I discovered a theory of life while making chow mein. Mix the flour and water and let the dough rest. Pull the dough and the dough also sticks you. Boil the noodles and then fry with beef and vegetable. We always turn the dry things into wet, and wet things into dry.
I am a terribly new chef, as terrible as I am new. Before coming to the States, all I was able to do in the kitchen was boil water to make instant noodles. Our family rely on takeaways, street food and canteens. I thought I should not have food nostalgia. The infamous fast food nurtures us with gutter oil and overused MSG, turning us into model neoliberal citizens. My nostalgia shall be easily fulfilled by fried chicken—that is the common language, the shared currency of our contemporary world.
When I moved into my apartment, I found that the former tenant had bequeathed me a cupboardful of condiments, various types of flour and even baking implements. She had four kinds of chili sauce, different sizes of bakeware, seaweed, tofu skin, bamboo shoots to make her own soups, and even boba to make her own milk tea. I was amazed by the commitment—to maintain Chinese flavours and cuisine so far from home. Outside, the snow was softly falling, and the virus continuing to silently spread, but here was another country: from dried food to warm soup, everything tastes the same in the kitchen.
I feel for her, but I don’t think I’ll become a loyalist like her.
For the purist, there’s no authentic Chinese food in this wintry town. Many of the restaurants are not Chinese, at first glance, but rather Japanese, Korean and Thai restaurants run by Chinese chefs, many of them from the northeast. If you don’t want banchan and sushi, you can order dumplings and moo shu pork. It is almost like a family reunion, making you wonder if these North-eastern Chinese people, having come to the northeast of the United States, as cold and dry as their homeland, do they live better?
This is a place where everybody asks you “How are you?” but nobody asks you “Have you eaten?” I started to realise the warmth of the old-fashioned Chinese greeting—“chi le mei” (have you eaten)—which encapsulates clingy intimate care, caring about what you eat, why you haven’t eaten or a possibility of eating together.
After 6pm, all the cafes on campus are closed; they assume you have somewhere to go or that someone has prepared dinner for you. I suspect that everyone who falls in love here does so simply out of a need for someone to have dinner with: they just can’t endure the loneliness at night.
During the snow or the confinement enforced by Covid, I stay home and make the best use of my predecessor’s legacy. With the help of the condiments, I have developed a strange talent that turns every food into Chinese food. In other words, I start to colonise my Western-dominated kitchen. The angel hair pasta has been converted into fried sauce noodles. I slice sirloin steaks to make a beef stir fry with green pepper. I bake the lamb with garlic, onion and cumin, so that it tastes just like lamb skewers in China.
I wash and then dry the vegetable. I braise the beef and boil it to reduce the sauce. I turn the dry things into wet, and wet things into dry.
Wet, dry, wet, dry—following the recipes, we repeat this process almost on loop, but something magical happens, and transformations occur. When I try to replicate chow mein with beef step by step, I understand that the dry noodles can never be fried after being boiled, and the dough can’t be pulled as powder. The iteration is irreversible, accumulative, almost like a foreigner who can never return to their homeland. Home is already a foreign place.
“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land,” the medieval theologian Hugh of St Victor once wrote. Having learned this quotation in Dr Ruth Hung’s class on world literature class some years ago, I realise I am still a tender beginner who has fixed my appetite on one spot in the world. However, when I look back to the spot—or when I try to make Chinese food in an American kitchen, it’s hard to distinguish where is home and what is foreign.
Abel Han Song is currently a PhD student in the Department of Comparative Literature, Cornell University. He won the TSMC Literature Award in 2015, the only Taiwan award for novellas. He graduated from the Department of English Language and Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University with a BA (Class of 2016) and an MA (Class of 2018). Email: email@example.com. [Click here to read all entries by or about Abel.]