I think it’s difficult to have daughters.

My mother and I have never been close. Cultural and language barriers make it difficult for us to have anything beyond a sort of superficial conversation. Our relationship consists of tentative, dancing bits of wordplay that each of us fears will provoke the other. Under it all is a current of longing. We both wish we understood the other. We wish we could take back a lot of the past. We wish we could trust each other to listen, and forgive, without digging up old wounds.

I used to spend a lot of time in the kitchen as a child. It was one place where I could work in harmony with my mother, understand her wishes and often anticipate them. I chopped and prepped, using often rudimentary kitchen tools. On a recent visit, my mother chided me on how slowly I was peeling a mango using a (dull) paring knife. I’m used to using peelers now – a luxury.

mom

In the kitchen, my mom bustles with activity. There is no time to dawdle peeling shrimp or cleaning vegetables. Quickly, quickly, chop chop, here comes a hot pan of oil. I understand now when I cook, because I do the same. Chinese food is meant to be cooked quickly and everything must be ready for the oil.

It’s difficult to extract recipes from my mom. You might ask her, for instance, what the dish above is. “Ohhhh,” she ponders, eyes going wide. “Do you know, Jenn, I don’t know!” It’s greens of some sort, and a pickled egg.  Ok, then, how does one pickle the egg? First, you boil the water. With the egg?  With the salt.  How much salt? A lot of salt. Then leave the egg in the water. The hot water? You put in refrigerator. I’m so confused. Did I boil the egg in the water? Were these raw eggs going into the fridge? No, you have to boil it. What!?

salt egg

Usually my tactic is to get a rudimentary idea of the steps, then Google until I find a recipe that approximates what I remember. From this, I think that one brines the egg in salt water first (in the fridge) for a couple weeks, then gently boils it before serving. The yolk remains soft and rich, and the whole egg is salty throughout.

We picked the basil for this omelette from my mother’s garden, along with fresh strawberries. She grows an abundance of fruit and vegetables in a normal suburban yard. Even more astounding, her garden is a beautiful work of landscaping. It doesn’t look like a vegetable garden in any normal sense of the word, until you look closer and notice strawberries peaking out from the edging bushes. I try to express my pleasure in this but I don’t think she quite understands. To her, it’s just a garden. To me, it’s a gift.

We will probably never see eye to eye on this and a dozen other things. It’s bittersweet, but impossible, to always wish things were different from the way they are. But whenever I prepare dinner, I will always remember being a small child, perched on a stool in the corner of the kitchen, cleaning a bowl of green beans while my mother chops and flurries around the kitchen.

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