day when I need it, my old stomach will be a contented full of another childhood comfort: soft, gingery rice congee (rice porridge) seasoned with sesame oil and soy sauce. “Chi bao le”
Soft golden green
held by this shred of gentle burned earth,
smelling of hillsides and the sunrise,
giving up the bitter-clean taste of the morning—
the silky light rises to warm me.
Holding sunlight forever
in tiny black bits
whispering in the darkness
longing to set free the golden being
it has been from the beginning.