Living to Eat

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It takes us two hours—by bus, train, ferry, and foot—to get from our flat in Hong Kong’s New Territories to my in-laws’ house on the island of Cheung Chau. Once there, we are always rewarded with a feast. Sometimes two if we stay through lunch and dinner. On our last trip out, we arrived in time for lunch and stayed for an evening barbecue. My husband was in heaven. Like many Cantonese, he lives to eat.

The kitchen at Number 10, as everyone refers to the family home where my husband’s parents, two uncles, and an aunt reside, is minuscule by American standards. A tiled firebox with an opening for a giant wok serves as a counter when the hole is covered by a lid. A shelf holds a two-burner propane stove. The cold water sink is outside in the courtyard beside a table used for chopping and to hold dishes waiting to be washed. When a meal is impending, the one-person kitchen is usually occupied by two—Third Aunt and the Filipina maid—dodging each other as they steam and fry, churning out dish after dish.

On our last visit to Number 10, I watched the cooking from a safe distance. When the food was placed on the round table in the tiny dining room, the spread seemed miraculous to me even after my twenty years in the family. For lunch, we had congee with fish, chicken, shrimp balls, vegetables, and soup. The kitchen is like a magic purse in fairy tales. Close it up and it’s small. Open and a feast appears.

While my husband finishes out his teaching contract in Hong Kong, his home town, we are building a retirement home on an island in Washington State, near my home town. A few months ago, I was in the US fretting over appliances and countertops for our kitchen, wondering if we would have enough space. Over lunch at Number 10, it struck me that what we really need is Chinese ingenuity.

Barbecue at Number 10 is my husband’s favorite form of food gathering. A serious meat-fest, its bounty includes pork, beef, lamb, chicken wings, fish balls, and hot dogs as well as a pot of honey (for glazing), white bread (for sopping up grease), sweet potatoes, and marshmallows. Unlike American barbecue where one person does the cooking and serves the eaters, Number 10 barbecue is communal. Each person chooses their meat, threads it on a long-handled fork, sits on a stool near the grill set up in the courtyard, and cooks their own. This time as always, advice and teasing were freely given. Food was eaten standing up. We ate way too much. People came and went, and the cooking, eating, and talking went on for hours. Marshmallows between meat courses? Why not?

As I worked with the architect to design our house in the US, my husband had only three requests: a round dining table, a high-powered kitchen exhaust hood, and a place to barbecue. I knew he was tired of setting off fire alarms with his high-heat cooking, but I now see those three requests as central to his idea of home. Cooking is about making, gathering, and interacting. Food is sharing. Food is love.

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4 comments

  1. So the Filipina maid knows how to cook Chinese cuisine, doesn’t she? It is very warm to have such a big family to sit around having barbecue.

    1. The previous helper quickly mastered Cantonese dishes. The current one works more in collaboration with my husband’s aunt and mother who are the recipe experts. And yes to the big, close family!

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