You hear the raspy piano music click off. Wei?
Conversations over the phone with your grandma in Shanghai, China, have always been an abrupt and brief exchange. She knows your elementary vocabulary – she can count the words on both hands – so she gives only questions or reminders that ask for hao (good) in return.
During your 72-hour layover in China, you, now an adult, and your parents head out to see her. She moved from down the street, to a newly developed area several hours away in Pudong. This year’s winter feels warm but the new apartment is cool, she’s never been used to switching on the heating.
The sheer excitement in her voice when you surprise her at the door is what makes the two-hour journey worthwhile. She gives you a hearty shove: "you should have told me you were coming!"
She offers a bowl of sweet soup – simple but laden with red dates and lotus seeds. Signifying wealth, prosperity and fertility. But none of that matters to you besides the fact that this is her cooking. She watches you slurp down the warm syrup, spoonful after spoonful. You ask if she’s going to have any; she’s already had some this morning.
Your conversation is primitive, but you know that sharing a meal with family means more to her than words. She barely sat down during all those Chinese New Year Eves, when all the relatives were crammed around a makeshift table in her old place – she exists somewhere between the kitchen and the table. Course after course, you wondered if she had anything to eat as she bent over to retrieve more bottles of lao jiu wine from under the bed.
You bring a camera like last time, but this time you ask her for a portrait. Her generation treats getting their photograph taken differently, she goes to put on a neck scarf. She can hold a smile for years, waiting for the trigger. Then you ask her to turn away from the camera, she’s puzzled. What kind of portrait is of someone’s back? You focus on her hands. The jade ring, the deep wrinkles in her fingers, the stories.
You hold hands as you watch TV. You linger behind her as she works in the kitchen, you ask where she got her knife from. Your grandad made it for her, she’s kept using the same one, decades after he’s gone.
And with that your visit is over, you embrace and you promise to be back soon.
Hong zao lian xin tang (red date and lotus seed soup)
Serves many (all quantities are to your preference, all times are approximate)
- Dried lotus seeds
- Dried snow fungus (best during summer) or dried wood ear fungus (best during winter)
- Dried jujube (Chinese red dates)
- Rock sugar
1. Begin this recipe the day before. Soak the lotus seeds overnight in water and soak the fungus right before cooking until tender (15-30 minutes) and trim off the core.
2. Put the pre-soaked lotus seeds and fungus into a pot over high heat, add water until the contents are fully immersed plus two-fingers-worth (approximately 6cm).
3. Bring the pot to a boil, keep the water at a rolling simmer for 15 minutes, then add the dried dates.
4. Continue to simmer for at least 45 minutes, and remove from heat once all the ingredients are tender. The dates should be soft but still, hold their form.
5. Sweeten to taste using rock sugar.
6. This soup is recommended served cold during the summer, hot during the winter, or as desired.
This piece was originally submitted for New Voices On Food, a project dedicated to promoting diverse voices on food.
This relatively simple poached chicken dish is a classic at a Chinese family's dinner table.