Saturday, November 10, 2007

The taste of a mother's hand

Strange title isn't it? As I sit in a classroom, technically trying to study for a lab exam and recovering from a bout of mid-terms-gonna-kill-me-itis, I find myself thinking about my mom's cooking. No matter how many times I've seen my mom cooking her standard set of delicious dishes and no matter how many times I've tried to mimic them (even getting her to taste each layer of the marinade after each turn of the spatula), the taste of my cooking can never replicate hers. It is only after my mom puts a tweak here, a dash of soy sauce there, or waits a couple of more minutes, the flavors exclusive to her are revived. It seems as though it is not the ingredients that create the taste, but my mom's practiced hand that exudes that perfect flavor in every single one of her dishes.

Since leaving the "nest", I sometimes feel as though I'm beginning to lose some of mom's influence. I've strayed from my norm and have greatly expanded my tasting repertoire , ranging from authentic Vietnamese pho to a Sevillan take of tapenade. As adventurous and independent as my new discoveries have been, I also feel a sense of insecurity. Nervous questions arise about my place in this world, about my identity, and about who I want to be later on. But, the most scary question that I find myself asking is: "what if mom and I aren't as close as we were before?"

I'm slowly realizing that there's nothing to be worried about.

Last Saturday, after running errands (like picking up groceries to restock the emptying mini-fridge), my mom whipped up a warm lunch to sooth my low grumbling stomach. Mom's a seasonal eater- cold buckwheat noodles in an icy broth with lightly vinegared vegetables for summer, steamy bowls of stewed radish, garlic, and beef for winter. In this fall weather, mom made rice noodles steeped in warm chicken broth infused with onions, garlic, and spinach. Just before I took my first slurp, mom topped off lunch with julienned strips of an egg omelet. Before I knew it, my bowl was empty, but my heart felt full of the warmth and love only a mother could give. I felt grounded, comfortable, and happy.

This lunch isn't new. Mom's made it many, many times. Yet, those same feelings arise within me. No matter how many diverse flavors I've tasted, the same traditional food prepared by mom always ends up being the best. In a way, that's how my life is becoming. I am growing- progressing as a human being, sister, daughter, and individual. But, at the same time, being at home, surrounded by the family and friends I love, are things that are the most important to me. No matter where I go in life, these are the people and place where I can always go back to and feel the same love and acceptance.

It's like this story my mom recounted
: The wife loved her husband so much that she spent hours trying to make a perfect meal for him. When asked, her husband said that he was nostalgic for his mother's cooking, describing it as the best food he ate in his whole life. She cooked meal after meal, slaving away over the details and preparation, trying to replicate his mother's cooking. But after every meal, the husband would say "too salty", "too bitter", "too tough", and other criticisms. So frustrated, the wife went out and had coffee and small chit-chat with her friend. She confided in her friend and declared that she would divorce her husband if he gave one more criticism to her meals. So concentrated was she in her discussion, the wife realized that she only had 30 min till her husband would return home from work. She went home and in her haste to cook dinner on time, she ended up burning the food. "Aha!" she thought, "he can't possibly like this so I'll have a reason to leave him for sure". She served her husband the burnt food and waited for his response. Just after he had taken the first bite he shouted, "This is the best dish that you have ever made me!". The husband's mother had always burnt the food, yet being raised with that cooking, it was that particular burnt flavor that was perfect to the husband's taste buds.

single 20 serving Version of Mom's warm noodle soup

1 15.5 oz can low sodium chicken broth
1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
2 stalks of green onion
1 tsp Japanese dashi (powdered soup stock- available in Asian food stores or the international section of a grocery store)
1 c. baby spinach
1 egg
dash of salt

2 oz dried rice noodles

For sauce:
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp red pepper flake
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp minced green onion

Equipment: saucepan, stock pot, cutting board, knife, measuring spoons, ladle, spatula, strainer, stove, microwave, microwaveable container, small container for sauce

Pour a lot of water into the stock pot that will be used to boil the noodles. Cover the stock pot (so the water will heat up faster as the heat will be more concentrated) and set it to high.

While the water is getting hot, chop green onion stalks into small ringlets (reserving 1/2 tsp for the sauce)

Slice onion into long and thin (around 1/2cm) julienne strips

Roughly chop peeled garlic clove

Put the onions and garlic into the saucepan with the chicken broth and dashi. Put the soup on medium heat and let cook for at least 10 min. until onions are cooked through.

In a small dish, mix all the ingredients for the sauce thoroughly. Set aside.

When stock pot water is at a rolling boil (big bubbles), add a handful of salt to the water (do NOT put salt in before the water is boiling- the pot's surface can get eroded). Then add the rice noodles, mixing them apart with a spatula so that the noodles don't sit together.

The rice noodles cooking time varies (mine were ready after 6 min) so read the package instructions for ideal cooking times.
-The noodles should be cooked "al dente" (literal translation: "to the tooth"), meaning that they should have a chewy consistency and have a hint of rigidity, erring on the more undercooked side.
-If your noodles are soggy and totally limp, you've gone too far.
-If your noodles can stand mostly upright or has a hard time falling down when you hold them up, the noodles need a little bit more cooking.

When ready, drain the noodles in a strainer and hit them with a washing of cold tap water so that the cooking process is terminated. Strain excess water from the noodles and place the noodles in a large serving bowl.

Crack the egg in the microwaveable dish and scramble with a dash of salt using the spatula (or fork or whatever does egg scrambling best). Microwave the scrambled egg for 1-1.5 min on high.

Once the egg is cooked, carefully take it out onto the cutting board and julienne (cut the egg into thin strips).

Add the spinach in the soup and let cook for 30 sec. Remove the saucepan from heat.

Pour the soup into the bowl with the noodles. Top the dish with the julienned egg and serve with the sauce. Ladle as much of the spicy sauce as you'd like to adjust the soup flavor to your personal liking.

(Chopsticks are recommended, but not required while eating this noodle soup. Try using that hand coordination!)

There will always be good food with the most exotic flavors and spices. Likewise, life has its different turns, drops, and climbs. But in the end, the best food is mom's food. And in life, people and places that make me feel like myself are the things that will be the closest to my heart...

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